Foundations and structure of language



One of the main challenges faced by contemporary Cognitive Science is to bridge the gap between disciplines like neuroscience and neurobiology and disciplines like linguistics, psychology, and philosophy. One way to characterize this problem is that the degree of resolution (or ‘granularity’) of observations coming from the former disciplines are often completely mismatched relatively to the extremely detailed analyses coming from the latter. An important step towards bridging this gap is that practitioners of the several subdisciplines that currently fit under the umbrella term of ‘Cognitive Science’ come to understand each other, their respective goals and subjects of inquiry.

The present course is designed as an overview of the main topics that make up the main areas of interest of contemporary linguistics. The course focuses mainly on issues in formal grammar, but in the second part we also consider language acquisition. from a formal point of view.

At the end of the course, students should therefore be acquainted with the formal models of language (syntax, phonology, semantics), understood as a component of the human mind/brain, with special emphasis on the issues of structure, representation and constraints, and derivation and rules.

Course plan

1. Block 1: Formal approaches to the study of language (Xavier Villalba)
This part of the course will focus on the main blocks of linguistic theory. We will offer an overview of relevant findings concerning: 

  • basic structures in syntax, phonology and semantics
  • representations vs. derivations
  • constraints vs. rules.

2. Block 2: Language acquisiition  (Anna Gavarró)

  • Conditions for a plausible grammar: parsability, learnability, break-down compatibility.
  • Early parameter setting. Discrepancies between adult and child grammar. The issue of maturation.


To fulfill the requirements of the course, students will have to complete the following assessment activities:

  • A brief essay based on the materials of block 1 (45%).
  • A brief essay based on the materials of block 2 (45%).
  • Class attendance and participation (10%).

Re-evaluation of this assessment can only be considered for students having failed with grades ranging from 3 to 4.9. The maximum final grade can only be 5.

Note on languages: The official languages of the Masters Program are Catalan, English, and Spanish. Your assignments should therefore be written in any of these languages. 

Note on plagiarism: All assignments will be checked for plagiarism by means of specialized software.

Deliverables: The only accepted file format for the assignments is pdf; files must comply with the following naming convention: YourNameFSL.pdf. Date and site of delivery will be announced.



Adger, David. 2002. Core syntax : a minimalist approach. Oxford University Press.

 Block 1

Hayes, Bruce. 2009. Introductory phonology. Wiley-Blackwell.

Kearns, Kate. 2011. Semantics. Palgrave Macmillan.

McCarthy, John J. 2008. Doing optimality theory : applying theory to data. Blackwell.

Grodzinsky, Yosef. 1990. Theoretical Perspectives on Language Deficits. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Guasti, M. Teresa. 2002. Language Acquisition. The Growth of Grammar. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Lenneberg, Eric. 1967. Biological Foundations of Language. New York: John Wiley.


Adger, David. 2015. Syntax. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science. 6(2). 131–147.

Wexler, Ken. 1998. Very early parameter setting and the unique checking constraint: A new explanation of the optional infinitive stage. Lingua 106: 23–79.

Gavarró, Anna, Vicent Torrens & Ken Wexler. 2010. Object clitic omission: two language types. Language Acquisition 17(4): 192–219.

Franck, Julie, Severine Millotte, Andrés Posada & Luigi Rizzi (2013) Abstract knowledge of word order by 19 months: An eye-tracking study. Applied Psycholinguistics. doi:10.1017/S0142716411000713.