Category Archives: Cognition

I Give Arrival an A-

A good friend of mine commented that he liked how linguistics was depicted in the recent sci-fi movie Arrival, so I did feel duty bound to view the movie. The good news is that yes, the mechanics of linguistics is portrayed fairly well. Still I was a tad disappointed that some clichés, particularly the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, is still being depicted as the most important thing about linguistics. To have the author Ted Chiang and screenwriters focus on this to me means he has missed one of the most important lessons of theoretical linguistics.

Spoiler Alerts – I will minimize this, but if you want to be completely surprised, watch the movie first. The first spoiler is – Amy Adams plays a linguist Louise who is asked to decipher an alien language when some mysterious objects park themselves in different parts of the world, including of course rural Montana.

The Good

Before I point out the clichés, I will point out the positives. Namely

  1. Linguist Louise (Amy Adams) is hired based on her “translation” expertise including some recent Farsi speaking terrorists (Farsi is from Iran). BUT she points out that translating a language she already knows how to speak is different from translating a completely unknown language. Therefore she will more data than a 30-sec audio clip. Duh.
    Note: The fact that she has to explain shows how little common sense some people have about how language works.
  2. When the military wonders why Louise is starting with basic vocabulary, she does a good job explaining how she needs to know basic grammar to to frame the question “What is your purpose?” To ask this question, we will need to understand how to build a sentence, make sure we pronouns correctly and more importantly, understand what they have to tell us.
    Note: This part show how linguists focus on “grammatical crap” that make other people’s eyes glaze over. But that’s because you can’t become fluent until this knowledge is automated. However you have to learn about how a grammar works to communicate effectively in a new language. Fortunately, most linguists begin life as grammar geeks, so we actually find this very interesting.
  3. Louise’s fieldwork followed by intense scrutiny of the language samples is pretty realistic. If you know nothing about the target language, it will take much time to decipher everything, even if the other party is fairly cooperative.
  4. The investigation team includes a physicist who comments “You approach this very mathematically.” Yes…linguistics is actually a science. We just use different math notation than calculus.

Clichés and Questions

It wouldn’t be Hollywood without a few of these.

  1. As usual the movie assumes a linguist can speak any weird combination of languages – in this case Farsi, Sanskrit (these two can go together) and Chinese. That’s sort of like assuming a random linguist can speak Polish and Swahili. It can happen, but since those two languages are fairly distant geographically, culturally and linguistically…it would be fairly unusual.
    Note: In addition to general geographic literacy, some linguistic/cultural literacy would be a good idea.
  2. In the beginning of the movie, Louise is prepared to lecture about the history of Portuguese to a large lecture hall. But which class is this? I would only expect this in the history of Romance languages…and that class rarely fills a lecture hall.
    Note: But bonus points for connecting the origins of Portuguese to the kingdom of Galicia.
  3. Louise also comments that the proto-Portuguese speakers valued their poetry and literary culture…But EVERY culture I have encountered has valued the poetry of their language. Even when a language isn’t written or isn’t used for education, native speakers understand their language’s unique charm – just ask any hip-hop or country song artist.
    Note: There is a paradox that many linguistics consider all languages “equal” but also each language “special”. Still it never hurts to play a little indigenous music lyrics in class.

Major Spoiler Alerts Here

And then…Sapir-Whorf Hits Us

I was disappointed that a key plot point revolved the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which maintains that language strongly influences thought. Specifically when Louise learns the alien language at a “deep level”, their different tense system causes Louise to gain the ability to see into the future. Um no.

For the record, I don’t dispute that the aliens can perceive time differently than humans. After all, they are aliens. But I don’t think learning a new language has ever affected a human that deeply. Being exposed to a new culture can be definitely life changing, and the CONCEPTS behind a foreign language’s words can be different. But grammar doesn’t have the impact people think it has.

Consider the example from my experience – I have been exposed to Spanish, a language that classifies nouns and verbs as “masculine” or “feminine”. I understand how the system works and can properly implement it (mostly), but I have never transferred the concept to English. For instance, I can’t necessarily tell you if a fan is masculine or feminine. I’m not sure a Spanish speaker could either except by knowing what the final vowel of the word is.

