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Modul "Natural Media of Human Communication"

Interdisciplinary insights into human cognition, language, and technology


Prof. Irene Mittelberg, Ph.D. (HumTec)
Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Klaus Willmes-von Hinckeldey (Neuropsychology, University Hospital Aachen)


time and venue: tuesdays, 18:15-19:45; Hörsaal IV (Hauptgebäude)


Course description
This module explores connections among the human mind, language, and other media we naturally use to express ourselves and to understand the people around us. We use spoken language(s) to talk to others and to solve problems, we read our friends’ facial expressions to find out what they might think or feel, we point with our fingers when giving directions, and we are quite good at telling whether somebody is relaxed or agitated from looking at her or his body posture. Users of sign languages recruit their hands and the space around them to converse, tell elaborate stories, or create poetry.
What is common to all these uses of ‘natural media’ is that no artificial or technical medium is needed to connect and communicate. Human face-to-face interaction probably is the most fundamental way to communicate, and yet it is a complex mix of finely coordinated bodily movements, speech sounds, mimics, looks, posture, and so forth. It concerns all of us, and understanding the principles – and the beauty – of it, remains one of the big challenges of personal and scientific inquiry. Now, in the era of electronic media, another crucial task is to preserve some of the naturalness in technological and virtual environments (e.g., mobile communication, virtual reality games, etc.).
Class presentations and discussions will concern the multimodal nature of language. One of the guiding questions is how the different natural media are used in everyday communication, and what the advantages and limits of each medium seem to be. What is the evolutionary advantage of spoken language? What can gestures do that oral language cannot do as easily? And what does this tell us about human cognition and behavior? Another central interest is to see how scientists from various disciplines merge their expertise to investigate the forms and functions of natural media in different contexts. For example, what happens in people’s heads when language breaks down due to brain damage? What does it take to translate from one language into another? We will also discuss issues in designing gestural interfaces with technology for intuitive use. Along the way, students will become familiar with the methods researchers use to examine human communicative behavior, such as audio/video analysis, experimental design, and brain imaging.  



April 12                                              

Introduction; what is a science slam?   


April 19                                              

Survival Semiotics. Understanding Natural and Cultural Signs. Prof. Irene Mittelberg, Ph.D. (Linguistics & Cognitive Semiotics; HumTec & SignGes)
Room 004 Inst. Sociology Eilfschornsteinstr. 7              


April 26                                              

Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes. Multimodal Communication and the Role of the Body. Jennifer Hinnell , Ph.D. Cand. (University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada)
May 10            

Hands, Numbers, and Counting. Behavioral and Brain Activation Studies. Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Klaus Willmes-von Hinckeldey (Dept. of Neurology, University Hospital RWTH Aachen, & SignGes)

May 24                               

Sign/Language recognition and translation (title to be specified) Oscar Koller, M.Sc. and Prof. Dr.-Ing. Hermann Ney (Informatics 6, Human Language Technology and Pattern Recognition)


May 31                            

Troubled Reading in Children and Adults. Developmental Dyslexia from a Neurocognitive Perspective. Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Stefan Heim (RWTH Clinic of Neurology & Clinic of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics; Research Centre Jülich)
Room 004 Inst. Sociology, Eilfschornsteinstr. 7     


June 14                                             

Signed Languages: Insights into the Multimodality of Language. Influence of Language Modality on Categorization. Horst Sieprath & Dr. phil. Klaudia Grote (RWTH Aachen Center for Sign Language and Gesture (SignGes))


June 28           

Science slam competition


This Leonardo module is a joint initiative of the HumTec research group Natural Media/NeuroPeirce and the RWTH Aachen Center for Sign Language and Gesture (SignGes).


Language of instruction:
To give all students the opportunity to benefit from an international setting, all lectures and discussions will be held in English. During the discussion sessions, questions and answers may be translated. The English readings fort he course will be at a manageable level.


Participants are expected to do the assigned readings as class preparations and to actively engage in class discussions. To earn credits for a ‘Leistungsnachweis’, each student is further asked to participate in a science slam presentation on one of the topics treated during the semester. More information will be provided in class


Questions? Please contact: franziska.jakobs@rwth-aachen.de