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Sound and meaning: a world of words (In-person)

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About this event

Join Professor Melanie Bell for an evening exploring language and linguistics.

Please join us for the talk from 6pm, with a drinks reception from 7pm.

Sound and meaning: a world of words

If one pauses to think about how spoken language works, it is hard not to find it astounding. Somehow, by using the muscles of their chest, throat, and mouth to produce vibrations in the air, a speaker manages to transfer a thought from their own mind to the minds of their listeners – or at least produce an illusion of having done so. Written and signed language are similarly amazing.

In her inaugural professorial lecture, Melanie will discuss her fascination with the big question of how language works, and present findings that have aimed to shed light on small corners of human linguistic communication. She will touch on the difficulty of providing rules for language learners, the inherent ambiguity of word combinations, and the conundrum of the English apostrophe. She will also discuss the profound impact of data science on linguistics, showing that technological developments have greatly facilitated the scientific study of language while also raising questions about the similarities and differences between human cognition and artificial intelligence.


Melanie Bell is currently a Professor of Quantitative Linguistics at Anglia Ruskin University, where she has worked since 1995. Both her interest in human communication and her approach to research have been shaped by a profoundly multidisciplinary career. Her initial training in Natural Sciences produced an enduring belief in the importance of empirical evidence, statistical analysis, and rigorous argumentation.

After graduating, she qualified as a psychiatric nurse, in which capacity her interest in human cognition and communication continued to develop. Working with patients whose first language was not English led her to train as a teacher of English language, building on experience as a voluntary home tutor for Vietnamese refugees. Language teaching rekindled an early passion for languages, nurtured in an enduring relationship with a Belgian exchange partner, to the extent that she eventually moved to teaching full-time at the Studio School of English.

With the birth of her second child, Melanie took up a part-time position at Anglia Polytechnic University and has never looked back. Encouraged and supported by her new employer to pursue postgraduate education, she returned to the University of Cambridge to take first an MPhil and then a PhD in English Language and Applied Linguistics. In her subsequent career as a researcher, she has been privileged to collaborate with many inspirational colleagues from around the world.

This event takes place on our Cambridge campus. You can also join us virtually.

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