And in fact the original story’s author Ted Chiang uses English tenses creatively to distinguish when Louise is having a memory from the future. In other words, if people could see into the future, the language’s tense system could make the adjustment. FWIW – Since Louise was exposed to the alien’s foggy atmosphere at one point, I will assume that’s how she got her new time sense.


There are some subtle influences of language – such as an enhanced ability to distinguish red from orange if your language has those two color terms. On the other hand, other forms of training can override this default. A trained artist can distinguish lots of colors, including ones that may not have common words in a language.

Major Major Linguistic Spoiler

“Phonology” Questions

By focusing on Sapir-Whorf, the movie misses an interesting question about the alien language. Initially the scientists focus on the sounds the aliens make, but Louise wonders if we could communicate better by writing. It turns out that the aliens, which are vaguely squid like, can generate black ink circular signs from their tentacles. These signs float in their native white fog until they are dissolved.

For humans, language is normally spoken with writing learned later. Language can be combined with different gestural motions, which enhance the communication, but aren’t always consistent.

For the aliens, I think it’s the reverse. The signs are the primary linguistic form with audio cues enhancing communication, but not necessarily consistently. Unlike humans, the aliens don’t necessarily need tools to “write” just as humans normally don’t need tools to speak in person. With a foggy atmosphere, I could see that hovering black circles could be more a robust signal than audio alone, so that could be the main language signal.

Eventually, the scientists create an app to replicate the circles (yeah), but I would be curious to see if the circles contain words, phrases or sentences. And you don’t need time travel to understand the shape of the circle – it could definitely be a byproduct of how each tentacle ends with multiple mini tentacles in a circular formation. Circles would definitely be easier to make than a line with that anatomy. The aliens can also create sequences of circles which shows that there is in fact a linearity in their longer utterances.

This is where the good stuff lies….

Linguistics for Young Readers?

I was watching the one of the Turnitin Writing X Tech 2016 Webinars on Teaching the Writing Brain and I was shocked to see that the presentation included the words morphonemic as well as morphology and phonology. You mean linguistics might be useful for understanding how children need to learn to decode the written word? Shocking!

Spelling and Linguistics

FYI – The word morphonemic was related to the issue of teaching spelling. The presenter Virginia Berninger emphasized that children do need to understand that not only do prefixes and suffixes affect the meaning of a word, but can also affect pronunciation (as in the first vowel of nation vs. nation+al. She also mentions another controversial word, phonics, to illustrate that English spelling (“orthography”) is supposed to be phonetically based and that she recommend that children learn the phonological structure of English spelling alongside all of our native spelling system quirks (that is, orthographic awareness).

And (OMG!) you might want to consider word origin (etymology) when teaching spelling. That’s because English borrows a foreign language’s spelling rules when it borrows the words. Linguists definitely know this, but you don’t see this mentioned as a strategy except in spelling bee competitions.

Building a Communication Bridge

For me as a linguist, the idea of teaching children phonics, word structure and matching spelling quirks to pronunciation seems fairly obvious as is the idea that writing teachers should have some linguistic training. Unfortunately linguists and more traditional “English” teachers have often seen each other as the enemy, and I will admit to mocking bad prescriptive grammatical rules. As a result, I often see many language teachers (even foreign language teachers) discuss teaching “culture” or “ideas” instead of “grammar” (As if we can’t we teach both!)

While I sympathize with frustrated linguists, I have to admit we have done a terrible job of explaining how linguistics applies to real world teaching and writing situations until fairly recently. That’s why I’m so happy that a seminar for writing instructors included neurological research supporting basic linguistic analysis. Linguistics could be starting to enter the world of general academic knowledge. Even Grammar Girl sometimes even mentions linguistics in a positive light (you go girl).

For linguistics, I do think we need to work better to appreciate the role of traditional prescriptive rules. While it is important to understand the structure of non-Standard English dialects (e.g. AAVE (African American English), Southern dialects, etc), we have to acknowledge that linguists always write standard academic English in their journal articles. As with other educated speakers, linguistics have learned to write and spell in a particular fashion that is at least a little bit different from their spoken forms (unless they are speaking like Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory.)

Some traditional grammar instruction is needed, but we also need to help teachers understand the role of linguistics in teaching those who don’t speak Standard English at home or those who have a learning disability related to reading and writing. I hope research like this can help build that bridge.

