The problem with the grammar police

I’ll admit it: I used to be a die-hard grammar corrector. I practically stalked around conversations with a red pen, ready to jump out and shout “gotcha!” if someone ended a sentence with a preposition or split an infinitive or said “irregardless”. But I’ve done a lot of learning and growing since then and, looking back, I’m kind of ashamed. The truth is, when I used to correct people’s grammar, I wasn’t trying to help them. I was trying to make myself look like a language authority, but in doing so I was actually hurting people. Ironically, I only realized this after years of specialized training to become an actual authority on language.

Chicago police officer on segway
I’ll let you go with a warning this time, but if I catch you using “less” for “fewer” again, I’ll have to give you a ticket.

But what do I mean when I say I was hurting people? Well, like some other types of policing, the grammar police don’t target everyone equally. For example, there has been a lot of criticism of Rihanna’s language use in her new single “Work” being thrown around recently. But that fact is that her language is perfectly fine. She’s just using Jamaican Patois, which most American English speakers aren’t familiar with. People claiming that the language use in “Work” is wrong is sort of similar to American English speakers complaining that Nederhop group ChildsPlay’s language use is wrong. It’s not wrong at all, it’s just different.

And there’s the problem. The fact is that grammar policing isn’t targeting speech errors, it’s targeting differences that are, for many people, perfectly fine. And, overwhelmingly, the people who make “errors” are marginalized in other ways. Here are some examples to show you what I mean:

  • Misusing “ironic”: A lot of the lists of “common grammar errors” you see will include a lot of words where the “correct” use is actually less common then other ways the word is used. Take “ironic”. In general use it can mean surprising or remarkable. If you’re a literary theorist, however, irony has a specific technical meaning–and if you’re not a literary theorist you’re going to need to take a course on it to really get what irony’s about. The only people, then, who are going to use this word “correctly” will be those who are highly educated. And, let’s be real, you know what someone means when they say ironic and isn’t that the point?
  • Overusing words like “just”: This error is apparently so egregious that there’s an e-mail plug-in, targeted mainly at women, to help avoid it. However, as other linguists have pointed out, not only is there limited evidence that women say “just” more than men, but even if there were a difference why would the assumption be that women were overusing “just”? Couldn’t it be that men aren’t using it enough?
  • Double negatives: Also called negative concord, this “error” happens when multiple negatives are used in a sentence, as in, “There isn’t nothing wrong with my language.” This particular construction is perfectly natural and correct in a lot of dialects of American English, including African American English and Southern English, not to mention the standard in some other languages, including French.

In each of these cases, the “error” in question is one that’s produced more by certain groups of people. And those groups of people–less educated individuals, women, African Americans–face disadvantages in other aspects of their life too. This isn’t a mistake or coincidence. When we talk about certain ways of talking, we’re talking about certain types of people. And almost always we’re talking about people who already have the deck stacked against them.

Think about this: why don’t American English speakers point out whenever the Queen of England says things differently? For instance, she often fails to produce the “r” sound in words like “father”, which is definitely not standardized American English. But we don’t talk about how the Queen is “talking lazy” or “dropping letters” like we do about, for instance,  “th” being produced as “d” in African American English. They’re both perfectly regular, logical language varieties that differ from standardized American English…but only one group gets flack for it.

Now I’m not arguing that language errors don’t exist, since they clearly do. If you’ve ever accidentally said a spoonerism or suffered from a tip of the tongue moment then you know what it feel like when your language system breaks down for a second. But here’s a fundamental truth of linguistics: barring a condition like aphasia, a native speaker of a language uses their language correctly. And I think it’s important for us all to examine exactly why it is that we’ve been led to believe otherwise…and who it is that we’re being told is wrong.

 

How to make STEM classrooms more inclusive

This post is a bit of a departure from my usual content. I’m assuming two things about you, the reader:

  1. You teach/learn in a STEM classroom
  2. You’d like to be more inclusive

If that’s not you, you might want to skip this one. Sorry; I’ll be back to my usual haunts with the next post.

