BA, Dip Ed, MA (Melbourne), PhD (Texas), FASSA, HonFAHA
(Deceased), 2022-06-07


*Written by Denis Burnham

Anne Cutler 1945-2022

Distinguished Professor Anne Cutler was an exemplary scientist who conducted innovative research with uncompromising rigour, and tenacious attention to detail. She was a fierce and fearless advocate for rational thought, for science, for women in science and for the quality of Australian science. Yet, she said, advocacy per se is not enough; people must see and hear successful women, see and hear successful Australians. Every day of her career Anne acted on this precept, her infectious enthusiasm serving as a visible and audible model for her doctoral, postdoctoral, and junior and senior colleagues.

Over five decades Anne Cutler shaped the emerging field of psycholinguistics with primary focus on developing a universal model of how we learn, store, and access spoken language. She claimed that such a model could not derive from studying just one language, nor from studying language universals, but rather from extracting universal meta-principles from the specific features of many different languages. By advocating the study a range of languages, Anne was highly instrumental in enriching the linguistic palette of psycholinguistics, freeing it from the previously narrow focus on English, extending the data on which to base psycholinguistic theory, and facilitating international collaborations.

Anne conducted research on specific aspects of at least 15 languages in as many countries with multiple collaborators and 45 PhD students in a range of disciplines – psychology, linguistics, language sciences, applied linguistics, second language learning, acoustic phonetics, engineering, and computer science.

On June 7, 2022, Anne Cutler passed away, and in labs, universities, and homes across the world people from many different disciplines, in words of many languages, universally mourned the loss of ‘our Anne’, our dear colleague, collaborator, supervisor, scientist, advocate, mentor, and friend.

An early example of Anne’s quest for a universal theory of spoken language processing is her pioneering research on word segmentation. Human speech is a continuous acoustic signal, yet when we listen to someone speaking our own language, we easily segment the speech into individual words. Not so when we listen to someone speaking an unfamiliar foreign language, which shows that the segmentation of words from speech must be learned. In reflecting on this in an address to the fourth International Conference on Spoken Language Processing in Philadelphia in 1996, Anne said:

"Experiments in French suggested that listeners could easily segment speech into syllables; experiments in English suggested that patterns of stress placement provided segmentation cues. [This] led us to propose that the linking generalisation (the universal principle) had to do with language rhythm; syllable-based in French [e.g., ‘doc-teur’], stress-based in English [e.g., ‘DOC-tor’], and this in turn led us to search for another language with another rhythmic structure in order to test this proposal. Indeed, we found that in Japanese, which has a mora-based rhythm [the mora is smaller than a syllable, e.g., ‘ba’ has one mora but ‘ba-a’ and ‘ba-n’ have two moras], listeners could easily segment speech mora by mora. The underlying generalisation, that the rhythmic structure of language can be usefully exploited in the process of understanding continuous speech, would have been impossible, or at least very hard, to discern from experimental results in just a single language."

Now what earthly use might this finding have? Again, let’s hear what Anne had to say:

"…humans are, at birth, universal processing devices… capable of acquiring whatever language they are exposed to, whether or not this is the language of their biological parents. An Australian infant of English-speaking parents adopted at birth into a Nthlakampx-speaking family will become a fluent speaker of Nthlakampx. This is uncontroversial."

This, coupled with the results of Anne’s experiments with English, French and Japanese adults, shows that newborn infants are ready to use the rhythm of whatever the surrounding language may be in the process of word segmentation – the basic building block of language which, if compromised, will affect the infant’s vocabulary and more generally their language development.

Anne was an Australian through and through, start to end – she began and ended her career in in Australia. In the mid-1960s and early 1970s Anne did a BA, a DipEd, and an MA at the University of Melbourne. Following her PhD (University of Texas, 1975), Anne took up post-doctoral fellowships at the University of Sussex, then MIT. Then followed an extended period of 11 years as a research scientist at the Medical Research Council Applied Psychology Unit at Cambridge in the UK. In 1993 she was appointed Director of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, (the first female director of MPI, Nijmegen, and only the 10th female MPI Director out of 180 directors at the time) and continued there until 2013, when took up an appointment back in Australia at the MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development at Western Sydney University.

Anne was an international star but remained a staunch advocate for the quality of Australian research. In her years in Europe, she attended and presented, at times as a keynote speaker, at the International Conference of the Australasian Speech Science and Technology Association. And in the six years (2006-20012) prior to her return to Australia, by MPI-MARCS agreement, Anne was employed 25% at MARCS Institute and assiduously spent 3 months of each year in Australia, either before or after her beloved Interspeech conference. In such international conferences, upon spying a fellow Aussie at a morning tea, Anne would throw her arms wide, rush forward and embrace them warmly (and loudly) and attend every paper by an Aussie and uptalk their findings to others. Her enthusiasm knew no bounds; on one occasion during a formal annual procession of Radboud University faculty and graduating PhDs through Nijmegen city, at a certain point when an Australian student passed by the vantage point of a certain Professor, a cry, lightly tinged with irony, broke forth: ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi’. There was no question of the source.

Anne was the recipient of nine different prestigious awards, including being the first woman to be awarded the Spinoza Prize (which she accepted in her new second language, Dutch). She was an elected Fellow of 13 international scientific organisations, including the revered Royal Society in 2015, joining the likes of Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Dorothy Hodgkin, and Stephen Hawking. But it was her election to the positions of Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 2008 and Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia in 2009 of which she was most proud and vociferous.

