ESR1: Categorization of speech sounds as a collective decision process

PhD Fellow: Lena-Marie Huttner

My name is Lena-Marie Huttner, I am originally from Munich, Germany. I am currently working as COBRA ESR1 at the Laboratoire Parole et Langage in Aix-en-Provence, France. My path here was not the straightest one. After I had finished high school I began studying law, but my heart was not in it. So I quit and decided to follow my childhood dream to become a language scientist. I have a double bachelors degree in General and Comparative Linguistics and Political Science from the University of Regensburg, Germany and went to Ludwig-Maximilians University Munich for my Masters in Phonetics and Speech Processing.

I have always had a deep fascination with languages. throughout my life and my academic path that fascination morphed from an interest in linguistic typology to the question what language even is, how it works, and how we use it. I love that the language sciences look at these rather philosophical questions and try to answer them not by ruminating endlessly in abstract theoretical meandering, but by applying the methodologies of the natural sciences.

My PhD project concerns the categorization of speech sounds as a collective decision process – How does a community of speakers decide on a representation for an arbitrary and infinitely variable speech sound? As the project description states, this issue lies at the heart of speech and language. Throughout my PhD I will examine the role of social interaction as a catalyst for speech and language. I will do so by conducting interactive collaborative experiments that also include the virtual agent designed by DAVI.

Since I can remember, I have had two rather vague aspirations: I wanted to learn as much as I could about this world and the people who live in it, and I wanted to live in many different countries. I could not be prouder, happier, or more grateful to be part of a project that allows me to do both.


For two people to understand each other, words must refer to the same entities for both of them. How the relations between speech sounds and meanings come to be collectively established within a linguistic community, is an issue at the heart of speech and language. ESR1’s project will be to explore this issue in the laboratory, using—to our knowledge for the first time — a joint-perception experimental paradigm. Groups of participants will be asked to identify speech sounds in word-to-picture matching tasks.

The tasks will be performed on individual computers but each participant will receive information on the other participants’ responses. The main goal will be to determine to what degree perceptual convergence occurs across participants in the categorization of speech sounds. ESR1 will manipulate the way in which response-related information circulates among participants to characterize the effects this manipulation may have on perceptual convergence. A model will be developed of perceptual convergence as a collective decision process. Predictions of this model will be tested using an artificial agent performing the task together with human participants.

Expected results:

  • Significant contribution to the experimental study of the collective establishment of sound-to-meaning relationships;
  • Experimental platform for studies on the joint processing and understanding of spoken language.

Based in Aix-en Provence, France

Full-time three-year contract, starting September 2020

PhD enrolment at: Aix-Marseille University, France

Main supervisor’s institution: Aix-Marseille University, France

Main supervisor: Prof Noël Nguyen


  • DAVI, Puteaux: setting-up of the artificial agent employed in the joint-perception experiments (5,5 months);
  • University of Edinburgh (UEDIN): guidance on how to integrate perceptual convergence processes in a cognitive model of conversation (5 months).

Co-supervisors’ institutions:

  • DAVI, Puteaux, France
  • The University of Edinburgh (UEDIN), UK

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