If you’re still with me, you may be wondering what triggered this sudden departure from fun facts about linguistics. The answer is that I recently had an upsetting experience, and it’s been been niggling at me. I’m a member of an online data analysis community that’s geared towards people who program professionally. Generally, it’s very helpful and a great way to find out about new packages and tricks I can apply in my work. The other day, though, someone posted a link to a project designed to sort women by thier physical attractiveness. I commented that it was not really appropriate for a professional environment, and was especially off-putting to the women in the group. I’m not upset that I spoke out, but I’m a little unhappy that I had to. I’m also upset that at least one person thought my criticisms were completely unnecessary. (And, yes, both the person who originally posted the link and the aforementioned commenter are male.)

It got me thinking about inclusiveness in professional spaces, though. Am I really doing all I can to ensure that the field of linguistics is being inclusive? While linguistics as a whole is not horribly skewed male, professional linguists are more likely to be male, especially in computational linguistics. And we are definitely lacking in racial diversity; as the Linguistics Society of America (our main professional organization) puts it:

The population of ethnic minorities with advanced degrees in linguistics is so low in the U.S. that none of the federal agencies report data for these groups.”

If you’re like me, you see that as a huge problem and you want to know what you can do to help fix it. That’s why I’ve put together this list of concrete strategies you can use in your classroom and interactions with students to be more inclusive, especially towards women. (Since I’m not disabled or a member of an ethnic minority group or I can’t speak to those experiences, but I invite anyone who can and has additional suggestions to either comment below or contact me anonymously.) The suggestions below are drawn from my experience as both a teacher and a student, as well as input from the participants and other facilitators in last year’s Including All Students: Teaching in the Diverse Classroom workshops.

For Teachers: 

  • If someone calls you on non-inclusive behavior, acknowledge it, apologize and don’t do it again. I know this seems like an obvious one, but it can be really, really important. For example, a lot of linguistics teaching materials are really geared towards native English speakers. The first quarter I taught I used a problem set in class that required native knowledge of English. When a student (one of several non-native speakers) mentioned it, I was mortified and tempted to just ignore the problem. If I had, though, that student would have felt even more alienated. If someone has the courage to tell you about a problem with your teaching you should acknowledge that, admit your wrong-doing and then make sure it doesn’t happen again.
  • Have space for anonymous feedback. That said, it takes a lot of courage to confront an authority figure–especially if you’re already feeling uncomfortable or like you’re not wanted or valued. To combat that, I give my students a way to contact me anonymously (usually through a webform of some kind). While it may seem risky, all the anonymous feedback I have ever received has been relevant and useful.
  • Group work. This may seem like an odd thing to have on the list, but I’ve found that group work in the classroom is really valuable, both as an instructor and as a student. I may not feel comfortable speaking up or asking question in front of the class as a whole, but small groups are much less scary. My favorite strategy for group work is to put up a problem or discussion question and then drift from group to group, asking students for thier thoughts and answering questions.
  • Structure interactive portions of the class. Sometimes small group work doesn’t work well for your material. It’s still really helpful to provide a structure for students to interact and ask questions, because it lets you ensure that all students are included (it has the additional benefit of keeping everyone awake during those drowsy after-lunch classes). Talbot Taylor, for example, would methodically go around in the classroom in order and ask every single student a question during class. Or you could have every student write a question about the course content to give to you at the end of class that you address at the beginning of the next class. Or, if you have readings, you can assign one or two students to lead the discussion for each reading.
  • Don’t tokenize. This is something that one of the workshop participants brought up and I realized that it’s totally something I’ve been guilty of doing (especially if I know one of my students speaks a rare language). If there is only one student of a certain group in your class, don’t ask them to speak for or represent thier group. So if you have one African American student, don’t turn to them every time you discuss AAE. If they volunteer to speak about, great! But it’s not fair to expect them too, and it can make students feel uncomfortable.
  • If someone asks you to speak to someone else for them, don’t mention the person who asked you. I know this one is oddly specific, but it’s another thing that came out of the workshop. One student had asked thier advisor to ask another faculty member to stop telling sexist jokes in class. Their advisor did so, but also mentioned that it was the student who’d complained, and the second faculty member then ridiculed the student during the next class. (This wasn’t in linguistics, but still–yikes!) If someone’s asking you to pass something on for them, there’s probably a very good reason why they’re not confronting that person directly.
  • Don’t objectify minority students. This one mainly applies to women. Don’t treat women, or women’s bodies, like things. That’s what was so upsetting for me about the machine learning example I brought up at the beginning of the article: the author was literally treating women like objects. Another example comes from geoscience, where a student  tells about their experience at a conference where “lecturers… included… photo[s] of a woman in revealing clothing…. I got the feeling that female bodies were shown not only to illustrate a point, but also because they were thought to be pretty to look at” (Women in the Geosciences: Practical, Positive Practices Toward Parity, Holes et al., P.4).

