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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Largest dataset ever of African American English

Sources: ScienceDailyUMass Amherst, arXiv.org. Lisa Green and Brendan O’Connor collaborated with doctoral student Su Lin Blodgett on a case study of African American English in on-line Twitter conversations. The authors have created what they believe to be the largest data set of African American English to date, examining 59 million tweets from 2.8 million users. Their goal is to characterize and identify dialects, and to ultimately create language technology that is adapted to African American English.

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The case for bilingual deaf children

Deaf-CoppolaFrom UCONN Magazine: “Marie Coppola and a number of other researchers at UConn want to understand the science behind how early access to language affects learning in deaf and hearing children. Deaf children are just as intellectually capable as hearing children— but if they do not have early access to language and communication, that intellectual capacity can quickly erode.”

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The Oxford Handbook of Information Structure

fery-ishiharaThe Oxford Handbook of Information Structure (edited by Caroline Féry and Shinichiro Ishihara) will come out in the US on September 28. It has been available in the UK and online since last Spring. This book is an editorial masterpiece that brings clarity into an area that can be very confusing at times. The editors performed a miracle in getting the authors of individual articles to converge on a unified theoretical perspective while still documenting all major current approaches to information structure.

Another invaluable resource on information structure has just come out in the US: Daniel Büring’s survey of Intonation and Meaning. The book gives a state-of-the art introduction to the discourse-related notions of focus and givenness and their impact on prosodic structure. It also has a chapter on the meaning of tones.

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The brain dictionary

From Nature: “Where exactly are the words in your head? Scientists have created an interactive map showing which brain areas respond to hearing different words. The map reveals how language is spread throughout the cortex and across both hemispheres, showing groups of words clustered together by meaning. The beautiful interactive model allows us to explore the complex organisation of the enormous dictionaries in our heads.” Explore the brain model for yourself hereRead the paper here.

Interestingly, function words (or logical words) like and, or, if, no, may and any kind of inflectional elements are mostly missing from this map (an exception are, interestingly, numerals). Can we conclude from this finding that LANGUAGE is spread throughout the brain? Or are we seeing a system of concepts that can be expressed by certain content vocabulary items in English? This work is exciting, the visuals are mind-blowing, but is this a finding about language?

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Steinthal 1871: Languages are not learned, they grow

steinthalAbriss der Sprachwissenschaft : Heymann Steinthal , Franz Misteli. Published in 1871. 

“Von der Sprache ist schon bemerkt, dass sie so wenig gelehrt und gelernt werden kann, wie Sehen und Hören. Wer hat wohl je bemerkt, dass man Kinder sprechen gelehrt hätte? Vielleicht aber hat Mancher schon beachtet, wie vergeblich das Bemühen ist, das man wohl zuweilen anstellt, das Kind zu lehren. Mit Gewissheit aber setze ich voraus, dass Jeder, wer Gelegenheit gehabt hat, ein Kind vom zweiten bis zum vierten Lebensjahre zu beobachten, oft genug darüber erstaunt war, wie urplötzlich das Kind ein Wort oder eine Wortform gebraucht hat. Selten weiss man, woher das Kind das hat. Es hat es ergriffen bei irgend einer Gelegenheit; und ergreifen heisst erzeugen. — Man sollte also gar nicht vom Lernen der Sprache bei Kindern reden. Denn wo keine Lehre, da ist kein Lernen. Nur was der Gärtner mit Samen tut, aus dem er Pflanzen ziehen will, nur das tun wir mit unsern Kindern, um sie zur Sprache zu bringen: wir bringen sie in die nötigen Bedingungen geistigen Wachstums, nämlich in die menschliche Gesellschaft. Aber so wenig der Gärtner wachsen macht, so wenig machen, lehren, wir das Kind sprechen; nach dem Gesetze, dort der Natur, hier des Geistes, entsteht dort die Blume, hier die Sprache im Bewusstsein des Kindes.”

