I'm a third year student at the University of King's College, doing a combined honours degree in Journalism and Psychology. My academic interests span many subjects, and journalism is a medium through which I can explore all of them. I am particularly fascinated with human behaviour—its processes and development. I hope to apply what I learn in psychology (critical thinking, research techniques, and a basic understanding of thought and behaviour) to my work as a journalist.
Blog Posts 
What struck me from this week's lectures was the Whorfian hypothesis and how it relates to physical sensation. Whorf's idea that words and syntax shape the way we think initially seemed lofty to me. Despite my fascination with words-their power to evoke and manipulate-I had my own lofty idea that there is too much emphasis on language, specifically vocabulary. I believed (for no scientific reason) that someone with poor verbal communication could be just as capable, intelligent, kind, interesting, wise, etc., as someone with a rich vocabulary. I thought of words as heuristic cues that allowed for quick and easy evaluation and judgement. However, when discussing the linguistic determinism aspect of Whorf's hypothesis, Dr. Newman raised the idea that Native American languages are strictly in the present tense. For something as abstract as time, with no verbal (or other communicative) representation, it seems likely that the culture's perception of the concept would be different from the Western notions of past, present, and future.
It was especially difficult for me to grasp the idea that words can affect how we experience sensation, like colour and sent. Dr. Newman pointed out that our vocabulary for odors is fairly limited. I agree that it is often difficult to identify odors without supporting verbal or visual stimulus. Although I may not be able to label the experience, however, I feel like I "know" the sent in a very specific way. Therefore, I don't think that enriching our sent vocabulary would enrich our sense of smell, but simply ease the identification process of our olfacotry experiences.
This week’s lectures and readings touched on lateralization of language in the brain. Brain imaging technology and research with stroke and split-brain patients shows that language is predominantly left-lateralized. The left hemisphere is largely responsible for the rules and principles of grammar, which structures language as we know it. We have seen that aphasic patients with damage to the Broca’s or Wernicke’s areas of the brain (both of which are in the left hemisphere) have trouble constructing meaningful sentences. Women with left-hemisphere damage appear to maintain better language production and comprehension. This finding is consistent with the idea that men have more lateralized brains than women, and that the right hemisphere is not totally dormant when it comes to language. Given these two premises, I wonder if brain lateralization has anything to do with women being better than men at inferring emotion from tone of voice (am I being biased, or is there evidence for this?).
Real evidence does show that right hemisphere damage impairs the ability to detect emotional aspects of speech. Although patients with right hemisphere damage can form grammatically correct sentences, they have trouble detecting tone, and do not understand figures of speech, inferences, sarcasm or humour! Their language is restricted to the words they interpret literally. In many ways, the right hemisphere appears responsible for the social aspects of language that connect people.
I noticed that patients with right hemisphere damage appear to comprehend and produce language in ways similar to people with autism. People with autism do not have syntactic or phonological deficits, but they have pragmatic (social) language deficits. A study by Sally Ozonoff and Judith N. Miller explores this idea further.
Text is just symbols that cue our speech, though the visual organization of words and sentences on a page does not reflect the verbal reproduction of these symbols. In text, we distinguish one word from the next with spaces, and we infer prosody (tone, pause, stress) with punctuation. But what we see in text is very different from how we speak. For example, I write, ‘could I have an orange?’, but what I say is more like, ‘CouldIyavanornge?’ Yet for some reason, it is more difficult to verbally reproduce the latter “word” than the former sentence. So how do we conceptualize language in the mind? Do we think of language as we see it in text, or how we actually speak it? It kind of seems like we think language sounds the way it looks, but that is an illusion and a product of exposure and learning. Think of listening to a foreign language. It is difficult to distinguish where one word ends and an other begins, but somehow people understand the subtle separations between units of their native language. The rules of language are complicated and variable, though producing language is so instinctual. What a concise example of the interacting influences of nature and nurture on behaviour.