For Everybody: 

  • Actively advocate for minority students. If you’re outside of a minority that you notice is not receiving equal treatment, please speak up about it. For example, if you’re a man and you notice that all the example sentences in a class are about John–a common problem–suggest a sentence with Mei-Ling, or another female name, instead. It’s not fair to ask students who are being discriminated against to be the sole advocates for themselves. We should all be on the lookout for sneaky prejudices.  
  • Don’t speak for/over minority students. That said, don’t put words in people’s mouths. If you’re speaking up about something, don’t say something like, “I think x is making Sanelle uncomfortable”. It may very well be making Sanelle uncomfortable, but that’s up for Sanelle to say. Try something like “I’m not sure that’s an appropriate example”, instead.

Those are some of my pointers. What other strategies do you have to help make the classroom more inclusive?

What’s the best way to block the sound of a voice?

Atif asked:

My neighbor talks loudly on the phone and I can’t sleep. What is the best method to block his voice noise?

Great question Atif! There are few things more distracting than hearing someone else’s conversation, and only hearing one side of a phone conversation is even worse. Even if you don’t want it to, your brain is trying to fill in the gaps and that can definitely keep you awake. So what’s the best way to avoid hearing your neighbor? Well, probably the very best way is to try talking to them. Failing that, though, you have three main options: isolation, damping and masking.

Ruído Noise 041113GFDL
So what’s the difference between them and what’s the best option for you? Before we get down to the nitty gritty I think it’s worth a quick reminder of what sound actually is: sound waves are just that–waves. Just like waves in a lake or ocean. Imagine you and a neighbor share a small pond and you like to go swimming every morning. Your neighbor, on the other hand, has a motorboat that they drive around on thier side. The waves the motorboat makes keep hitting you as you try to swim and you want to avoid them.  This is very similar to your situation: your neighbor’s voice is making waves and you want to avoid being hit by them.

Isolation: So one way to avoid feeling the effects of waves in a pond, to use our example, is to build a wall down the center of the pond. As long as there no holes in the wall for the waves to diffract through, you should be able to avoid feeling the effects of the waves. Noise isolation works much the same way. You can use earplugs that are firmly mounted in your ears to form a seal and that should prevent any sound waves from reaching your eardrums, right? Well, not quite. The wrinkle is that sound can travel through solids as well. It’s like we built our wall in our pond out of something flexible, like rubber, instead of something solid, like brick. As waves hit the wall the wall itself will move with the wave and then transmit it to your side. So you may still end up hearing some noises, even with well-fitted headphones.

Techniques: earplugs/earbuds, noise isolating headphone or earbuds, noise-isolating architecture,

Damping: So in our pond example we might imagine doing something that makes it harder for waves to move through the water. If you replaced all the water with molasses or honey, for example, it would take a lot more energy for the sound waves to move through it and they’d dissipate more quickly.

Techniques: acoustic tiles, covering the intervening wall (with a fabric wall-hanging, foam, empty egg cartons, etc.), covering vents, placing a rolled-up towel under any doors, hanging heavy curtains over windows, putting down carpeting

Masking: Another way to avoid noticing our neighbor’s waves is to start making our own waves. We can either make waves that are exactly the same size as our neighbor’s but out of phase (so when theirs are at their highest peak, ours is at our lowest) so they end up cancelling each other out. That’s basically what noise-cancelling headphones do. Or we can make a lot of own waves that all feel enough like our neighbor’s that when thier wave arrives we don’t even notice it. Of course, if the point it to hear no sound that won’t work quite as well. But if the point is to avoid abrupt, distracting changes in sound then this can work quite nicely.

