Bild: Universität Konstanz

Two ERC Starting Grants for the University of Konstanz

Dr Damien Farine, a principal investigator from the Cluster of Excellence “Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour” at the University of Konstanz, and Professor George Walkden, Professor of English Linguistics and General Linguistics at the university’s Department of Linguistics, have both been awarded a prestigious ERC Starting Grant.

Announced today, 3 September 2019, by the European Research Council (ERC), the prominent grant – which includes 1.5 million euros in funding over the next five years – is designed to help early career researchers and scholars build their own teams and conduct pioneering research. There were 408 grants awarded out of a pool of 3106 applications from around the world.

About Dr Damien Farine’s ERC Starting Grant

Damien Farine, who also holds the position of principal investigator at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, works at the interface of collective behaviour and ecology. The ERC Starting Grant will allow him to conduct innovative and high-risk research that will have a major impact on our understanding of how animals successfully navigate complex social and physical environments. The grant will fund research on group-living birds in Kenya, where Farine seeks to understand how the past experiences of individuals, together with environmental conditions, affect leadership in animal groups. His ERC-funded project will combine state-of-the-art technological and scientific methods that will revolutionise the study of animal groups in the wild. In addition, the ERC Starting Grant will provide opportunities for young scientists, including Kenyan students, to undertake world-class research in Farine’s team.

“Receiving an ERC Starting Grant is an amazing opportunity”, says Farine. “It will allow me to answer questions about our natural world that we could only dream of asking just a few years ago”. Farine’s research is at the forefront of the study of social and collective behaviours in wild populations. His work was the first to demonstrate that wild baboons make democratic decisions, and that wild birds copy the specific choices of their flock mates when learning new feeding techniques – studies published in the journals Science and Nature, respectively. His achievements were acknowledged by the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour who awarded Farine the 2018 Christopher Barnard Award for Outstanding Contributions by a New Investigator.

Farine’s lab, based at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, is globally known for its pioneering approaches to understanding the social lives of animals. The work by the Farine Lab typically involves collecting fine-scale data on social behaviour while following animal groups over the lifetimes of individuals. This allows him to understand how individuals’ prior experiences shape the groups they live in.

Farine originally studied Microelectronic Engineering and Computer Science in Australia. He moved to the University of Oxford, UK, where he completed a PhD in Zoology, then to the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis, USA, before establishing a research group on Social Evolutionary Ecology at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology (now MPI of Animal Behavior).

The research Farine will undertake during his ERC Starting Grant will build on work he has been conducting with the Cluster of Excellence “Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour” at the University of Konstanz, where he has been studying the emergence of groups and the costs that group-level behaviours can have on individuals. Currently, he is testing how stress transmits through social groups, as part of a transdisciplinary collaboration with experimental psychologists.

About Professor George Walkden’s ERC Starting Grant

George Walkden’s main research interests are in historical linguistics and language change, especially morphosyntactic change, with a particular focus on the Germanic languages. He wants to learn more about how languages change once they come into contact with each other, and more specifically about what happens to the grammar and the way phrases and sentences are structured. “The ERC Starting Grant puts me in a position to study language change from a very broad perspective”, he explains. “The basic idea is to look at how different kinds of language contact situations affect the syntax of the languages involved over their histories. The overall aim is to bring in as many languages as I can to test the theory, including languages from outside Europe”.

George Walkden was educated at the University of Cambridge and has been Professor of English Linguistics and General Linguistics at the University of Konstanz’s Department of Linguistics since 2017.

His theory about language change is based on the observation that individuals who learn a second language tend to make “mistakes” simply because learning a second language is hard as compared to acquiring language as a baby. Not only does Walkden want to understand what it is precisely that makes them difficult. He is also and more specifically interested in the long-term effects: “For instance, if you have a population of people where a lot of them have learned the same language as a second language, you might expect some of the ‘mistakes’ they are bound to make to make their way into the grammar of the language in general. Second-language learners of German, for example, might not get case endings right. The theory is that if there are enough people who learn a language who are like that, it’s probably going to affect usage on a wider level”.

As Walkden explains, syntax can be viewed as putting together words or units into clauses or sentences. The mechanisms that people use to put these words together are believed to be more or less innate in that they are part of what being human is. “However, the individual items that are put together are not innate, they are something that all of us have to learn”, he says. These items are made up of syntactic features that determine how sentences are put together. These features can either be meaningful or meaningless, i.e. they can be interpretable or uninterpretable (in the terms used in generative syntactic theory). “A classic example of a feature that is semantically not interpretable is gender in German. There is nothing particularly neuter about the German word for eye (‘das Auge’, with a neuter article) when compared to the German word for nose (‘die Nase’, with a female article). In this case, the gender feature is not interpretable”.

Research suggests that it is these uninterpretable features that are vulnerable when second-language learners start learning a language. Walkden’s hypothesis is that, in fact, they may disappear entirely over time when large numbers of second-language learners are involved: “Since Chomsky’s early work on syntax, a large part of syntactic structure has often been thought to be innate to humans. Partly because of this, the idea of positing a link between particular types of language structurally and the historical context in which they emerge has not been very widespread in recent linguistics. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the innateness assumption is correct. My question is about those parts of syntax that are not innate, that are learned. I’m intrigued to find out whether we can identify patterns for language change there”.

Facts

  • Double success for University of Konstanz researchers: Dr Damien Farine from the Cluster of Excellence “Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour” and Professor George Walkden from the Department of Linguistics have been awarded a prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant each
  • In total, 408 applications by scientists from over 50 countries were selected from a pool of 3106
  • Funding period: five years
  • Funding amount: approx. EUR 1.5 million each
  • Damien Farine is a principal investigator of the new Cluster of Excellence “Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour” at the University of Konstanz and a principal investigator at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz
  • George Walkden has been Professor of English Linguistics and General Linguistics at the University of Konstanz since 2017