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Kevin Holmes Receives $9,796 Grant for Research on Linguistic Diversity

Assistant Professor of Psychology Kevin Holmes has been awarded a $9,796 Early Career Research Grant from Language Learning, a journal of research in language studies. The project will explore how learning about linguistic diversity affects people's beliefs about categories.

The grant will cover a research stipend for Colorado College psychology major Emily Gardner ’19 to work full-time on the project for several weeks this summer, in close collaboration with Holmes. Since arriving at Colorado College four years ago, Holmes has mentored 30 undergraduate students in his lab, several of whom have co-authored articles and conference papers and presented posters at professional conferences. Gardner and other students who work on this project will contribute to all aspects of the research process, including study preparation, data collection, analysis, writing, and presentation at conferences.

The funding abstract states, “People often categorize the world in absolutes, believing that certain words demarcate objectively distinct categories with discrete boundaries.” Or, as Holmes explains, people tend to believe that many categories (e.g., dog, woman, African American) are based on an underlying reality that is fixed and stable across time.

This belief stands in contrast to the observation that languages differ dramatically in how they carve up the world by name, even in such fundamental areas as color, body parts, and spatial relations. For example, distinctions like green vs. blue, arm vs. hand, and in vs. on may seem obvious to English speakers, but not all languages make these distinctions. Holmes’ research will explore how learning about such linguistic diversity can reduce the tendency to think of categories in discrete, inflexible terms.

His study also will explore whether people who are bilingual — and thus have long-term exposure to linguistic diversity — hold different beliefs about categories than people who speak only one language.

The results could support Holmes’ hypothesis that cross-linguistic knowledge promotes more flexible beliefs about categories. Such findings would provide insight into the effects of learning about linguistic diversity — a topic that has received little attention compared to the effects of learning specific languages, notes Holmes.

“The belief that categories have rigid boundaries is also linked to stereotyping of marginalized groups, so learning about linguistic diversity has the potential to benefit society,” says Holmes. “By identifying novel connections between language and categorization, our research lays the groundwork for future projects that will probe the social implications of these connections.”