Techniques: Listening to white noise or music, using noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds


So what would I do? Well, first I’d take as many steps as I could to sound-proof my environment. Try to cover as many of the surfaces in your bedroom as in absorbent, ideally fluffy, surfaces as you can. (If it can absorb water it will probably help absorb sound.) Wall hangings, curtains and a throw rug can all help a great deal.

Then you have a couple options for masking. A fan help to provide both a bit of acoustic masking and a nice breeze. Personally, though, I like a white noise machine that gives you some control over the frequency (how high or low the pitch is) and intensity (loudness) of the sounds it makes. That lets you tailor it so that it best masks the sounds that are bothering you. I also prefer the ones with the fans rather than those that loop recorded sounds, since I often find the loop jarring. If you don’t want to or can’t buy one, though, myNoise has a number of free generators that let you tailor the frequency and intensity of a variety of sounds and don’t have annoying loops. (There are a bunch of additional features available that you can access for a small donation as well.)

If you can wear earbuds in bed, try playing a non-distracting noise at around 200-1000 Hertz, which will cover a lot of the speech sounds you can’t easily dampen. Make sure your earbuds are well-fitted in the ear canal so that as much noise is isolated as possible. In addition, limiting the amount of exposed hard surface on them will also increase noise isolation. You can knit little cozies, try to find earbuds with a nice thick silicon/rubber coating or even try coating your own.

By using many different strategies together you can really reduce unwanted noises. I hope this helps and good luck!

Does reading a story affect the way you talk afterwards? (Or: do linguistic tasks have carryover effects?)

So tomorrow is my generals exam (the title’s a bit misleading: I’m actually going to be presenting research I’ve done so my committee can decide if I’m ready to start work on my dissertation–fingers crossed!). I thought it might be interesting to discuss some of the research I’m going to be presenting in a less formal setting first, though. It’s not at the same level of general interest as the Twitter research I discussed a couple weeks ago, but it’s still kind of a cool project. (If I do say so myself.)

Plush bunny with headphones.jpg
Shhhh. I’m listening to linguistic data. “Plush bunny with headphones”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Basically, I wanted to know whether there are carryover effects for some of the mostly commonly-used linguistics tasks. A carryover effect is when you do something and whatever it was you were doing continues to affect you after you’re done. This comes up a lot when you want to test multiple things on the same person.

An example might help here. So let’s say you’re testing two new malaria treatments to see which one works best. You find some malaria patients, they agree to be in your study, and you give them treatment A and record thier results. Afterwards, you give them treatment B and again record their results. But if it turns out that treatment A cures Malaria (yay!) it’s going to look like treatment B isn’t doing anything, even if it is helpful, because everyone’s been cured of Malaria. So thier behavior in the second condition (treatment B) is affected by thier participation in the first condition (treatment A): the effects of treatment A have carried over.

There are a couple of ways around this. The easiest one is to split your group of participants in half and give half of them A first and half of them B first. However, a lot of times when people are using multiple linguistic tasks in the same experiment, then won’t do that. Why? Because one of the things that linguists–especially sociolinguists–want to control for is speech style. And there’s a popular idea in sociolinguistics that you can make someone talk more formally, but it’s really hard to make them talk less formally. So you tend to end up with a fixed task order going from informal tasks to more formal tasks.

So, we have two separate ideas here:

  • The idea that one task can affect the next, and so we need to change task order to control for that
  • The idea that you can only go from less formal speech to more formal speech, so you need to not change task order to control for that

So what’s a poor linguist to do? Balance task order to prevent carryover effects but risk not getting the informal speech they’re interested in? Or keep task order fixed to get informal and formal speech but at the risk of carryover effects? Part of the problem is that, even though they’re really well-studied in other fields like psychology, sociology or medicine, carryover effects haven’t really been studied in linguistics before. As a result, we don’t know how bad they are–or aren’t!

