Iris Berent

Professor Email: Phone: 617.373.4033


Ph. D., Cognitive Psychology, 1993, University of Pittsburgh
M. A., Music Theory, 1990, University of Pittsburgh
M. S., Cognitive Psychology, 1990, University of Pittsburgh
B. Mus., Flute performance, 1987, The Rubin Academy of Music
B. A., Musicology, 1987, Tel-Aviv University

Area(s) of Expertise


Research Interests

My research examines the nature of linguistic competence, its origins, and its interaction with reading ability. I seek to identify the constraints that shape the language system and determine the extent to which this system is specialized for the processing of linguistic information. I am particularly interested in two questions:

  1. Are people equipped with a grammar—a computational system that operates on linguistic variables (abstract categories such as noun and syllable) as opposed to specific instances (such as the noun dog and the syllable blif)?
  2. Does the grammar include universal constraints on language structure?

To assess the computational properties of the language system, I examine whether people can learn restrictions on linguistic variables, such as constraints on reduplication (e.g., AAB vs. ABB). My work seeks to identify the class of grammars that are learnable by humans. To this end, I examine whether speakers (adults, children, and infants) of diverse languages (English, Hebrew, Korean, Russian, and Spanish) possess universal grammatical constraints on structures that they have never heard before. I seek to identify such constraints, examine their sources—whether they reflect specific restrictions on language structure, or properties of nonlinguistic systems (e.g., audition or motor control)—and their modulation by linguistic experience. I assess these questions using numerous populations (typical hearing people, deaf individuals, and people with dyslexia) and methods (behavioral and various measures of brain responses). My work also explores the link between linguistic competence, reading ability, and disability.

Phonology and Reading Lab

Infant Phonology Lab 

Sign-language Phonology Lab 

Curriculum Vitae



125 Nightingale Hall

What causes dyslexia?

Dyslexia affects about 10 percent of the population, and its cause is up for discussion.

Language By Mouth And By Hand

Humans favor speech as the primary means of linguistic communication. Spoken languages are so common many think language and speech are one and the same. But the prevalence of sign languages suggests otherwise. Not only can Deaf communities generate language using manual gestures, but their languages share some of their design and neural mechanisms with spoken languages. New research by Northeastern University’s Prof. Iris Berent further underscores the flexibility of human language and its robustness across both spoken and signed channels of communication.

What makes human language special?

Many species on the planet employ a unique form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.