Saturday, December 17, 2011

thinking scientifically about language

I just submitted my grades for my fall LING 101 course, and I'm busy preparing for my spring LING 101 course, so the question of how to get people to think scientifically about language has been much on my mind recently. I've found that one of the most useful entry-level questions is "How is human language difference from other forms of animal communication?" The media loves animal language stories, and so the uniqueness and complexity of human language is one of the first things I cover. One of the most important things about discussing such topics is not "Is human language unique?", but "What concrete properties of human language distinguish it from animal communication?" We're doing science, and so we want to point to specific criteria to distinguish the two; we want a theory of human language that predicts specific empirical facts. This is not how the general public usually thinks about language (or about anything; critical thinking is far removed from the natural pattern of human cognition).

Another topic I've always wanted to cover in more detail is speech perception. Often when I tell non-linguists that I work on how we perceive speech sounds and assign them to various categories, I get blank stares. Certainly before I was in linguistics I gave no thought to speech perception. When I lived in Italy in elementary school it was inconceivable to me that Italian speakers couldn't understand English; my first hypothesis (admittedly quickly discarded) was that when someone spoke English they simply heard nothing. We think of language as magic: direct communication from one mind to another. It takes a bit of work to transition into the type of thinking that evaluates the creation of sound by the human vocal tract and analyses how these sounds are transmitted as vibrations through the air, and then perceived by the human auditory and perceptual apparati (yes, I know that's not the proper Latinate plural). The question of how we distinguish a bilabial nasal from an alveolar nasal is not a natural one to ask, but it's an important question for linguists.

These are some of the basic concepts I'm planning to use in my 101 class next semester. If anyone has suggestions for other concepts useful for introducing people to the scientific study of language, I'd be glad to hear about them in the comments.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

do you think that a person born to French parents (i'm just using French as an example) might have an easier time pronouncing French words even if he/she is raised never speaking French? The reason I'm asking is because of the different sounds that exist among languages. The French have sounds like "ou" or "u" (don't know how to write them phonetically) that do not exist in English. Do you think that the shapes made by the mouth in order to produce these sounds could have an evolutionary effect on mouth shape, thus making it slightly easier for a French child to produce such sounds? (even one who was not raised speaking French)

Ryan Denzer-King said...

Short answer: no. It is generally assumed that your ethnic background contributes absolutely nothing to your ability to learn a language. On the other hand, since we do find genetic variation in human populations, it stands to reason that it is at least logically possible to find groups where this genetic variation has affected the portion of the brain where the language faculty resides, and thus that this group would have more or less difficulty with certain languages or types of languages.

If we're talking about evolution specifically (e.g., certain traits being selected for because they confer a reproductive advantage), then the question becomes, "What evolutionary advantage is afforded by French speakers being able to pronounce French sounds better?" The answer is almost certainly none. Remember, we can't be Lamarckian about the issue and say that just because generations of French people have made certain sounds, that their children should be able to make those sounds easier. This makes no more sense than saying that giraffes got their long necks because their ancestors strained and strained to reach high foliage.

Dhananjai Rao said...

i love liguistics but i think i know little, little. i am a graduation student lol

Polish translator said...

Since we learn our language naturally and "just use it," really few people think about the unique character of that phenomenon. Scientific research of the language communication is subject for few of those few who dared ponder over it.

Anonymous said...

I have introduced the term UNSTRUCTURE to describe the universal level of arguments and predicates. The next level up, the emic one, contains the sets of all A, N, V, and P(=particles),with six types of filters to feed only optimal forms into the lexicon, as well as into the core grammar. The core grammar's function is to order the lowest level. The surface output is phonetic.

Anonymous said...

In fact, the French u, or Celtic fronting, does occur normally here in the South.

Anonymous said...

Griraffe neck length is not an acquired, but an evolutionary, trait; thus the analogy fails.

Ryan Denzer-King said...

Language is also an evolutionary trait. French, perhaps, is not, but language most certainly is. My point was that it does not make sense to view French as an evolutionary trait.