Language as a complex adaptive system

Since its inception, ASLAN has been has guided by viewing language as a complex adaptive system: biological, cognitive, social and cultural. Research funded by ASLAN has focused on all of these aspects, in various configurations, aiming to understand the reciprocally causal nature of language production, as it interacts with the biological, cognitive, social, and cultural planes. ASLAN therefore promotes an open thematic structure in which different subsystems (e.g. cognitive, neural, biological, linguistic, social, interactional…) can be studied separately, but in which hypotheses relating subsystems (e.g. grammatical, semiotic, conceptual…) are encouraged. The interest of this approach is that it fosters collaboration between researchers from different traditions because systems and subsystems are viewed as boundary objects (4) that can be instantiated according to the epistemological assumptions and worldview of each collaborator. If researchers are open to accepting the definitions and contours of a system or subsystem, as viewed by a colleague from another tradition, then this sets the stage for shared methodological approaches and productive comparisons of analytic constructs, either about a particular (sub)system or regarding relations between them. Such an approach aims for broader scientific understanding through the collaborative work of researchers from language sciences, psychology, education, and computer science. But it
also specifically fosters this collaboration through an empirical understanding of how scientific teams can work productively together (5).

Ecology of human communication

Far from referring to a unified field of research, the notion of ecology of language is characterized by its diversity and heterogeneity. While the term has often been used to connect language usage to the social environment in which it is spoken, the approaches developed in ASLAN encompass the more general – and reciprocal – influences of an environment (in its social, but also cognitive, biological, and physical dimensions) on a linguistic system, seen as a communal convention.
As a communication system relying largely on the acoustic channel, human language may be shaped by the evolutionary pressures that impact acoustic communication.
Sound symbolism refers to the existence of non-arbitrary associations between sounds and meanings found across languages. Such associations suggest that arbitrariness of the linguistic sign may be challenged and raise questions on the existence of universal vs. population-specific (or language-specific) associations. They also shed new light on the connection between perception and language.

Situated Semiotics

Situated semiotics is a heterogeneous field of study, which aims at understanding and describing complex semiotic behaviors, social and semiolinguistic interactions and management of cultural heritages. For this purpose, situated semiotics adopts an epistemological framework based on aspects of complexity theory and on the enactive account of the social and semiotic experience. The approaches developed in ASLAN account for the ecological stratification of any semiotic experience, and explore the dynamic and economic flows and values of cultural signs, objects, texts and performances. We study language activity and semiotic behavior as the complex abilities and the joint activities by which speakers or social actors harmonize with each other and at the same time co-construct shared cognitive and cultural niches (Basso Fossali 2016). Communicative action is no longer analyzed in terms of a series of mental states, but in those of an endless interactional story, during which social actors co-shape semiotic forms towards a full semiotic status.


(1) Levinson, S.C. (2005). Living with Manny’s Dangerous Idea. Discourse Studies. 7, 431-453.
(2) Greeno, J. G. (1998). The situativity of knowing, learning, and research. American Psychologist, 53, 5-17.
(3) Clarkson, G.P.E., & Simon, H.A. (1960). Simulation of individual and group behavior. American Economic Review, 50, 920-930.
(4) Star, S. L. & Griesemer, J. R. (1989). Institional ecology, “translation” and boundary objects: Amateurs and professionals in Berkley’s Museum of Vertebrate zoology, 1907-1939. Soc. Stud. of Science, 19 (387-42).
(5) Suthers, D. D., Lund, K., Rosé, C. P., Teplovs, C. & Law, N. (Eds.). (2013). Productive Multivocality in the Analysis of Group Interactions. In C. Hoadley & N. Miyake (Series Eds.), Computer Supported Collaborative Learning Series: Vol. 15. New York: Springer.