Dr. Michal Gleitman

Areas of specialization:

philosophy of language, continental philosophy

Areas of competence:

philosophy and psychology, autism and language development



I was awarded the Polonsky Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute in 2013, after completing a Ph.D. in philosophy at Emory University in May 2012. I also have a master’s degree in

philosophy from Tel-Aviv University where I was a student at The Adi Lautman Interdisciplinary Program for Outstanding Students.

My work lies at the intersection between philosophy of language and empirical research on developmental disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder and Williams syndrome, particularly their influence on language and communication. My choice to concentrate on language and communication disorders reflects my interest in non-typical language users – people who use alternative means of communication because they have difficulties using spoken language, or people who use spoken language in irregular ways. Contrary to the common approach in philosophy of language, which concentrates almost exclusively on spoken language and typical speakers, I believe that ‘borderline’ language users and communicators hold an important key to understanding how language works and develops, precisely because they challenge our intuitive ideas about language.

My main research question is what makes others recognize someone as a language user. This may seem a rather peculiar question, because we usually recognize speakers easily and instinctively, even if we don’t understand what they say (as in the case of a foreign language speaker). But this seemingly trivial experience of being immediately recognized as having something to say (regardless of how you say it) is beyond the reach of many people, whose ability to communicate and use language is questioned because of their cognitive disability, social difficulties, or unconventional appearance or behavior. People whose linguistic competence is uncertain are consequently trapped in a vicious cycle: their communication difficulties lead to an underestimation of their intellectual abilities, thereby further hindering the recognition of their efforts to communicate, and so on. As a result, they are deprived of their right for ‘speakerhood’ – the basic human right to have their voice heard, and receive an equal opportunity to develop whatever abilities they do have, in order to reach their full potential as language users and communicators.

My work addresses a range of theoretical questions related to the implications of diminished speakerhood. For example, I look at various factors that influence the ability and willingness of people to accommodate the special needs of children with disabilities in conversations; I examine how certain elements that are necessary for communication, such as communicative intent and joint attention, might be influenced by a significant imbalance in the abilities of the conversation partners; and I consider how the demand to meet a certain standard of linguistic competence compromises access to scientific and legal resources as well as treatment options (see also publication abstracts and other projects below). Ultimately, I aim to challenge the narrow understanding of language that I take to be dominant in philosophy, which virtually excludes non-typical communicators, and overlooks the important question of what constitutes a language user to begin with.

Other projects:

Access to justice for people with disabilities: I am co-directing a research group, at the Van Leer Jerusalem institute, that works to improve access to the legal system for people with disabilities, and advance the reception of alternative and augmentative communication methods in legal proceedings.

Expression through typing with minimally verbal children with autism: for the past few years I have been involved (as a lecturer) in a program that trains professionals in the field of autism to work with minimally verbal children and adolescents with autism, using a special method of typing, developed by Yael Cohen.


Gleitman, M. (2017). Contextualism and Echolalia. Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence,

10257, 267-276.

Abstract: This paper argues for the need to distinguish more clearly between the presence of a communicative intention (that a speaker is attempting to communicate something) and the content of the speaker’s utterance (what that is that they are trying to communicate), and consider the role of contextual information in the recognition of the former, independently of the latter. The paper uses experimental and clinical evidence from studies on echolalia (a common symptom of autism spectrum disorder, in which a child repeats verbatim other people’s utterances) to demonstrate the possibility of a speaker who utters conventional, supposedly meaningful sentences, in a seemingly automatic and non-communicative manner. As a result, the listener is forced to rely on the wide context to determine the presence or absence of a communicative intention behind the speaker’s utterance, as a condition for interpreting the content of the utterance.

Gleitman, M. Lost in triangulation: the challenges to Davidson’s theory of triangulation from

the evidence on Williams syndrome (under review). 

Abstract: Donald Davidson argues that language can only emerge in the context of triangulation – a three-way social interaction between two creatures and their shared environment. However, his account of language development is undermined by the sharp distinction he posits between linguistic and nonlinguistic creatures, which undercuts his ability to explain how a nonlinguistic interaction can give rise to the full-blown, linguistic triangle. This paper argues that by ignoring atypical language users Davidson discounts a crucial resource for explicating the intermediate stages that facilitate the emergence of language, resulting in an overly simplistic account of linguistic triangulation. The paper takes a step toward rectifying this oversight by applying the model of triangulation to a population of atypical language users, namely individuals with Williams syndrome, thereby developing certain aspects of Davidson’s account, proposing a modified triangle, and calling into question the break Davidson postulates between linguistic and nonlinguistic triangulation.

Gleitman, M. Autistic speakers and Davidsonian interpreters: on what it takes to be a speaker

(under review).

Abstract: Donald Davidson’s theory of linguistic meaning maintains that linguistic competence requires the ability to attribute mental states to others. This claim seems to be challenged by the existence of high-functioning people with autism who use language but have limited insight into other people’s mental states, due to impaired theory of mind skills. I argue that the empirical evidence about autism actually supports Davidson’s claim regarding the necessary connection between linguistic competence and belief attribution, but undercuts his subsequent conclusion that linguistic competence is a binary category. I introduce the term ‘speakerhood’ to designate the idea that being a speaker depends on the ability to be recognized as such by others, and is therefore a context-sensitive property that should be conceived as a continuum.