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  • So let’s talk about science. Science is awesome and important

  • and it holds a lot of social value. It influences everything from how we get around to how long and healthy our lives are.

  • Even my being able to talk with you right now,

  • through the marvel of online video? You can thank science for that. But wait,

  • isn’t this a channel about linguistics? Well, you might never have thought of it this way,

  • but linguistics is a science too. I’m Moti Lieberman, and this is the Ling Space.

  • When you think about language and how people study it, science is probably not the first thing that comes to mind.

  • After all, you don’t really need to do science to it for it to be meaningful.

  • Language is beautiful and vital,

  • it ties into our culture, in our literature, our poetry and our music.

  • Just as we can appreciate a spectacular night sky without worrying about astronomy,

  • or a butterfly without thinking about how its wings work, we don’t need linguistics to appreciate

  • the way that people use language. We can just enjoy the style of a writer’s individual voice,

  • or the rhythmic flow of a well-turned set of syllables.

  • But the thing is, whether or not you realize it, the science is always there inside language!

  • It’s part our biological heritage, and we find a ton of things in common across every language of the world.

  • And it’s a really key social and cultural institution, too,

  • that can define communities and sell products and start wars.

  • But all the different parts of language work according to rules that we can describe,

  • and if we want to do that, science is how we make it happen.

  • We need the same tools of hypothesizing, experimenting, carefully judging,

  • and reworking that make up the backbone of science the world over.

  • Now, the case for linguistics as a science is maybe at its strongest when you look at something like neurolinguistic testing.

  • If youre sticking someone in an fMRI machine

  • or an electrode cap, and youre measuring their brain activity, that just screamsscience is happening!”

  • And weve learned a ton about the human brain and how it does

  • its crazy language thing by using those kinds of techniques.

  • We can say the same thing about psycholinguistic research, too. There’s a lot we can observe

  • about people’s behaviour and how it interacts with language.

  • We can measure how people look around a visual space when they listen to a sentence,

  • or where their attention goes first when they hear something ambiguous.

  • We can learn what kinds of sentences are easier or harder for people to construct

  • by looking at how quickly they interpret them, or by checking where in a complicated sentence they get hung up.

  • We can see how people’s systems of sound work

  • by playing them words that are mixed with background noise or static,

  • or chopped up in different ways.

  • Some of the data from psycholinguistic research is pretty amazing.

  • So like, one of my favourite discoveries is how people can just ignore

  • errors or missing data and make sense of what theyre hearing or reading anyway.

  • The power of native speakers to overcome probems is so huge that even when we just cut out

  • sounds from words completely, on purpose, they have no trouble filling in the blanks.

  • A lot of the time, they don’t even realize that anything was missing!

  • How many of you noticed that there wasn’t an /l/ when I saidproblemsearlier?

  • Did it stop you from understanding the rest of the sentence? If youre a native English speaker,

  • chances are that even if you were eagle-eared enough to hear it, you just skimmed right on by without thinking about it.

  • And thanks to linguistic science, we have all the experimental data

  • we need to back this observation up.

  • So experiments actually underlie a lot of linguistics research. And our tools and techniques are pretty refined, too.

  • Weve studied how super tiny infants react to language,

  • before they can even speak. Weve isolated the exact kind of sentences

  • that people with aphasia have problems with, so we can figure out

  • precisely what language impairments are made of.

  • We can even get unbiased judgments from people about language without them realizing what were trying to do.

  • The number of techniques and methods for examining language is pretty huge,

  • and it keeps growing as we find new ways to

  • address the questions were interested in.

  • But linguistics isn’t all experiments, though. A lot of the work that gets done is theoretical,

  • with nary a lab in sight. The trees that we build in syntax or the rules that we describe in phonology

  • don’t really seem like science, right? Where’s the science when youre just sitting there and thinking,

  • Hmmm, this sentence is beautiful and perfect, and this other one is terrible garbage.

  • I’m going to explain why by proposing a rule to divide them!”

  • Well, the theories we come up with about how language works inform all the experiments that we do.

  • Compare it to something like physics. In both fields, phenomena happen all the time,

  • whether were studying it or not. Stuff speeds up when it falls,

  • and mouths move to make speech sounds. And when you research those phenomena,

  • you get a body of data about how the world workseither physical movements and forces,

  • or the positions and vibrations of your articulators.

  • Both physicists and linguists then apply the scientific method to that data:

  • with the sum of their understanding, theyll propose a hypothesis that explains what theyve observed.

  • Theyll make predictions based on that proposal, and then see whether those predictions are met,

  • based on further analysis and experimentation.

  • Let’s see how that works for something like syntax.