Which is where my research comes in. I wanted to see if there were carryover effects and what they might look like. To do this, I had people come into the lab and do a memory game that involved saying the names of weird-looking things called Fribbles aloud. No, not the milkshakes, one of the little purple guys below (although I could definitely go for a milkshake right now). Then I had them do one linguistic elicitation tasks (reading a passage, doing an interview, reading a list of words or, to control for the effects of just sitting there for a bit, an arithmetic task). Then I had them repeat the Fribble game. Finally, I compared a bunch of measures from speech I recorded during the two Fribble games to see if there was any differences.

Greeble designed by Scott Yu and hosted by the Tarr Lab wiki (click for link).
Greeble designed by Scott Yu and hosted by the Tarr Lab wiki (click for link).

What did I find? Well, first, I found the same thing a lot of other people have found: people tend to talk while doing different things. (If I hadn’t found that, then it would be pretty good evidence that I’d done something wrong when designing my experiment.) But the really exciting thing is that I found, for some specific measures, there weren’t any carryover effects. I didn’t find any carryover effects for speech speed, loudness or any changes in pitch. So if you’re looking at those things you can safely reorder your experiments to help avoid other effects, like fatigue.

But I did find that something a little more interesting was happening with the way people were saying their vowels. I’m not 100% sure what’s going on with that yet. The Fribble names were funny made-up words (like “Kack” and “Dut”) and I’m a little worried that what I’m seeing may be a result of that weirdness… I need to do some more experiments to be sure.

Still, it’s pretty exciting to find that there are some things it looks like you don’t need to worry about carryover effects for. That means that, for those things, you can have a static order to maintain the style continuum and it doesn’t matter. Or, if you’re worried that people might change what they’re doing as they get bored or tired, you can switch the order around to avoid having that affect your data.

Tweeting with an accent

I’m writing this blog post from a cute little tea shop in Victoria, BC. I’m up here to present at the Northwest Linguistics Conference, which is a yearly conference for both Canadian and American linguists (yes, I know Canadians are Americans too, but United Statsian sounds weird), and I thought that my research project may be interesting to non-linguists as well. Basically, I investigated whether it’s possible for Twitter users to “type with an accent”. Can linguists use variant spellings in Twitter data to look at the same sort of sound patterns we see in different speech communities?

Picture of a bird saying
Picture of a bird saying “Let’s Tawk”. Taken from the website of the Center for the Psychology of Women in Seattle. Click for link.

So if you’ve been following the Great Ideas in Linguistics series, you’ll remember that I wrote about sociolinguistic variables a while ago. If you didn’t, sociolinguistic variables are sounds, words or grammatical structures that are used by specific social groups. So, for example, in Southern American English (representing!) the sound in “I” is produced with only one sound, so it’s more like “ah”.

Now, in speech these sociolinguistic variables are very well studied. In fact, the Dictionary of American Regional English was just finished in 2013 after over fifty years of work. But in computer mediated communication–which is the fancy term for internet language–they haven’t been really well studied. In fact, some scholars suggested that it might not be possible to study speech sounds using written data. And on the surface of it, that does make sense. Why would you expect to be able to get information about speech sounds from a written medium? I mean, look at my attempt to explain an accent feature in the last paragraph. It would be far easier to get my point across using a sound file. That said, I’d noticed in my own internet usage that people were using variant spellings, like “tawk” for “talk”, and I had a hunch that they were using variant spellings in the same way they use different dialect sounds in speech.

While hunches have their place in science, they do need to be verified empirically before they can be taken seriously. And so before I submitted my abstract, let alone gave my talk, I needed to see if I was right. Were Twitter users using variant spellings in the same way that speakers use different sound patterns? And if they are, does that mean that we can investigate sound  patterns using Twitter data?

Since I’m going to present my findings at a conference and am writing this blog post, you can probably deduce that I was right, and that this is indeed the case. How did I show this? Well, first I picked a really well-studied sociolinguistic variable called the low back merger. If you don’t have the merger (most African American speakers and speakers in the South don’t) then you’ll hear a strong difference between the words “cot” and “caught” or “god” and “gaud”. Or, to use the example above, you might have a difference between the words “talk” and “tock”. “Talk” is little more backed and rounded, so it sounds a little more like “tawk”, which is why it’s sometimes spelled that way. I used the Twitter public API and found a bunch of tweets that used the “aw” spelling of common words and then looked to see if there were other variant spellings in those tweets. And there were. Furthermore, the other variant spellings used in tweets also showed features of Southern American English or African American English. Just to make sure, I then looked to see if people were doing the same thing with variant spellings of sociolinguistic variables associated with Scottish English, and they were. (If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty details, my slides are here.)

