Natural Media of Human Communication

Interdisciplinary insights into human cognition, language, and technology


Prof. Irene Mittelberg


Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Klaus Willmes-von Hinckeldey

University Hospital Aachen


Franziska Jakobs, B. A.





Tuesday, 18.15-19.45 h


Hörsaal IV, Hauptgebäude, 1010I141


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, mimics 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 is the most natural and 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 intuitiveness in technological and virtual environments (e.g., mobile communication, virtual reality games, etc.).
Class presentations and discussions will concern the multimodal nature of language and interaction in various settings. 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 can gestures do that spoken language cannot do as easily? And what does this tell us about human cognition and behavior? We will gain insights into numerical cognition and in how hearing-impaired and deaf people communicate with sign language. 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 or motor skills break down due to brain damage? We will also discuss issues in automated speech and sign language recognition. 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.

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 for the course will be at a manageable level.


April 25

Introduction to module; what is a science slam? 

April 17

Survival Semiotics  – Understanding Natural and Cultural Signs

Prof. Dr. Irene Mittelberg

Linguistics & Cognitive Semiotics; HumTec & SignGes

May 9

If so many are ‘few’, how few are ‘many’? At the interface of language, cognition, and the brain

Prof. Dr. Stefan Heim

RWTH Clinic of Neurology & Clinic of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics; Research Centre Jülich

May 16

Hands, numbers, and counting: Behavioral and brain activation studies

Prof. Dr. Klaus Willmes-von Hinckeldey

Dept. of Neurology, University Hospital RWTH Aachen, & SignGes

May 30

Lending language a hand – The role of gesture in speech production & multimodal communication

Prakaiwan Vajrabhaya, Ph.D.

Linguistics & Cognitive Semiotics; HumTec & SignGes; Informatics 5

June 13

Introduction to German Sign Language
(German Sign Language – English interpretion will be provided)

Horst Sieprath

RWTH Aachen Center for Sign Language and Gesture (SignGes)

June 27

Seeing Meaning in Sign Language – The Influence of Iconicity on Semantic Conceptualization

Dr. phil. Klaudia Grote

RWTH Aachen Center for Sign Language and Gesture (SignGes)

July 4

Science slam competition


Participants are expected to do the assigned readings as class preparations, 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 (in groups of 2 or 3 students). More information will be provided in class

Nach oben scrollen