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Interview with Dr Emar Maier, Philosopher of Language at the University of Groningen

Winner ERC Starting Grant 2010
Dr Emar Maier

Research into 'direct' and indirect speech via Brussels

Last summer, Philosopher of Language Emar Maier, was awarded a prestigious European ERC Starting Grant by Brussels for research into direct and indirect speech in natural language. Budget: EUR 680,000. Maier, who was then working as a researcher at Radboud University Nijmegen, will be conducting his ERC project at the University of Groningen. He reported to the Faculty of Philosophy for duty in mid-October.

So was his move from Maas en Waal to the Wadden Sea a conscious decision? ‘Very much so,’ says Maier with conviction. ‘The University of Groningen is by far the best place for the type of research I am doing. The Faculty of Philosophy at this University has an excellent reputation in the field of logic, and that is exactly what I need for my research. I will be studying the development of Language Philosophy, the use of logic in natural language, from within the field of logic. This is a component that the Faculty has not yet really developed. Another point in favour of the University of Groningen is the substantial expertise in the area of children´s language within the Faculty of Arts. This is something I will be relying on in my own interdisciplinary research project.’  

Individual practice session

Maier, who is now living in Groningen, can look back on his interview with the ERC evaluation committee in Brussels with satisfaction. Maier: ‘I cannot deny that I was nervous, but I was also very well prepared. At a fairly early stage, I attended an ERC information afternoon in Nijmegen, so when I received my invitation to the interview, I arranged an individual practice session and trial interview at the University of Groningen. The actual interview turned out to be different. Some of the committee members were already familiar with the subject of my research, so many of the questions focused on substantive details of the actual research. I think ‘probing’ would be the best way to describe it. It was nothing like the interviews I had experienced at the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research. Proper preparation is essential. If nothing else, it gives you more confidence on the day itself.’  

From language philosophy to autism and sign language

To outsiders, this ERC Starting Grant research into direct speech (John says: ‘I am ill’) and indirect speech (John says that he is ill) in natural language might seem abstract and complex. But Maier sees it as a challenge to his analytical skills. The focus of his research is on formulating theories about the grey area between the boundaries of direct and indirect. And so in addition to children´s language, the Groningen Philosopher of Language is also studying Dutch Sign Language and Ancient Greek. A scientific choice.  

Maier: ’These are language forms with a strong emphasis on direct, one-to-one-communication. They are the perfect testing grounds for my theoretical proposal.’ The subtleties of the relationship between direct and indirect speech in children’s language still need to be examined. However, a link between the various forms of expression and the mental development of a child has already been established.  

Maier: ‘It has been suggested that mastering indirect speech is an essential first step towards a child's perception of an outside world where people have thoughts of their own. Linguists call this Theory of Mind. The child begins to understand that its own wishes are not necessarily the same as those of its parents. A disturbance in this Theory of Mind is one of the main characteristics of autism, for example. In this way, my theoretical work may ultimately be useful in improving methods for diagnosing autism.’ The young researcher is firmly convinced of the scientific importance of research into sign language.

Maier:´There is still a lot of confusion about the status of sign language. Many European countries have recognized sign language as an official national language. And yet sign language is still seen as the poor relation of spoken language, whereby notions are expressed using signs. Absolute nonsense. Sign language is an independent language that uses different words, and even different grammar, from Dutch. The sentences are constructed differently and verbs have their own conjugations, etc. I hope that my research will go some way to helping emancipate sign languages and the deaf culture.’  

Edited by Neeltje Miedema

Last modified:16 March 2020 4.00 p.m.