Ok, so people will sometimes spell things differently on Twitter based on their spoken language dialect. What’s the big deal? Well, for linguists this is pretty exciting. There’s a lot of language data available on Twitter and my research suggests that we can use it to look at variation in sound patterns. If you’re a researcher looking at sound patterns, that’s pretty sweet: you can stay home in your jammies and use Twitter data to verify findings from your field work. But what if you’re not a language researcher? Well, if we can identify someone’s dialect features from their Tweets then we can also use those features to make a pretty good guess about their demographic information, which isn’t always available (another problem for sociolinguists working with internet data). And if, say, you’re trying to sell someone hunting rifles, then it’s pretty helpful to know that they live in a place where they aren’t illegal. It’s early days yet, and I’m nowhere near that stage, but it’s pretty exciting to think that it could happen at some point down the line.

So the big take away is that, yes, people can tweet with an accent, and yes, linguists can use Twitter data to investigate speech sounds. Not all of them–a lot of people aren’t aware of many of their dialect features and thus won’t spell them any differently–but it’s certainly an interesting area for further research.

Five tips for your first linguistics class*

So it’s getting to be the time of year when colleges start back up again (at least here in the US). And with that comes a whole batch of eager students taking their first linguistics class. If that’s you: congratulations! You’re going to embark on an academic journey that will forever change the way you look at language. But I’m sure you also have a lot of questions about what to expect and how to do well in a linguistics class. Well you’re in luck, because today I’m going to share my top five ten tips for doing well in an introductory linguistics class. These are drawn from my experiences both as a teacher and a student and I hope they help you as you begin to become a linguist.

  1. Expect rigour! Just to clarify here, by “rigour” I don’t mean difficulty. Rather, I mean rigour in the mathematical sense. Linguistics is a very exact discipline and part of learning how to be a linguist is learning how to carefully, precisely solve problems. There will be right and wrong answers. You may be expected to explain how you solved a problem. If you come from a background with a lot of mathematics or formal logic  linguistics problems will feel probably very familiar to you. (I have a friend, now a math PhD candidate, who really enjoyed phonology because, in his words, “It’s applied set theory!”.) A lot of students who have an interest in language from literary or foreign-language studies are often surprised by this aspect of linguistics courses, however.
  2. Be prepared for a little bit of memorization. Every introductory linguistics course I’m familiar with covers the International Phonetic Alphabet pretty early on in the class and students are expected to memorize at least part of it. I’m a fan of this, since knowing IPA is a pretty handy life skill and it allows you solve phonology problems much more quickly. But it can be a nasty surprise if you’re not ready for it and don’t set aside enough time for studying.
  3. Get ready to unlearn. You speak at least one language. You’re in college. You know a fair amount about how language works… right? Well, yes, but not in the way you think. You’re going to have to unlearn a lot of things you’ve been taught about language, especially about what you should do/write/say and a lot of the “grammar rules” you’ve been taught. Again, this can be frustrating for a lot of students. You’ve spent a long time laboriously learning about language, you’ve obviously developed enough of an interest in language to take a linguistics course, and in the first week of class we basically tell you you’ve been lied to! This can actually be a blessing in disguise, though. It lets the whole class start out at a similar place and you’ll be learning the basics of morphology and syntax right along with you classmates. Study group, anyone?
  4. Be patient with yourself. Introductory linguistics classes are always a bit of a whirlwind. You’re swept from subdispline to subdisipline and just as soon as you’re feeling comfortable with morphology suddenly it’s on to syntax with no chance to catch your breath. It’s just the nature of a introductory survey course, though; it’s a tasting menu, not a a la carte. Remember what catches your interest and pursue it in more coursework or readings later, don’t try to do it all just as you’re encountering ideas and methods for the first time.
  5. Ask for help. Don’t be afraid of asking for extra help! Go to office hours if you don’t understand something. Form a study group. (It’s even better if you can get people from different academic backgrounds.) There are also lots of great resources online. This blog post has a lot of great resources and this post gives a lot of great, really concrete advice about doing assignments in  intro linguistics courses.