  • A syntactician may like words and morphemes, but what they really care about are the abstract structures underneath,

  • the skeletons that the meanings are built from.

  • We can’t see these trees that form the base for our sentences, any more than the naked eye can see an electron.

  • But we can see the effects that different

  • kinds of proposed structures have on the world. We can see what changes in meaning happen

  • when you build one kind of tree rather than another, or when swapping things around

  • makes something bad.

  • The mission of syntax is ultimately to come up with a system that describes

  • the structure of every language in the world. All the variation, all the kinds of meanings,

  • all the deep similarities, we need to capture all of that.

  • And so to verify a syntactic hypothesis, we need to test it against as many languages as we can find,

  • and then adjust our thinking as we get more data. Science!

  • And just like other sciences, what we know about linguistics and how we think of it has changed over time.

  • Since Noam Chomsky kicked off the generative linguistic parade in the 1950s,

  • weve worked out and refined

  • explanations for all kinds of phenomena.

  • You want to know whether you should use a pronoun or not in Japanese or Italian,

  • to get the exact meaning you want? Weve come up with a constraint for that.

  • You want an explanation for why you can’t sayThe operating system said the woman should listen to itself”?

  • Weve worked that out, too.

  • But let’s come back to that syntactician, just sitting around trying to figure out where to start.

  • Maybe youre a native English speaker,

  • and you think, for me, “I’d like to know where who hid the cakeis just bad,

  • but “I’d like to know where who hid whatis better. And that’s the basis for where you start from,

  • to look at how we deal with questions. The data comes from intuitions you have

  • about these sentences from inside your own head! Not everyone will agree right away about these judgments,

  • but that was originally the case for a lot of the sentences

  • you find in journals or syntax textbooks. So is that science?

  • It might not seem like it at first, but the validity of that armchair linguist technique

  • has been the target of some pretty thorough analysis by a pair of linguists over the last few years.

  • They went through all the judgments

  • from a commonly used syntax textbook, and built experiments out of them. That’s, like, hundreds of sentences!

  • They found that in 98% of the cases, the data from the experiments matched

  • the intuitions of the theoretical syntacticians.

  • Then they went back and did similar work for 10 years of syntactic judgments from a leading linguistic journal

  • - and got a similar outcome. The judgments hold up really well to scientific testing,

  • and the results can be reproduced. And that’s because your image of the theoretical

  • linguist going it alone in the dangerous world of sentence judgments isn’t entirely accurate.

  • By the time that theories go to print, theyve been vetted by a bunch of other linguists, colleagues

  • and editors, so that theyre ready to take part in the wider scientific conversation.

  • It turns out that the whole field of linguistics - each part of it - is forging ahead, matching

  • hypotheses and predictions with a growing body of data about how language works.

  • Were trying to understand the amazing capacity we have for communication,

  • and were learning more all the time.

  • And that’s why the science of language needs more love! When you think about scientific literacy, like,

  • what people should know about the world around them, linguistics doesn’t usually come up.

  • But linguistics is our portal to understanding

  • this incredible thing that we do all the time. Fortunately, there’s a lot of great linguistics

  • outreach happening right now around the world, as more and more people realize just how awesome

  • language is, and how to do science to it.

  • And there’s a bunch you can do without fancy equipment or complicated techniques. Even

  • a lot of the psycholinguistic testing software that's used by PhDs and professors is 100% free.

  • Linguistics gives kids and adults an easy way to engage with the nature and process

  • of research. It’s a great way to present the scientific method, and it lets you redo

  • old experiments or design your own. Language is our constant companion, and the

  • more you get your hands dirty with the science of what makes it tick, the more you realize

  • that language is awesome. And that takes the cake.

  • So weve reached the end of the Ling Space for this week.

  • If you ran sufficient tests, you learned that linguistics is the science of language; that

  • a lot of linguistic research uses experiments, and even when it doesn't, it usually yields

  • reliable results; and that we can use linguistics as an inexpensive and accessible method for

  • teaching people about how science works.

  • The Ling Space is produced by me, Moti Lieberman. It’s directed by Adèle-Elise Prévost,

  • and it’s written by both of us. Our editor is Georges Coulombe, our production

  • assistant is Stephan Hurtubise, our music and sound design is by Shane Turner, and our

  • graphics team is atelierMUSE. Were down in the comments below, or you can bring the

  • discussion back over to our website, where we have some extra material on this topic.

  • Check us out on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook, and if you want to keep expanding your own

  • personal Ling Space, please subscribe. And well see you next Wednesday. Bis bald!

So let’s talk about science. Science is awesome and important

Subtitles and vocabulary

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B1 US linguistics language data syntax ling linguistic

Linguistics as a Science

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