ERC Starting Grant for Visual Language research

I’m very happy to officially announce that I have received an ERC Starting Grant! This is my first major individual research grant (after many many tries), and I’m very excited to have the chance to work on a project I’ve been planning for over 10 years.

My project “Visual narratives as a window into language and cognition” (nicknamed “TINTIN”) is going to build tools for analyzing visual and multimodal information, and then incorporate it into a corpus of data. All of these tools and data will be made publicly accessible for other researchers to explore, though we’ll be using them to study whether there are cross-cultural patterns in the visual languages used in comics of the world, and whether those patterns connect to the spoken languages of their authors. In the coming months I’ll be hiring a team of students and researchers to put this project into motion.

This project is a follow up and expansion from my previous corpus work in the Visual Language Research Corpus, which capped out around 300 comics (+ 4,000 Calvin and Hobbes strips). We’re finishing writing up this data, which has already appeared in papers about cross-cultural page layouts, and American page layouts and storytelling over time. However, since the TINTIN project will be launching a new, more sophisticated coding scheme and methods, I plan on making the data of the VLRC publicly available soon as well.

Here’s my official description of the TINTIN project:

“Drawn sequences of images are a fundamental aspect of human communication, appearing from instruction manuals and educational material to comics. Despite this, only recently have scholars begun to examine these visual narratives, making this an untapped resource to study the cognition of sequential meaning-making. The emerging field analysing this work has implicated similarities between sequential images and language, which raises the question: Just how similar is the structure and processing of visual narratives and language? I propose to explore this query by drawing on interdisciplinary methods from the psychological and linguistic sciences. First, in order to examine the structural properties of visual narratives, we need a large-scale corpus of the type that has benefited language research. Yet, no such databases exist for visual narrative systems. I will thus create innovative visual annotation tools to build a corpus of 1,500 annotated comics from around the world (Stage 1). With such a corpus, I will then ask, do visual narratives differ in their properties around the world, and does such variance influence their comprehension (Stage 2)? Next, we might ask why such variation appears, particularly: might differences between visual narratives be motivated by patterns in spoken languages, thereby implicating cognitive processes across modalities (Stage 3)? Thus, this proposal aims to investigate the domain-specific (Stage 2) and domain-general (Stage 3) properties of visual narratives, particularly in relation to language, by analysing both production (corpus analyses) and comprehension (experimentation). This research will be ground-breaking by challenging our knowledge about the relations between drawing, sequential images, and language. The goal is not simply to create tools to explore a limited set of questions, but to provide resources to jumpstart a budding research field for visual and multimodal communication in the linguistic and cognitive sciences.”

Be ready to hear a lot more about this project over the next 5+ years!


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