Pragmatics and Statistics

One of my Listservs led me to this interesting article by John Allen Paulos about the distinction between the “literary and scientific cultures”. As part of the discussion, Paulos discusses some cases where knowing a narrative background affects how probability is assessed.

Consider the following two statements.

  1. Sarah is a bank teller.
  2. Sarah is a bank teller and has a philosophy degree.

The answer is that the first option is more probable because only one condition needs to be met. In order for the second to be true, two conditions are required – being a bank teller and having a degree in philosophy degree.

Now consider this version from Paulos in which the teller is given a brief bio:

Linda is single, in her early 30s, outspoken, and exceedingly smart. A philosophy major in college, she has devoted herself to issues such as nuclear non-proliferation. So which of the following is more likely?:

  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

The finding is that more people will be that the second option is the most likely – i.e. that Linda is a bank teller and in the feminist movement, even though it requires the fulfillment of two conditions.

There are several philosophical tacks one can take to the problem, but I think one factor is that the story along with the presentation of the information affects the construction of the model used to evaluate the statements.

Someone reading first scenario without the narrative probably constructs the intended model where the probability of being a bank teller versus a bank teller with a philosophy degree is evaluated across all adult women. It’s easy to see that fulfilling condition A is more probably than fulfilling condition A and B.

The second scenario with Linda though probably causes most people to build a model not across all adult women but across all adult women who have a philosophy degree and who were activists in their youth. It’s NOT the same pool of candidates, and there is a legitimate reason to think probability judgments COULD be different. Interestingly, if you presented the two Linda options as

  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is active in the feminist movement.

then the conclusion would likely be that Linda being active in the feminist movement is more likely than her being a bank teller. In other words, readers could be using the narrative to build a stereotyped persona where someone who was politically active in college remains active. In the same vein, most people likely assume that someone with a philosophy degree becomes a teller only as a last resort and that most tellers have a degree in accounting or other related field. This is one possible source of the fallacy.

I would also argue that the presentation of the options causes the pragmatic engine to introduce another logical trap. Because both options allow that Linda is a bank teller, this could mean that readers assume the Linda ends up as a bank teller (even though that’s not what the option says). Thus, readers could be interpreting the Linda options as:

  1. Linda is a bank teller who is not active in the feminist movement.
  2. Linda is a bank teller who is active in the feminist movement.

There is a further pragmatic interpretation that option a) “Linda is a bank teller” means that she is not politically active at all. That’s not literally the case (for instance, option a) does allow that Linda could still be active in the anti nuclear proliferation movement, but not the feminist movement). In pragmatic land though, omitting information is interpreted as meaning it doesn’t exist. That’s why people often consider not saying something to be “lying.”

So to summarize, I think the skewed probability judgments aren’t just a result of people being sucked into a mini soap opera, but to two factors the narrative introduces – 1) narrowing the set of women to those with philosophy degrees, which leads to different stereotypes and 2) the options leading to misconstrued pragmatics which differ from what the literal meaning is.

The ability to reasonably construct a pragmatic meaning behind a literal statement is critical for social relations and reducing conversational length. But it can lead to some glitches like the narrative above.

Concept Maps and Verbs

I’m cleaning out my instructional design papers and I ran into the “concept map” papers and remembered an interesting question about whether you should include verbs in concept maps.

First, if you don’t know what a “concept map” is, I’ll just say it’s a diagram of concepts and how they connect. Here’s a concept map from Wikipedia to define what a concept map is. Typically concepts (usually nouns) are placed in different shapes and arrows are drawn to show different types of connections. Note though that these arrows are labeled with either verbs or prepositions.

Concept map of Concept Map
Click Image to Enlarge

Now although I adore diagrams, I find concept maps surprisingly confusing. A question to LinguistList pointed out one reason why – the arrow labels are confusing (and it may not be just me). In theory, if you can add labels to boxes, you should be able to add labels to connections, but that may not be the best approach.

The truth is that our culture (and many others) use a lot of concept maps including family trees, subway maps, pie charts and many others. In almost all of them, the labels are left blank and the conventions of placement/size telegraph the relationships. Either by culture or maybe some inborn ability, I think a lot of people have learned to interpret relations just from the graphic design. (If you’re not a natural map reader, I would be curious to see if labelling does any good).