In her opus, ‘Native Listening’ published in 2012 by MIT Press, Anne argues that listening to speech is ‘native’ listening’, for how we perform the myriad concurrent tasks necessary for spoken language processing — segmenting words, predicting meaning, attending to pronunciation and prosodic variations — are universal skills which are only possible because of our language-specific experience since, and even before, birth. ‘Native Listening’ provides comprehensive and convincing evidence for this position, and it is a treat to read; open to any page and you will be greeted with superbly smooth and eloquent scientific writing, in which difficult concepts are presented with crisp and compelling clarity.

‘Native Listening’ is already a classic. In 2013, the year after its publication, Anne retired from the MPI and joined MARCS Institute back in Australia. Now one might be excused for thinking that this change might have resulted in a diminution in research output. Not so! Anne set to applying, successfully, for Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Projects and then was a key player in securing funding for the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (COEDL). This provided funding from 2014 to 2022 for 16 Chief Investigators and their staff across 4 universities (Australian National, Melbourne, Queensland, and Western Sydney) for research in 4 main areas, Language Diversity, Language Learning, Language Evolution, and Language Processing. Over and above her other research, Anne led the Language Processing area, and over 8 years continued her prodigious research programme working with her COEDL colleagues and a further 11 research assistants, 8 local and international PhD students, and 10 local and visiting postdoctoral fellows.

Anne Cutler had an unfettered exuberance for life. Yet she based her decisions in that life on rational argument and scientific evidence. In that final week, after quizzing the doctors on prognosis, with Bill Sloman, her husband, by her side she accepted the situation with sanguinity. And she was heard to say in that week that she was ‘bathed in a sea of love’ from all the students and colleagues who contacted her or sent messages.

Anne died in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, at the beginning of her and Bill’s first international post-Covid research trip. Earlier, just before Covid, Anne and colleagues had uncovered a particularly significant result. They studied two groups of 30-year-old Dutch-speaking adults, one group who had been adopted from Korea as infants between 3 and 6 months or around 17 months at of age with no further experience of Korean; and another, a control group of 30-year-old native Dutch-speaking adults. The groups were given 1.5 weeks of intensive training in identifying three Korean ‘t’-like sounds which differ along an articulatory dimension not used in Dutch (Dutch has only the one ’t’ sound – ‘t’ as in ‘stop’).

The adoptee and the control groups had initially equivalent ability. Then both the earlier- and later-adopted groups learned the distinction significantly more quickly than the control group. This could show that the adoptees had acquired, albeit unconsciously, memory for the complete Korean phoneme repertoire as young as 3 months. However, Cutler and colleagues also found that the adoptees, but not the controls, generalised their skill with the ‘t’ sounds, to the same articulatory three-way differentiation at two other places of articulation – in the Korean three-way ‘p’ and three-way ‘k’ distinctions. Moreover, the adoptees were able to produce the sounds better than the native Dutch controls. So, the knowledge the adoptees had gained and stored at the tender age of 3 months, was not specific to the Korean sounds but was based on higher-order principles. In Anne’s words:

"…there is role for abstract, generally applicable knowledge and the knowledge retained by the adoptees is abstract, i.e., does not consist of accumulated traces of listening experience."

These results add a new dimension to human language development, both in infancy and in second language learning. We already knew the importance of the quantity and quality of early speech input for infants’ mastery of a particular language(s). We now know that this early language-specific experience is, in turn, based on even earlier higher-order knowledge that infants abstract from the surrounding language. Further investigation of the conditions by which infants do and do not extract such abstract knowledge will be extremely important for the identification of early risk or delay.

Thus, it ends as it began. Throughout the five decades of Anne’s career, generations of students, colleagues and researchers around the world took her various findings (word segmentation and many more) as launchpads for further research. And even now, new generations of researchers have already begun to build upon her latest findings (the adoptee studies and many more) in tests with very young infants.

The memories and influences of Anne Cutler will live on in the hundreds of eloquently phrased research papers and monographs that report on her insights and landmark findings, and in research by her colleagues’ and her colleagues’ colleagues, and her students’ and her students’ students. And notably, in the less explicitly documentable but equally if not more important, advocacy – her championing by example, in particular, her support for women in science. As one of her most recent PhD graduates put it, ‘A large part of it was leading by example, so it happened indirectly, just by Anne being who she was; she was always supportive of colleagues with children, and she refused to participate in workshops or panels consisting of too many men and not enough women’.

  • 1976 - 1982 Research Fellow, University of Sussex, UK
  • 1982 - 1993 Research Scientist, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, UK
  • 1993 - 2012 Director, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
  • 2013 - Distinguished Professor, MARCS Institute, University of Western Sydney
    • Member Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen (Royal Dutch Academy of Science)
    • Member, Academia Europaea
    • Member, Hollandsche Maatschappij der Wetenschappen
    • Foreign Associate, National Academy of Sciences (USA)
    • Foreign Member, American Philosophical Society
    • Fellow of the International Speech Communication Association (ISCA)
    • Fellow of the Academy of the Humanities (Honorary FAHA)

Fellow of the Royal Society

1999 Spinoza Prize

2014 ISCA Medal

Cutler, A (2012) Native Listening. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press