Wednesday, October 20, 2010

a linguist on broadway

The NYT reviews a new play centering on an historical linguist called The Language Archive. Money quote:

The Language Archive” does contain some bewitchingly fine speeches on the manner in which words can sometimes fail to convey the overwhelming nature of feeling and its capacity for flux. In one of the best, Mary addresses the audience on the subject of the odd proximity between states of extreme emotion.

“Sometimes you can feel so sad, it begins to feel like happiness,” she muses. “And you can be so happy that it starts to feel like grief.”

Monday, October 18, 2010

the pennebaker effect

Currently reading Larker & Zakolyukina "Detecting Deceptive Discussions in Conference Calls." Heard about it on NPR Morning Edition. They used a Naive Bayesian classifier to classify the conference call contributions of corporate CEOs and CFOs. Interestingly they used Pennebaker's LWIC word/phrase classifier as a domain specific dictionary builder. I'm only 6 pages in so I don'ut know anything beyond that, but my interested is piqued.

Monday, October 11, 2010

language and thought video

Lera Boroditsky on Blogginheads. It's a 45 minute video and my hotel connection is not playing nice, so I haven't watched it.

Monday, October 4, 2010

are north and south 'embodied' concepts?

Lameen Souag, of Jabal al-Lughat, made a thoughtful comment on part 2 of my review of Guy Deutscher's  book Through The Language Glass. and I wanted to post my response because I think it brings up an interesting question about concepts that are embodied and how.

Lameen's comment:
"North" and "south" have nothing to do with a human body's orientation; the only aspect of human-ness relevant to the cardinal directions is that of being located on a small enough part of a rotating sphere, which applies equally to, yes, amoebas, and every other organism on Earth. (Obviously, from the observer's perspective it's the sky that's rotating.) The difference in question is between a coordinate system based on the observer's body's orientation and one based on the orientation of his/her environment (his planet for cardinal directions, the slope of the ground for "uphill/downhill", etc.) The term "ego-centric" may or may not be the most apt way to describe this difference, but the difference is clear.

My response:
Lameen, I respectfully disagree that "north" and "south" are not fundamentally human concepts. They are concepts, hence they are filtered by our cognitive system, vulnerable to all the strange and wonderful biases and alterations that systems bears on all concepts.

So what is so human about north? Well, what is north? It's a direction away from me, right? One can never be at north. There is always a north of north (except in the rare case of standing atop the exact north pole, but that doesn't seem relevant).

But that alone doesn't make it human. Imagine a GY speaker were as big as the sun (this is a thought experiment, so reality means nothing, haha). Would saying that a tree is north of a river mean anything? The scale would be too small. Imagine a GY speaker said that an electron was north of a nucleus or that a tree was to the Pacific Ocean of a river. Would any of those uses of cardinal directions make sense?

No, because the scale would make them incoherent. The direction concepts north and south are determined, at least in part, by our human scale, hence embodied. We conceptualize them as a point, somewhere far off in the distance, and we can point to them. But this is an embodied conceptualization which only makes sense for things in the human scale.

I believe there's more than just human scale at work too, but I don't have enough time to get into it right now, but I think this is a worthwhile topic.

Friday, October 1, 2010

do boys need more language help than girls?


UPDATE: Much thanks to Dorothy Bishop, Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford for emailing me a copy of the original paper. I am reading it now and hope to post a more substantive review of the actual article later. For now, I've added just a few points in orange below.

But that's the conclusion of the anonymous journalist/stenographer from the Science Daily who wrote the recent story Building Language Skills More Critical for Boys Than Girls, Research Suggests. The author states Developing language skills appears to be more important for boys than girls in helping them to develop self-control and, ultimately, succeed in school.

Unfortunately I cannot find the original article (citation below) freely available, so all I have to go on is the brief description from the Science Daily piece:

The researchers examined data on children as they aged from 1 to 3 and their mothers who participated in the National Early Head Start Research and Evaluation study. As with previous research, Vallotton and Ayoub found that language skills -- specifically the building of vocabulary -- help children regulate their emotions and behavior and that boys lag behind girls in both language skills and self-regulation.

What was surprising, Vallotton said, was that language skills seemed so much more important to the regulation of boys' behavior. While girls overall seemed to have a more natural ability to control themselves and focus, boys with a strong vocabulary showed a dramatic increase in this ability to self-regulate -- even doing as well in this regard as girls with a strong vocabulary (emphasis added).

I cannot speak directly to the methodology without access to the original article. My guess is that there was some attempt to qualitatively correlate scores on vocabulary tests to either records of bad behavior or observed behavior. I could be wrong.

UPDATE: They measured two linguistic features, talkativeness and vocabulary, in 120 kids aged 14 months, 24 months, and 36 months: "Mother–child dyads were videotaped at home for 10 min in a semi-tructured play task ... Every vocalization by mothers and children was transcribed ... a trained observer used the Bayley Behavior Rating Scale (BBRS; Bayley, 1993) to rate the child’s ability to self-regulate. Children were rated on each of seven items which included behaviors such as their ability to maintain attention on the tasks, their degree of negativity, and their adaptation to changes in testing materials."

But I'm skeptical about the claims in Science Daily because it strikes me as the sort of thing that would take years of studying and dozens of researchers to come to any definite conclusions about (UPDATE: I remain skeptical about the Science Daily claims, but those are distinct from the claims in the original article). Yet we have just this one study. It also draws a causal connection between a language skill (vocabulary) and a non-language behavior (emotion and "self-regulation"). It is extremely difficult, under even the best circumstances, to do that. And even when this is done, there are typically teams of neuroscientists using fMRIs and such involved. I mean no disrespect to the authors of the study. They are both accomplished professors of psychology, a very important and challenging field. But they are not, as far as I can tell, either neuroscientists or psycholinguists. The second author, Catherine Ayoub, appears to have a specialty in "Legal mental health issues with children" (see PDF here).

UPDATE: According to the original article, there are well established empirical methods for judging a child's "expressive language".

This seems to be a case of over-interpretation with the intent of building actionable policy directives. I understand and sympathize with the impulse to translate scientific research into something directly useful that a teacher can implement today. Look, all you have to do is help boys build their vocabulary and they will behave themselves better! Unfortunately, it is rarely wise to make that leap so quickly. I suspect there is no there there.

UPDATE: There certainly is something here. I'll need more time to digest the methods and results to comment further.
Vallotton, C., & Ayoub, C. (2010). Use your words: The role of language in the development of toddlers’ self-regulation Early Childhood Research Quarterly DOI: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2010.09.002

TV Linguistics - and the fictional Princeton Linguistics department

 [reposted from 11/20/10] I spent Thursday night on a plane so I missed 30 Rock and the most linguistics oriented sit-com episode since ...