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PhD Fellowship

A Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Network funded by the European Union


The COBRA Project

The purpose of the COBRA network is to train the next generation of researchers to accurately characterize and model the linguistic, cognitive and brain mechanisms that allow conversation to unfold in both human-human and human-machine interactions.

The network includes world-level academic research centers on language, cognition and the human brain as well as 4 non-academic partners that include fast-developing SMEs and one world-level company. The partners’ both unique combined expertise and high complementarity will allow COBRA to offer early-stage researchers (ESRs) an excellent training programme as well as very strong exposure to the non-academic sector.

A new research paradigm

There is a longstanding tradition of research on the relationships between language, cognition and the human brain. However, work in this domain has long been limited to studying language production or comprehension in talkers individually exposed to highly-controlled linguistic material. Recently, major advances have been simultaneously accomplished in language sciences, cognitive sciences and neurosciences, which have brought us on the verge of a new research paradigm. Language sciences have entered a new phase as they move away from individually-administered protocols towards the characterization of how spoken language is jointly used by two or more talkers as a shared set of resources for interacting with each other. This has occurred in conjunction with the advent of increasingly large databases on conversational spoken language, together with that of powerful large-scale spoken-language processing tools and techniques.

Cognitive sciences and neurosciences have also undergone a paradigm shift, which has made them pass from a single-brain to a multi-brain frame of reference (Hasson et al. 2012; Schilbach et al. 2013) as a new challenge has arisen that consists in understanding how the brains of two people speaking with each other are temporarily coupled. These advances make it possible to explore language and the brain in the context in which they both primarily develop, i.e. social interactions. Our network will aim to train 15 Europe-based PhD students in this emerging highly interdisciplinary research field: conversational brains.

Focusing on interactive alignment and prediction

Research and training activities will focus on two major mechanisms employed by speakers in a conversational interaction, namely interactive alignment, and prediction. Interactive alignment refers to the process by which people align their representations at different linguistic levels at the same time, by making use of each others’ choices of sounds, words, grammatical forms, and meanings (Garrod & Pickering 2004). Alignment contributes to making conversation easy by setting a common ground between speakers, for these speakers to have a better joint understanding of what they are talking about. Prediction refers to the process by which one speaker predicts what the other speaker is likely to say next, as well as how and when it will be said (Pickering & Garrod 2013). It is a major factor in what makes conversation fluent, and in the dynamics of turn-taking, those key moments in the interaction where one speaker hands over the conversational floor to her/his interlocutor. New metrics will be devised for the quantitative assessment of inter-speaker alignment and prediction and the speakers’ underlying cognitive and brain activities. ESRs will be trained to explore these mechanisms across a large variety of languages and communicational settings, and will address two main challenges. The first challenge will be to determine how alignment and prediction may both rely on and contribute to setting up brain-to-brain coupling relationships. The second challenge will relate to the development of computational models of alignment and prediction for more effective and socially-acceptable text-to-speech synthesizers, human-machine dialogue systems, and social robots. This will open the way towards using neurobehavioral measures for both the on-line monitoring of artificial agents, and the offline evaluation of quality of communication in human-machine interactions.

Within the consortium, eight European languages (English, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Slovak, Swedish) as well as Mandarin Chinese will be represented that will allow the ESRs to confront a wide set of linguistic phenomena spread across the European territory and Asia.

Technological and societal implications

Transfer-of-technology activities will include innovative experimental set-ups for the joint monitoring of brain and physiological activities in two or more people engaged in a spoken-language interactions, as well as the development of spoken-dialogue systems and social robots with high-level conversational skills. The training programme will also have major societal implications as it will address issues that relate to communication in people’s native and non-native languages. The focus on the dynamics of conversational exchanges between people and on the mechanisms employed for the establishment of a conversational common ground will make it possible to significantly further our understanding of what makes spoken language communication efficient and successful in a large variety of languages and interaction situations.

Proposed PhD projects

Fifteen early-stage researchers (ESRs) will be recruited as PhD students in the framework of COBRA.

The call for applications is open. Deadline for submission: 15 April 2020. Each selected ESR will be offered a three-year contract starting from September/October 2020.

Further information about the 15 proposed projects is available below:

ESR1 : Categorization of speech sounds as a collective decision process

ESR2 : Brain markers of between-speaker convergence in conversational speech

ESR3 : Does prediction drive neural alignment in conversation?

ESR4 : Brain indexes of semantic and pragmatic prediction

ESR5 : Communicative alignment at the physiological level

ESR6 : Lexical alignment in human-machine spoken interaction

ESR7 : Contribution of discourse markers to alignment in conversation

ESR8 : Discourse units and discourse alignment

ESR9 : Acoustic-phonetic alignment in synthetic speech

ESR10 : Phonetic alignment in a non-native language

ESR11 : Conversation coordination and mind-reading

ESR12 : The influence of alignment

ESR13 : Parametric dialogue synthesis: from separate speakers to conversational interaction

ESR14 : Gender and vocal alignment in speakers and robots

ESR15 : Endowing robots with high-level conversational skills


ESR4 : Brain indexes of semantic and pragmatic prediction

PhD fellowship at the Freie Universität Berlin


Although the role of prediction in language and communication processing is widely acknowledged, there exist few brain indexes that directly map the neurophysiological correlates of prediction as these emerge in real time. Most studies use event-related activity elicited after the predicted (or not predicted) linguistic forms, e.g., the N400 to semantically expected or unexpected words, and more recently, speech acts. ESR4 will use the readiness potential to directly map the emergence of prediction correlates in the course of communications between two people. Participants will engage in different interactive language games while predictive brain responses will be measured with EEG or fMRI and, eventually, MEG. TMS will be applied to find out whether local stimulation can specifically interfere with communicative predictions. ESR4 will also examine the role of sentence context, where semantic predictions in affirmative and negated sentences will be contrasted. We expect ESR4 to find new brain indexes of semantic and pragmatic predictions, which will be used to directly assess current theories of alignment between communication partners in different types of conversations.

For more information regarding ESR4, please contact Prof Friedemann Pulvermüller f.p@fu-berlin.de or Dr Rosario Tomasello tomasello.r@fu-berlin.de


The ESR will be contractually employed for 36 months by the main institution, and will be covered under the social security scheme of the enrolling country. She/he will monthly receive a Living Allowance, a Mobility Allowance and a Family Allowance (if applicable) compliant with the applicable EC Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions-ITN general conditions.

The net salary for ESR4 will be about €2.300-2.700 according to her/his situation.

Eligibility criteria:

Experience eligibility requirement: Eligible applicants must be in the first 4 years of their research careers (full-time equivalent research experience) at the signature of the contract (measured from the time the Master’s degree has been obtained).

Eligible applicants must not hold a Doctoral Degree yet.

Mobility eligibility requirement

The fellow must not have resided in the main institution’s country for more than 12 months in the 3 years immediately prior to the recruitment date, and not have carried out their main activity (work, studies, etc.) in that country.

How to apply

Applications should be submitted via the website of the targeted ESR, see


You can apply for several of the 15 ESRs, but should indicate your preference for 2 of them. Deadline for the submission of applications: 15 April 2020

The complete application should be provided in the form of one single pdf file, named as follows: lastname-firstname.pdf

For more information regarding the application, see