But it’s also really important just to relax and have fun. You’ll cover a lot of material, granted, but that also means you’ll learn a lot! And introductory courses tend to be a great place to learn lots of fun facts and find the answers to language mysteries that have been niggling at you. Welcome to linguistics; I think you’re going to like it.

*Don’t worry, we’ll be getting back to the Great Ideas in Linguistics series after these short messages.

Great ideas in linguistics: Language acquisition

Courtesy of your friendly neighbourhood rng, this week’s great idea in linguistics is… language acquisition! Or, in other words, the process of learning  a language. (In this case, learning your first language when you’re a little baby, also known as L1 acquisition; second-language learning, or L2 acquisition, is a whole nother bag of rocks.) Which begs the question: why don’t we just call it language learning and call it a day? Well, unlike learning to play baseball, turn out a perfect soufflé or kick out killer DPS, learning a language seems to operate under a different set of rules. Babies don’t benefit from direct language instruction and it may actually hurt them.

In other words:

Language acquisition is process unique to humans that allows us to learn our first language without directly being taught it.

Which doesn’t sound so ground-breaking… until you realize that that means that language use is utterly unique among human behaviours. Oh sure, we learn other things without being directly taught them, even relatively complex behaviours like swallowing and balancing. But unlike speaking, these aren’t usually under concious control and when they are it’s usually because something’s gone wrong. Plus, as I’ve discussed before, we have the ability to be infinitely creative with language. You can learn to make a soufflé without knowing what happens when you combine the ingredients in every possible combination, but knowing a language means that you know rules that allow you to produce all possible utterances in that language.

So how does it work? Obviously, we don’t have all the answers yet, and there’s a lot of research going on on how children actually learn language. But we do know what it generally tends to look like, precluding things like language impairment or isolation.

  1. Vocal play. The kid’s figured out that they have a mouth capable of making noise (or hands capable of making shapes and movements) and are practising it. Back in the day, people used to say that infants would make all the sounds of all the world’s languages during this stage. Subsequent research, however, suggests that even this early children are beginning to reflect the speech patterns of people around them.
  2. Babbling. Kids will start out with very small segments of language, then repeat the same little chunk over and over again (canonical babbling), and then they’ll start to combine them in new ways (variegated babbling). In hearing babies, this tends to be syllables, hence the stereotypical “mamamama”. In Deaf babies it tends to be repeated hand motions.
  3. One word stage. By about 13 months, most children will have begun to produce isolated words. The intended content is often more than just the word itself, however. A child shouting “Dog!” at this point could mean “Give me my stuffed dog” or “I want to go see the neighbour’s terrier” or “I want a lion-shaped animal cracker” (since at this point kids are still figuring out just how many four-legged animals actually are dogs). These types of sentences-in-a-word are known as holophrases.
  4. Two word stage. By two years, most kids will have moved on to two-word phrases, combining words in way that shows that they’re already starting to get the hang of their language’s syntax. Morphology is still pretty shaky, however: you’re not going to see a lot of tense markers or verbal agreement.
  5. Sentences. At this point, usually around age four, people outside the family can generally understand the child. They’re producing complex sentences and have gotten down most, if not all, of the sounds in their language.

These general stages of acquisition are very robust. Regardless of the language, modality or even age of acquisition we still see these general stages. (Although older learners may never completely acquire a language due to, among other things, reduced neuroplasticity.) And the fact they do seem to be universal is yet more evidence that language acquisition is a unique process that deserves its own field of study.

Great ideas in linguistics: Sociolinguistics

I’ll be the first to admit: for a long time, even after I’d begun my linguistics training, I didn’t really understand what sociolinguistics was. I had the idea that it mainly had to do with discourse analysis, which is certainly a fascinating area of study, but I wasn’t sure it was enough to serve as the basis for a major discipline of linguistics. Fortunately, I’ve learned a great deal about sociolinguistics since that time.

Sociolinguistics is the sub-field of linguistics that studies language in its social context and derives explanatory principles from it. By knowing about the language, we can learn something about a social reality and vice versa.