For instance, in a family tree, we understand that the names on top are the ancestors and those on the bottom are the descendants. The equal sign or line between a man and a woman usually indicates marriage and lines from the equal sign to a name is a legitimate child (unless it’s a dotted line, in which case things are different). Similarly names on the same level with lines going to the same equal sign are full siblings. Finally if it’s a royal family, the bold face name or the one in another color is the monarch.

You can convey a lot of information with just changes in lines and special labels. In fact, you can usually make connections (e.g. determining first cousin or transfer point on a subway system) by tracking the appropriate sets of lines to the proper boxes. I would say that this convention is so powerful that adding too many labels is in fact distracting because it is interfering with the cues that the diagram structure is trying to convey.

You can call it interference on the visual vs verbal/linguistic channels if you like. In the map with the labeled arrows above, the arrows are all the same which implies “same relationship” (at least locally), but the labels are saying “no – different relationship”. You really may have conflicting cues here.

So I’ll present two concept maps below, my original one without the labels and one with labeled arrows. Which one is clearer to you?

Two Images – Dialects of English

Click Each Version to View Full Size Image

Concept Map, No Labels on Arrows, Different Shapes for Dialects vs Events. Description Below

Concept Map, No Labels on Arrows, Different Shapes for Dialects vs Events. Description Below

Text Version

We begin at Anglo Saxon (pre 1066) which is spoken in England and southern Scotland. In 1066, the Norman Invasion (William the Conquerer) establishes a foreign government in England, but not Scotland. Scots splits off from the rest of English (somewhat before the Great Vowel Shift. In England most dialects go through the Great Vowel Shift and lose /x/ and /ü/.

During the period when North America is colonized, many dialects in English experience loss of word final /r/, but some maintain it. Settlers from regions losing the final /r/ arrive in New England, New York City and the South, but settlers who keep the /r/ arrive in the Mid Atlantic and Canada. The MId-Atlantic form becomes Standard American/Standard Canadian while the New England and Southern forms become regional dialects. Standard U.S. continues to evolve into Californian English and other varieties (as does New England/New York/South).

After American independence, the English continue to colonize other regions in the world including Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Although these dialects experience unique vowel changes, they have all lost final /r/.

Note this is just a quick summary. You should read more about the history of each dialect for details. The books Albion Seed (David Hackett Fisher) and The Story of English (Robert McCrum and Robert MacNeil) have some good information.

Teaching in the Wild?

I ran into a great interview with primatologist Rebecca Saxe (NOVA/WGBH) about the relative inability of chimps to teach in the same ways humans do. I wrote one entry on my Teaching with Technology blog about some of her observations, but I noticed some other observations that I thought I would mention here.

One comment Saxe made was that human children have two pointing gestures. The first that emerges is children pointing to something they want right now! Apparently many species, including chimpanzees, share this gesture.

The second pointing gesture is when a child points at he or she wants to show to parents for some other reason (e.g. bunny rabbit!). According to Saxe, parents look for this gesture and become excited since it is an early form of interaction. A communicative pointing instinct?

I would want to check to see if most cultures had this gesture (Saxe may have data, but it wouldn’t appear in this article), but since all cultures interpret basic facial expressions the same way, it seems plausible to me. In fact this pointing gesture seems to be the quintessential reason why some scholars speculate that language and gestures are related.

The other interesting question is if other species can “teach”. It seems clear that humans may be the only primates to have this level of cultural transmission, but what about dolphins, orcas and dogs? A BBC news story commented that dolphins may name themselves while scientists are finding evidence of cultural differences among dolphin and orca pods (e.g. some orcas are “killer whales” who eat meat and other are vegetarian orcas).

Even dogs may show cultural differences as documented in Stanley Coren’s How Dogs Think. Coren even discusses that dogs such as Saint Bernard rescue dogs and herder dogs may actually train each other.

We know that dogs and dolphins can be trained to do quite a wide variety of tasks. They have to be pretty darned good learners, especially if they can learn in the homo sapiens educational system.