This week, we looked at what’s in a word. Technically, words are made up of morphemes; the smallest linguistic unit that carries some kind of meaning. These little units alter the word by changing its tense or the entire definition. To some extent we have rules about how morphemes make up and change words. But for the most part (and with the English language in particular), words are full of exceptions. In such cases, our ability to construct and understand words depends on our experience with and exposure to them. Basically, there is a lot of memorization involved. So in a sense, the structural units of words are fairly arbitrary. But what about the meaning of a word as a whole? It seems like these larger units are even more random than their individual parts. A single word can represent a complex idea and carry several connotations. But in contrast, it sometimes takes multiple words to convey one simple thought or idea. Language development in children highlights both the rules and the haphazard way we apply them. There is a U-shaped learning curve to the way kids develop language. At first, they know words without really understanding morphological rules. Once they learn these rules, they tend to overregularize and apply the rules to all words (I teached a class). And eventually, they learn of the many exceptional morphemes.
This week’s lectures explored the mental dictionary--the memory bank of words and their meaning, i.e., lexical access. A major factor that influences the ease with which we access words is the frequency of words in text and speech. This is explained through Zipf’s law, or the “least effort” principle, which states that the more frequent a word, the easier it is to access. Studies have found that we are faster at naming words (from both auditory and visual stimuli) the more we are exposed to them. Now, there are many other factors aside from frequency (or in concort with frequency) that influence lexical access, such as semantic priming, gesturing, and morphological complexity. But word frequency seems to be a theme among several of my classes this week, so my focus will remain here. My question concerning word frequency and lexical access stems from a “chicken or egg” dilemma typical of correlation research. Can we access words faster because they are used more frequently, or do we use words more frequently because they are easier to access? I suspect that both possibilities at work here, contributing to the aggregate strength of the relationship. In another class, we looked at word frequency in terms of attitudes towards the words we use so often. In one study, Robert Zajonc suggested that words with positive semantic connotations or those that are phonologically appealing are used more frequently than their negative competitors. Putting this in context of Dr. Newman's lectures this week, one might conclude that "nicer" words (both in meaning and sound) are easier to access. What an appropriate realization on this Valentine's Day.
Thus far in the course, we have focused on the structural components of language and how we produce and process them. With our latest lecture on discourse, we turned our attention to the motivation that drives our use of language; among other things, we began exploring why we use language. Much of the literature on discourse too, however, emphasizes technical aspects of language process and comprehension. This school of thought looks at the tools and strategies we use to string together coherent bits of language to form discourse. This process view (as it is called) describes the many inferences we make when engaged in discourse. We make inferences at different levels of discourse processing. At the surface structure, we use pronouns and other anaphora to infer missing information needed to make sense of adjacent phrases. At the textbase, we infer the semantic meaning of the text or conversation based on previous information from the discourse, and/or general knowledge from our memory.
The other school of thought (the product view) regarding discourse focuses primarily on the social aspects of language as a tool for communication. The product view describes discourse as a means of attaining a specific goal. To attain this goal, like with the process view, we make inferences about information that is not explicit. Here, we infer ideas about the person with whom we communicate--their intentions, motivations, attitude, etc--based on cues they provide through language, particularly pragmatics. There are many social/contextual factors that influence how we produce and interpret discourse. And despite extensive analysis on slight changes in tone or timing and their implications on the meaning or intent of discourse, the way we go about communicating is all very automatic. We don’t (for the most part) consciously plan how we will speak to someone, nor do we consider how we should react when someone speaks to us. Conversational exchanges tend to be spontaneous interactions, perhaps suggesting that our conversations are driven by implicit motivations.
I found last week's lecture on music and language particularly interesting, as I consider myself both an amateur musician and quasi-psychology student. My interest for music and the brain was peaked a few years ago when I received the gift of Oliver Sack's book, Musicophilia. At that point, my love for music was well established, though I had only the slightest glimpses (as I still have) into neural networks wherein my perception and production (and thus love) for music is manifest. But enough with this flighty tangent, and on with the thoughts this week's lectures provoked in me. The idea that small children develop both language and music easier than adults is not exactly news to me. From my own experience, and from experience teaching piano little kids (versus trying to teach my mom), I am amazed at how quickly children internalize "grammatical" rules and techniques of music. What I hadn't considered before, however, is just how young children children are when they develop the ability to learn music. Dr. Newman provided us with evidence that aspects of music and language share certain neural resources. ERP studies showed positive P600 responses both to harmonic violations and syntactic violation in the same brain area. Thus, as there are brain areas that govern both language and music abilities, one might suspect that the ability to learn music develops simultaneously with the ability to learn language. However, learning language clearly appears more dominant than learning music. (Though I wonder whether kids whose parents communicated only through music would be as fluent in music as I am in English... probably not, as language has words with specific meanings, whereas music is largely non-referential.)