Now, at first glance this may seem so intuitive that it’s odd someone would to the trouble of stating it directly. As social beings, we know that the behaviour of people around us is informed by their identities and affiliations. At the extreme of things it can be things like having a cultural rule that literally forbids speaking to your mother-in-law, or requires replacing the letters “ck” with “cc” in all written communication. But there are more subtle rules in place as well, rules which are just as categorical and predictable and important. And if you don’t look at what’s happening with the social situation surrounding those linguistic rules, you’re going to miss out on a lot.

Case in point: Occasionally you’ll here phonologists talk about sound changes being in free variation, or rules that are randomly applied. BUT if you look at the social facts of the community, you’ll often find that there is no randomness at all. Instead, there are underlying social factors that control which option a person makes as they’re speaking. For example, if you were looking at whether people in Montreal were making r-sounds with the front or back of the tongue and you just sampled a bunch of them you might find that some people made it one way most of the time and others made it the other way most of the time. Which is interesting, sure, but doesn’t have a lot of explanatory power.

However, if you also looked at the social factors associated with it, and the characteristics of the individuals who used each r-sound, you might notice something interesting, as Clermont and Cedergren did (see the illustration). They found that younger speakers preferred the back-of-the-mouth r-sound, while older people tended to use the tip of the tongue instead. And that has a lot more explanatory power. Now we can start asking questions to get at the forces underlying that pattern: Is this the way the younger people have always talked, i.e. some sort of established youthful style, or is there a language change going on and they newer form is going to slowly take over? What causes younger speakers to use the the form they do? Is there also an effect of gender, or who you hang out with?

changes
Figure one from Sankoff and Blondeau. 2007. (Click picture to look at the whole study.) As you can see, younger speakers are using [R] more than older speakers, and the younger a speaker is the more likely they are to use [R].
And that’s why sociolinguistics is all kinds of awesome. It lets us peel away and reveal some of the complexity surrounding language. By adding sociological data to our studies, we can help to reduce statistical noise and reveal new and interesting things about how language works, what it means to be a language-user, and why we do what we do.

New series: 50 Great Ideas in Linguistics

As I’ve been teaching this summer (And failing to blog on a semi-regular basis like a loser. Mea culpa.) I’ll occasionally find that my students aren’t familiar with something I’d assumed they’d covered at some point already. I’ve also found that there are relatively few resources for looking up linguistic ideas that don’t require a good deal of specialized knowledge going in. SIL’s glossary of linguistic terms is good but pretty jargon-y, and the various handbooks tend not to have on-line versions. And even with a concerted effort by linguists to make Wikipedia a good resource, I’m still not 100% comfortable with recommending that my students use it.

Therefore! I’ve decided to make my own list of Things That Linguistic-Type People Should Know and then slowly work on expounding on them. I have something to point my students to and it’s a nice bite-sized way to talk about things; perfect for a blog.

Here, in no particular order, are 50ish Great Ideas of Linguistics sorted by sub-discipline. (You may notice a slightly sub-disciplinary bias.) I might change my mind on some of these–and feel free to jump in with suggestions–but it’s a start. Look out for more posts on them.

  • Sociolinguistics
    • Sociolinguistic variables
    • Social class and language
    • Social networks
    • Accommodation
    • Style
    • Language change
    • Linguistic security
    • Linguistic awareness
    • Covert and overt prestige
  • Phonetics
    • Places of articulation
    • Manners of articulation
    • Voicing
    • Vowels and consonants
    • Categorical perception
    • “Ease”
    • Modality
  • Phonology
    • Rules
    • Assimilation and dissimilation
    • Splits and mergers
    • Phonological change
  • Morphology
  • Syntax
  • Semantics
    • Pragmatics
    • Truth values
    • Scope
    • Lexical semantics
    • Compositional semantics
  • Computational linguistics
    • Classifiers
    • Natural Language Processing
    • Speech recognition
    • Speech synthesis
    • Automata
  • Documentation/Revitalization
    • Language death
    • Self-determination
  • Psycholinguistics

Excellent BBC program about forensic phonetics

I don’t usually reblog things, but this is an excellent program on the use of forensic phonetics in Britain.