My translation: “Language, as I remarked earlier, is like seeing and hearing in that it can’t be taught or learned. Who has ever seen anybody teach language to a child? Some of you may have experienced how hopeless it is to teach language to children, as has been tried occasionally. I am sure that anybody who has ever had the opportunity to observe a child between the age of two and four was surprised about the sudden use of a word or a word form. We rarely know where the child got it from. The child apprehended it on some occasion or other; and ‘apprehending’ means creating. – We thus shouldn’t talk about learning of language by children. If there isn’t any teaching, there isn’t any learning either. What we do with children to lead them towards language is exactly what a gardener does with a seed from which he wants to produce a plant: we provide them with the necessary conditions for growth, namely human society. The gardener doesn’t truly make plants grow. Likewise, we do not teach children how to speak. A flower grows following the laws of nature. In the same way, language is generated in the consciousness of a child following the laws of the mind.”

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Brain scientists discover meaning composition

If there is something that unites linguists of all stripes it’s the recognition that, in some way or other, natural languages systematically represent the cognitive distinction between the agent and the theme or patient of an action. The distinction is known to play a crucial role in the representation of verb meanings and the way they semantically compose with the verb’s arguments. 

An article in the Harvard Gazette of October 5 reports that two neuroscientists at Harvard discovered that the brain represents agents and patients/themes of actions in two distinct adjacent regions. The experiments are beautiful. This would be an occasion for linguists to celebrate if it wasn’t for the fact that the finding is being reported as a discovery about how the brain builds new thoughts. I don’t know who is ultimately responsible for aggrandizing the nature of the finding. Already in the original article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the reader is led to believe that what was found went beyond the mere neural localization of a well-established semantic distinction. At the beginning of the PNAS article, the significance of the reported findings is described as follows:

“The 18th-century Prussian philosopher Wilhelm von Humbolt famously noted that natural language makes “infinite use of finite means.” By this, he meant that language deploys a finite set of words to express an effectively infinite set of ideas. As the seat of both language and thought, the human brain must be capable of rapidly encoding the multitude of thoughts that a sentence could convey. How does this work? Here, we find evidence supporting a long-standing conjecture of cognitive science: that the human brain encodes the meanings of simple sentences much like a computer, with distinct neural populations representing answers to basic questions of meaning such as “Who did it?” and “To whom was it done?” “

The bulk of this paragraph  describes no less than the research program of modern linguistics. How can the National Academy of Sciences tolerate such a disconnect between two disciplines within the Cognitive Sciences? How is it possible that a paper in neuroscience describes as a sensational new finding something that amounts to no more than the localization in the brain of a well-known and well-researched semantic distinction? We’ll never make progress in Cognitive Science if we allow subdisciplines to ignore each other so as to increase the perceived importance of one’s own results. 

One quote (attributed to Steven Frankland) in the Harvard Gazette article may point to the source of the communication problem: “This [the systematic representation of agents and themes/patients, A.K.] has been a central theoretical discussion in cognitive science for a long time, and although it has seemed like a pretty good bet that the brain works this way, there’s been little direct empirical evidence for it.” This quote makes it appear as if the idea that the human mind systematically represents agents and themes/patients has had the mere status of a bet before the distinction could be actually localized in the brain. That the distinction is systematically represented in all languages of the world is not given the status of a fact in this quote – it doesn’t count as  “empirical evidence”. It’s like denying your pulse the status of a fact before we can localize the mechanisms that regulate it in the brain. 

Headlines are routinely used for false advertising in the Cognitive Sciences. Science should be immune to those practices. The reported finding concerns a tiny aspect of meaning composition of the most simple kind and it implies nothing about the exact mechanism of composition. There is no empirical basis for drawing grand conclusions about “how the brain builds new thoughts” or about the brain “architecture for encoding sentence meaning.” Exaggerated headlines should be on the list of unscholarly behaviors that journal editors might want to discourage. 

Sources: How the brain builds new thoughts (Harvard Gazette, October 8) and the September 15) issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: An architecture for encoding sentence meaning in left mid-superior temporal cortex.  

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