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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 you’re sticking someone in an fMRI machine
or an electrode cap, and you’re measuring their brain activity, that just screams “science is happening!”
And we’ve 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 they’re 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 said “problems” earlier?
Did it stop you from understanding the rest of the sentence? If you’re 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.
We’ve studied how super tiny infants react to language,
before they can even speak. We’ve 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 we’re 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 we’re 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 you’re 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 we’re 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 works – either 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, they’ll propose a hypothesis that explains what they’ve observed.
They’ll 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,
we’ve 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? We’ve come up with a constraint for that.
You want an explanation for why you can’t say “The operating system said the woman should listen to itself”?
We’ve worked that out, too.
But let’s come back to that syntactician, just sitting around trying to figure out where to start.
Maybe you’re a native English speaker,
and you think, for me, “I’d like to know where who hid the cake” is just bad,
but “I’d like to know where who hid what” is 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, they’ve been vetted by a bunch of other linguists, colleagues
and editors, so that they’re 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.
We’re trying to understand the amazing capacity we have for communication,
and we’re 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 we’ve 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. We’re 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 we’ll see you next Wednesday. Bis bald!
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Linguistics as a Science

664 Folder Collection
Sh, Gang (Aaron) published on July 13, 2016    Darya kao translated    Mandy Lin reviewed
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