Remix into Music

Recently Stephen Colbert interviewed remix advocate Lawrence Lessig. In a fit of pique, he announced that “copyright was forever” and commented that he would be “litigious” if the interview was remixed with “some great dance beat.”

But since we are the YouTube Generation, of course multiple people remixed the interview with some great dance beat. What’s interesting here though is that most of the remixes involve looping short snippets of dialogue over and over.

As hip-hop artists know, if you loop a short phrase enough, you are one your way to a quasi-lyric. This was also noted on a NPR podcast which I’ve lost track of, but I think the remix here really shows how little looping is required to generate a rhythmic feeling.

There’s been recent speculation on how music and language relate to each other, and clips like these do make a case that music is some sort of auditory cheesecake (to quote Steven Pinker). In other words, music is borrowing phonological aspects of language (pitch, rhythm), then “kicking them up a notch”.

I don’t think it’s the full story of music, but then again visual arts are also a little mysterious to the neo-Darwinist. Still I’m glad I have both my screensaver and my iTunes to brighten my day.

A Sentence Predictor?

The Onion News Network has a great parody on a new Mac laptop with the keyboard replaced with just the iPhod wheel (jut what we’ve all been waiting for. But the best feature, was the “sentence predictor”. Like the word predictor, the sentence predictor would give you options for completing a sentence once a few words had been typed in.

But is this possible in real life? (continues below video)

Apple Introduces Revolutionary New Laptop With No Keyboard

I hope you enjoyed the video as much as I did, but it get me wondering if a sentence predictor is possible, and if so what it would be like. It is a real problem that researchers are exploring as can be seen in this presentation from Nicola Carmignani.

Actually I could see something like a phrase predictor based on syntax and morphology (and these have been built). For instance, if had a phrase “give the book”, English syntax dictates that we usually have to specify a destination, hence you can predict that the next word will be “to”. After that though, syntax dictates that you can give a book to anyone (literally an infinite number of choices).

So for a more robust sentence predictor, you would probably need be able to access the context or discourse of the entire passage. For instance if you had been discussing your friends Rachel and Phoebe, then a sentence predictor could guess “to Phoebe” or “to Rachel” as plausible guess for “give the book”. Carmignani’s presentation in fact, gives a song lyric as an example – “Penny Lane”, which most people could predict would end with “is in my ears and in my eyes” (following the Beatles song).

When I thought about it I realize that I do have a built in sentence predictor (or maybe cliche predictor). After all I use to complete sentences for my friends all the time. Interestingly, they don’t always thank me for it…

Is Counting Innate in Australia?

A new study by Brian Butterworth and others finds that indigenous Australian children can count even if the language does not gramatically have the same range of number words as other languages. This is an interesting counterclaim to the notion that members of the Amazonian Pirahã tribe not only lack number words, but can’t learn to count. The experiment in Australia was conducted by asking children to put up the number of objects matching the number of beats on two drumsticks.

This experiment was interesting in that younger children were used. The use of children is interesting because, as far as I know, the Pirahã subjects were adult men. But since Pirahã children who learn Portuguese also learn to count in Portuguese, there may be a critical period element of some sort (or not). In any case it would be interesting to replicate both experiments in the other region (assuming the Pirahã parents would agree to it of course).

The other thing that would be interesting to track is how the Australian language number systems were structured. As far as I can tell, the Pirahã “number” words aren’t numbers at all, but estimates of small vs. large quantities. The Australian number system may be more limited, but some words like “one, two, three” may refer to exact quantities which is a key conceptual difference.

The study is in the Aug 18 issue of PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United Stated of America). This article did not seem to be available yet.

The Language Without Numbers

An interesting news story from the past few years is the Amazonian language Pirahã which lacks number words. That is, instead of counting quantities (1,2,3,4…), the Pirahã only estimate quantities (relatively small, relatively large). The latest study from MIT seems to confirm this. Interestingly, when objects are taken away from a pile, the estimates change so that “small” may become 5-6 instead of 1-2 as previously thought.

This has perplexed linguists since almost all languages have some sort of counting (even in remote locations). The only other examples of low-tech numbers had been systems of 1,2, many. We normally think of counting as a “basic” cognitive skill, but it appears to be primarily cultural.

I first about this in 2000 from a guest speaker Peter Gordon. His evidence was convincing, but there have been some points I have been pondering.

