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Kate Harrigan joins W&M Linguistics and Psychology

We are thrilled to welcome Kaitlyn Harrigan, Lecturer of Psychology and Linguistics, to the W&M faculty. Professor Harrigan earned her PhD in Linguistics from University of Maryland, College Park. Her courses will include general linguistics, language acquisition, psycholinguistics, and social cognitive development.

Q. Where were you born and where are you from?
I am from a small town in upstate NY called Cato, which is near Syracuse. It has one stoplight and a population of 2500! I did my undergrad at Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts, and got my PhD in Linguistics at the University of Maryland. Most recently, I was a postdoctoral researcher in the Psychology department at the University of Delaware.

Q. Tell us about your research.
My work has been in the field of language acquisition-- how children learn their first language. My research is motivated by the question of how language acquisition is related to social cognitive development. Language learning and social development have obvious connections. To learn language at all, infants must be at least somewhat sensitive to the intentions of speakers. On the other hand, language is the primary means for human communication, and learning language may be an important process to aid the development of the infant as a social being. In this way, thinking about these emerging processes in tandem is really important to understanding the nature of both human language as well as humans as social entities. I have looked at children's knowledge of a few different linguistic elements that are in some way related to social cognition. Indexical pronouns, like 'I' and 'you', require the speaker to understand the perspective of their interlocutors. Relevance implicatures require the listener to go beyond the literal meaning of an utterance and infer the speaker's intentions. Finally, much of my work has been on children's knowledge of the class of verbs we use to describe the metal states of others-- such as 'want' and 'think'. Learning verbs like these is particularly challenging for the learner, as their meanings are impossible to observe, and it's difficult to imagine what evidence in the world would lead the child to the correct semantics. In my dissertation I showed that children are sensitive to syntactic structure in interpreting unknown verbs of this type, suggesting that this might be a critical piece of how children solve this puzzle. 

Q. How did you get started in this type of research?
It's always been important to me to think about how language connects with other areas of cognition. When I was at Smith, I wanted to study Linguistics, but the college had no major. I had to propose Linguistics as a 'self-design' major to the institution. I took some classes off campus, but I also worked a lot with Psychology and other departments to put a major together, so I ended up thinking a lot about human language through the lens of other fields. I think because of this, it's always been obvious to me that language doesn't exist in a vacuum, and so really understanding how it interacts with other cognitive systems is critical. The professors I worked with at Smith were really interested in words like 'think', and how learning those words relates to children's ability to represent the concepts they refer to, and I guess doing this kind of work has just stuck with me ever since! I have been lucky to be at places since then (Maryland, Delaware and now here!) that appreciate interdisciplinary studies and value work that spans multiple disciplines. 

Q. On a scale of 1-10, how wonderful are your students at W&M so far?
This is an easy one! 10! Every faculty member that I talked to throughout my interview process told me how wonderful the students here are, so I wasn't surprised! But I can tell even from the first few weeks of classes that the students are smart and engaged. They ask good questions and think critically about the reading. It is so much fun teaching students of this caliber!