Semantics of Underrepresented Languages in the Americas: More than a Conference

sula-birdSULA is a biennial gathering on the Semantics of Underrepresented Languages in the Americas. It was founded 15 years ago at UMass Amherst. From the very start, one of the goals of SULA was to emphasize that doing theoretical work isn’t incompatible with being actively engaged in language documentation, community work, and revitalization. This is why SULA always includes at least one event where native speakers of indigenous languages give their very own perspective on linguistic research on their language.

In addition to several sessions on indigenous languages of the Americas, the first SULA also had two sessions on African American English (AAE), one session on Yiddish, and one or two sessions on ASL (American Sign Language). Those languages do not only share with native American languages the fate of being underrepresented in theoretical linguistic research, but also the predicament of being underrepresented in the way we teach linguistics to American students. For example, American students are most likely to hear about AAE in a sociolinguistic class, and they are most likely to be presented with samples of male youth language there. The reality is that AAE is spoken by men and women of all ages in all kinds of settings, including church settings. AAE has still to find its place in mainstream linguist research and teaching. ASL was in a similar situation some years ago, but has now taken off in a big way. Still, none of those languages feature prominently in run-of-the-mill introductions to linguistics, syntax, or semantics. There still isn’t enough theoretical research, and they are not included as American languages in standard curricula in this country.

To address the status of minority languages and non-standard dialects in the Americas, it’s also important NOT to leave research on those languages in their separate corners. This research should be as much part of the main stream as research on Standard English. To work towards that goal, the first SULA (and all subsequent SULAs, except the last one, I think), also included as commentators semanticists who were just armchair semanticists: Barbara Partee was there, also Irene Heim, and myself as co-organizer (with Lisa Matthewson). Those armchair semanticists were either local, or in later years, we would find our own funding to attend this conference, which was obviously highly relevant to our own work. We also helped with reviewing and commenting on abstracts. We wanted to be at this conference because we knew that a lot of original research in semantics came out of it and because we wanted our research and teaching to be informed by those results. 

To give research on the semantics of underrepresented languages a future, we knew that we needed to interest the youngest generation of linguists in this enterprise. We did this by including graduate students as invited speakers, alongside more senior scholars.  

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Bias against fields: every single one of us could make a difference

I am trying to figure out what each of us – every single one of us – could do to make our field more diverse. My last posts focused on mechanisms that seem to be at work in personnel decisions and evaluations at every level: we exaggerate the achievements of some people, but not others, and we overlook the shortcomings of some people, but not others. That’s one way of shutting people out.

Here I want to reflect on biases that affect fields of investigation. Why is it that my own department only has a single person who is a specialist on variation? Why is it that we never tell ourselves that we might need a second specialist in that area? Could that ever be a priority? Why do we consider some areas essential, but not others? Why is it that SULA (Semantics of Underrepresented Languages in the Americas) has had so many participants from underrepresented groups from the very start? What’s wrong with a department, a conference, a journal, or an undergraduate or graduate program that puts its emphasis on the documentation and investigation of underrepresented languages and dialects (Swarthmore College does this, for example)? Is it true that you can’t do, or learn how to do, cutting edge theoretical work while working on an underrepresented language? Could we make the group of linguists more diverse by putting more emphasis on work on underrepresented languages? Placing low priority on a whole field of investigation is another way of shutting people out. That’s another area where every single one of us could make a difference. What’s holding us back?

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Fewer burdens and more support for early career researchers

Source: Nature, October 26

” ‘Things are not what they used to be.’ How often those in the older generation use this phrase to scold the morals, attitudes and behaviour of younger rivals. And yet, how often do the same people, often in positions of power and responsibility, deny the changes in circumstance that newer generations complain about with justification. So, let’s be clear: young scientists today face a harsher, more competitive, stricter, more dispiriting workplace than their bosses and senior colleagues did at the same stages of their own careers. Things are simply not the same as they were back in the day. They are more difficult. In a special issueNature examines the problems and the possible fixes.”

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Bias in personnel decisions: every single one of us could make a difference

Michel DeGraff recently drew my attention to a provocative article by Marybeth Gasman in the Washington Post (“An Ivy League professor on why colleges don’t hire more faculty of color”). The most thought-provoking message I took away from reading the article was that we should watch ourselves, both when we exaggerate achievements, but also when we overlook flaws and blemishes and when we make exceptions and excuses. We exaggerate the achievements of certain people, but not others. And we overlook or excuse the flaws of certain people, but not others. I have seen this mechanism at work (with various kinds of biases, including race, gender, national origin) in personnel actions for hiring, renewals, tenure, promotion, awards, disciplinary measures or annual evaluations of colleagues, but also when we assess the achievements and problems of our students. These are the kinds of situations that are a routine part of our professional lives. These are also the kinds of situations where every single one of us could make a difference. What’s holding us back?

