Linguistics links and Quanta’s miniature fall from grace

It’s been a while again since the last post; sorry again, starting a PhD is a bit time consuming 😉 However, over the last two days I got more views to my site than over the last two years. I don’t know how or what is happening here but it makes me happy so I’ll take it 🙂

There have been some articles in the (semi-) popular press about linguistics/cognitive science, starting with this nature article about brain implants that decoded brain activity into linguistic sounds that aren’t completely horrible. The actual story is a bit more convoluted, but there you go.

There is an article in the Atlantic about baby’s first words (and one loosely related to cognitive science about something something deep neural nets generating pictures to stimulate monkeys’ neurons).

Nautilus has two articles on linguistics (though for some strange reason none of them are about cutting-edge research in theoretical linguistics): the first is about historical linguistics and the word ‘lox’ which allegedly is the word that was least subject to change over the last couple thousand years; the second is about Labov and his sociolinguistic/dialectal experiments in New York.

Recursion and center-embedded relative clauses make an appearance Quantamagazine’s insight puzzle: it’s about bulldogs that bulldogs that bulldogs fight fight fight. Commenter boymeetswool has a solution complete with a tree diagram though s/he will probably land in hell for ternary branching structures.

In this article about the cognitive science of gestures, Papa Noam also makes an appearance since they also straddle the border between gestures and sign language. Unfortunately, they seem to be pretty uninformed about linguistics. They have this to say:

Noam Chomsky, a towering figure in linguistics and cognitive science, has long maintained that language and sensorimotor systems are distinct entities — modules that need not work together in gestural communication, even if they are both means of conveying and interpreting symbolic thought. Because researchers don’t yet fully understand how language is organized within the brain or which neural circuits derive meaning from gesture, the question is unsettled. But many scientists, like Anthony Dick, an associate professor at Florida International University, theorize that the two functions rely on some of the same brain structures.

I’m not sure if they entirely understand what is meant by distinguishing between what they call ‘language’ and sensorimotor systems. In gestural communication they have to work together it is just that the language system informs the sensorimotor system what it has to do. The language system alone cannot ‘convey’ anything, it needs some form of externalisation for that. They probably are not aware of the fact that the ‘language’ and speech system are also distinct in the vaguely referenced T-model here.

They then continue with ’embodied cognition’ and the idea that language is ‘anything but modular’, telling us that

When children are learning their first language, Macedonia argues, they absorb information with their entire bodies. A word like “onion,” for example, is tightly linked to all five senses


Macedonia has found that learners who reinforce new words by performing semantically related gestures engage their motor regions and improve recall. Don’t simply repeat the word “bridge”: Make an arch with your hands as you recite it

No linguist will remain unseated while reading these paragraphs. More seriously, I don’t think that this would either surprise or affect any linguist. I don’t know of any linguist who claimed that the… content of content words is completely sealed off from the rest of cognition. The modularity hypothesis regarding linguistics is not about that but rather the modularity of semantics, syntax, phonology etc.. and the modularity of the ‘language module’ compared to other broader areas of cognition.

Their ignorance regarding linguistics is especially showing here, reporting on the language teaching experience of a researcher:

she noticed a recurring pattern among the students to whom she was teaching Italian at Johannes Kepler University Linz (JKU): No matter how many times they repeated the same words, they still couldn’t stammer out a coherent sentence. Printing phrases ad nauseam didn’t do much to help, either. “They became very good listeners,” she said, “but they were not able to speak.”

She was teaching by the book: She had students listen, write, practice and repeat, just as Chomsky would advocate, yet it wasn’t enough [emphasis mine, pl]. Something was missing .

No, Chomsky (or rather ‘his’ theories) doesn’t advocate any particular way of learning a second language. Not even a bit. First of all, linguistic theorizing is almost exclusively about that capacity that allows children to acquire their then native language. Second of all, to my (extremely limited understanding) in L2 research, it is not entirely clear to what extent we use our language capacity or general problem solving skills at least in the beginning stages of learning a second language, making the point the want to drive home a complete non-sequitur. This is completely pulled out of thin air and quite sad if one thinks of the otherwise great quality of Quantamagazine’s articles.

But at least Gregory Hickok makes an appearance, lambasting mirror neurons. That has to count for something.

To calm ourselves, here is an article about a whistled version of Turkish in the Times.

Completely unrelated, here is a nice article by Mark Steedman ‘On becoming a discipline‘ which – as a teaser – ends with the words:

Human knowledge is expressed in language.
So computational linguistics is very important.
Links from the world of blogs include:
The blog Philosophy of Brains and its series on ‘The nature of the grammar and its place in the mind’
A physics blogpost on emergence that features a quote from Michael Polanyi which itself features linguistics:
you cannot derive a vocabulary from phonetics; you cannot derive the grammar of language from its vocabulary; a correct use of grammar does not account for good style; and a good style does not provide the content of a piece of prose. … it is impossible to represent the organizing principles of a higher level by the laws governing its isolated particulars.

A blogpost about Deep Learning, Structure and Innate Priors.

The sociolinguists in Cambridge have a new blog, going right at it with asking whether Nepali attitudes need to be decolonised.

The amazing Gilliam Ramchand blogged about the ’30 million theories of syntactic features’ workshop in Tromsø, starting here, and continues with a post about Thomas Graf’s talk (don’t forget to subscribe to his new blog outdex – it’s great).

Last but not least, I was made aware of the blog ‘The biolinguistic turn‘ where Antonio Benítez-Burraco blogs about… well, you probably guessed that already. Check it out, it’s interesting. I will also add that to my linguistics blogs overview.

That’s it so far, happy reading!




This entry was posted in Cognitive Science, Linguistics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s