  • Pirahã children who learn Portuguese also learn to count – it’s not a difference in cognition [Peter Gordon, personal communication]
  • Not surprisingly, male laborers in Brazil are stiffed a lot because they do not pay as much attention to “exact” quantities. However the Pirahã women are reported to gently mock their men folk for this [Gordon, p.c.] It reminds me of cultural gender stereotypes like men can’t pick coordinating colors and women can’t work with computers (and yes many of us buy into them whether they are 100% true).
  • Many animals can easily distinguish quantities of 1,2,3, (or a little more) on sight, but after that they guesstimate. In this study, monkeys can recognize quanities of 1-4, but estimate after that. This predicts that a basic counting would be something like 1,2,3, many, but the Pirahã system is even more basic.

It is startling to think that counting could be essentially “cultural” because almost every other culture has some form of counting, but when I read more, I did realize that there is some truth to this. For instance, most languages have unique words for one such as one, aon (Irish), bat (Basque), but once you get into the range of 1,000,000 (one million), the word starts to resemble million in many languages (e.g. 1 million = milioi in Basque). That’s because the concept of such a large quantity is relatively new (few hunter-gatherers needed to count to 106). As modern technology spreads, so do numbers (Basque itself apparently borrowed 1,000 mila from the Romans (i.e. Latin millia).

Even in my lifetime, I can see the scale of numbers “escalating”. When I was a teen, 80 KB (80 kilobytes or 80,000 bytes) was a lot of memory, then in college computer drives came in sizes of 1-2 MB (megabytes or 1-2 million bytes), but today you need a hard drive of about 80 GB (80 giga butes, or 80 billion bytes). Now I’m seeing references to terabyte drives (a trliion bytes). Believe me I could not tell you what giga- and tera- were in 8th grade. Now I see on the Wikipedia SI prefix page that you can get up to yotta- (1 septillion or 1024). But I’m pretty sure there’s some room for more prefixes

Postscript (24 Jul)

Pirahã is considered to be a member of the Muran language familty, and I had been wondering if the related languages had any counting. Alas, all the other Muran languages are now extinct. I’m still not sure about Everett’s claim that Pirahã culture does not deal with abstract topics – That is unbelievably rare considering almost all cultures have art, mythology, and pretty elaborate kinship systems.

Presidential Comic TIming and Voting for Head of State

It’s high Presidental primary season here in Pennsylvania, 2008 and I can’t leave this momentous era without SOME kind of observation on the process. I’ve been watching a lot of primary night analysis, and one thing that few people touch on is the “Head of State” factor.

That is, one of the major duties of the president is to serve as Head of State. Normally this is seen as a “trivial” duty since I think most people associate it with opening the Olympics, attending important funerals or supervising the Easter Egg roll. And yet, I think it’s an important sub-conscious factor in our decision making process.

After all the Head of State also has to comfort us in times on national tragedy and also be able to relate to the average citizens he (or she) has to meet and greet. How do we know if a presidential candidate can relate to average citizen? One way is to challenge them to a fish toss in Seattle. Another is to see if they have a sense of humor about themselves – self-deprecating if possible. Abraham Lincoln is maybe the best -known master of the art.

And if you think about our recent successful two-term presidents, you will see that almost of them had a sense of timing regardless of party boundary. On the Democratic side we have Bill Clinton, and the late John Kennedy (his press conferences still make modern audiences laugh). On the Republican side there has been Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (really).

Chances are that the list I just named has at least one president you absolutely can’t stand – but if you watch their quips or speeches for the National Correspondents Dinner, I bet you will see they had a great sense of comic timing. Some of our recent one-term presidents (Carter and Bush I) had more problems with this of self-deprecating comedy, and, sure enough, they were beaten by candidates with better comedic timing. Oddly enough, Nixon is our only recent anomaly – he was never known for great timing yet won two terms. But look at what happened to him!

And for 2008 – does it still matter? We don’t know yet, but I submit that at least one candidate is having problems partly because that person has not completely mastered the art of delivering a good quip (a few have backfired very, very badly). It sounds shallow, but I also sense that it can be a sign of deeper issues with the candidate. When all you really know about a candidate is what you see on TV, it’s interesting what cues you may have to use.