Excerpt from follow-up article by Marybeth Gasman in the Washington Post: “I received more than 6,000 emails after my essay about diversity in faculty hiring was published in the Hechinger Report and The Washington Post. Most were from people of color telling me their stories, many of them gut-wrenching and sad. One African American woman wrote, “despite having terrific credentials and applying for over 200 faculty positions, I have been denied for a faculty position over and over, making me wonder if pursuing a PhD was worth it. … I wonder if I should discourage other African Americans from doing so.” People told me my essay made them cry.”

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The linguistic rights of children

Degraff-Student-and-Computer_resizedThe Linguistic Society of America (LSA) has provided input to the United Nations on the linguistic rights of children

“The comments were drafted by LSA member Michel DeGraff, who serves as its appointed representative to the Science and Human Rights Coalition of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). DeGraff is also the Director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative and focused the comments on linguistic rights of children who speak Haitian Creole (Kreyòl) as a illustrative case study. DeGraff has been an outspoken champion for the language rights of children, having previously led the LSA’s first webinar on this topic, in partnership with AAAS.” Source: LSA.

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Meaning composition in the brain

Source: Evelina Fedorenko, Terri L. Scott, Peter Brunnerd, William G. Coon, Brianna Pritchett, Gerwin Schalk, and Nancy Kanwisher (2016): Neural correlate of the construction of sentence meaning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“How do circuits of neurons in your brain extract and hold the meaning of a sentence? To start to address this unanswered question, we measured neural activity from the surface of the human brain in patients being mapped out before neurosurgery, as they read sentences. In many electrodes, neural activity increased steadily over the course of the sentence, but the same was not found when participants read lists of words or pronounceable nonwords, or grammatical nonword strings (“Jabberwocky”). This build-up of neural activity appears to reflect neither word meaning nor syntax alone, but the representation of complex meanings.”

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Helen Quinn: Science Standards for the next generation

From Quanta Magazine

She recalled how a high school teacher encouraged her to become a mathematician, telling her, “Because you’re so lazy, you will never solve a problem the hard way. You always have to figure out a clever way.” Here is a link to the Next Generation Science Standards that Quinn helped develop. It might be a nice homework exercise for us in a cognitive science discipline to think about which of our insights we would dare to offer as part of a regular science curriculum. Do we have enough solid knowledge to give to the next generation?

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Linguists support the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe

The Linguistics Departments of UC Berkeley, Yale, and MIT have issued statements in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Here is the text issued by Berkeley: “We, the faculty of the UC Berkeley Department of Linguistics, express our support for the Oceti Sakowin Oyate, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and other tribal nations and people in opposing the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Working as we do in a scholarly discipline that draws on the cultural heritage and intellectual property of indigenous people worldwide, and being aware that linguists have not always collaborated ethically with those whose languages we study, we are especially conscious of the need to respect Native cultural autonomy, sovereignty, and rights to self-determination. The Dakota Access Pipeline would cross the ancestral lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Missouri River. The Dakota Access Pipeline project impinges on indigenous communities’ rights to land, clean water, health, and cultural preservation, including language. We call on our leaders to respect the sovereign rights of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and ask the national linguistics community to add its voice in support of this urgent need.”

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What’s true of bones is also true of human language

what-is-true-for-bones-01_2Source: Spectrum.

“The inference of a biological trait’s “purpose” or “function” from its surface form is always rife with difficulties. [Richard] Lewontin’s remarks in The Triple Helix (2001) illustrate how difficult it can be to assign a unique function to an organ or to a trait even in the case of what at first seems like a far simpler situation: bones do not have a single, unambiguous “function.” While it is true that bones support the body, allowing us to stand up and walk, they are also a storehouse for calcium and bone marrow for producing new red blood cells, so they are in a sense part of the circulatory system. What is true for bones is also true for human language.” From Robert C. Berwick and Noam Chomsky: Why Only Us: Language and Evolution.  MIT Press, 2016. 

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The many shades of European postdoc funding

That’s the title of a recent article in Science. It points to a report by Science Europe that has just been released.

“The report covers about 100 funding schemes offered by Science Europe member organizations in 23 European countries and by the European Commission, the European Research Council, and the European Molecular Biology Organization. Although not all relevant funding bodies are represented in the survey, and research institutions—many of which directly support young researchers—are largely absent, the report gives a feel for the wide variety of funding programs that are available” (Science).  

The sheer number of postdoctoral opportunities in Europe may feel like a way out from the dearth of postdoctoral positions in the US, in particular in fields like Linguistics. But European postdocs can easily become dead ends: the holders of postdoctoral positions may not have the know-how and mentoring support for climbing the local academic ladders, and a return to the US usually is impossible after a few years. There is very little experience with mentoring postdocs in fields like Linguistics: More often than not, postdocs have to satisfy certain needs of an institution (teaching classes, lending their expertise to a particular project that is not theirs), but are otherwise left to their own devices. There may be no way forward when the postdoc runs out: “What postdocs often deplore is the lack of a longer-term career perspective”(from the Science Europe report, p. 22).

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