This week’s lectures succeeded to heighten my self-consciousness. After learning about errors and gestures that accommodate our speech, I’ve been hyper-aware of what my hands and body are doing while I speak, and what my mind is doing with every slip-of-the-tongue. Freud suspected that speech errors were the verbal manifestation of suppressed subconscious thoughts; however, empirically based explanations now exist that invalidate the idea of Freudian slips (like many of Freud’s theories). Although speech errors do not (usually) represent internal thoughts or desires, they are not totally random. Research by GS Dell shows that there is predictability in what word might slip out as an error based on the number of semantic and phonetic connections the error word has with the intended word. And the tip of the tongue phenomenon also shows how we can have the meaning of a word in our cognition, and even some information about its phonology and syntax, it is the sounds of the word—its morphemes—that we can’t quote produce. When these frustrating blockages arise in conversation, I find (especially in the past week) that my body tries to communicate what my tongue has failed to. And as Dr. Newman explained, these gestures help me find access the words more than they help my listener access the meaning I try to convey.
Living just down the street from my sister, I have been appointed to babysit her seven month old baby most days of the week. He's an easy baby--only cries when he's hungry or tired or if you're not smiling at him enough. When he first came along, I must admit that I found him kind of boring. He layed around, not doing much other than sleep, eat, poop, repeat. But before the little guy started showing some personality, and i started showing some interest in him. Now that I think of it, my first feelings of mutual attachment were around the time when he started communicating verbally. At about four months, I would speak "motherese" to him, and he would light up and start babbling, and so I would do it a little more. It didn't matter what words I was saying as long as I was exagegrating my tone and pitch. This fits with the idea that children are able to pick up on prosody in language much sooner than they are able to understand semantics. Since then, his babbling has become more systematic--repeating distinct morphemes, and my sister claims he can now say "mama". He is around the stage of understanding what is being said, but does not have the capacity to vocalize language (I suppose this means I should censor my motherese and stop making fun of his disproportionate physique).
Learning about bilingualism makes me want to kick myself. Not because the topic is uninteresting, but because at 21, I feel like I've missed the boat to fluency in another language. Similar to first language acquisition, there seems to be a critical period in which one can learn multiple languages with ease. This critical period is suggested to end around late childhood and certainly before adolescence. However, simply exposing a child to a foreign language does not necessarily mean they will learn it. There must be some social motivation for them to do so. I think this motivation clause limited my ability to learn a second language when I had the opportunity during that critical period. I took French immersion for my entire public school career, and by no means do I consider myself fluent in French. Sure, I can understand spoken French, and I can hack my way through a conversation, but when I speak French, there is no doubt in the listeners mind that I am English. I may fool them ever so briefly with my indiscernible accent, for though I may not employ the rules or a solid vocabulary of the language, to another French novice, I may sound like I do. So in terms of my accent, my early exposure to a second language was effective. However, with virtually no reason to speak French, my acquisition of the language was delayed to say the most. When people immigrate to Canada, learning English is motivated by job opportunities and social integration, and so even adults have the capacity to learn English quickly (though with more difficulty than children). It's amazing to look at my brother-in-law who came here from Italy three years ago knowing no English at all. Without any formal teaching, he is now totally fluent in the language. Whereas after 13 years of French schooling, I still struggle to find the right words. I suppose then, that there is still hope for us late language learners. Many studies have found that although adult learners do not tend to achieve as high a level of language proficiency as children, we may actually learn syntax and morphology faster than children (thanks to more experience with language in general?) Perhaps then I've just missed the speed boat to multiple language acquisition and am left to row my way to bilingualism in a life boat.
It's hard to believe that we're already wrapping things up with our debate segment of the course. I'm always dumbfounded by the speed at which time passes- how is it that I never get used to it?! Anyway, these debates have been pretty cool so far. Again, something so different from any university (Science) class I've ever taken. The last time I debated was four years ago in high school, and like all aspects of that era, the debating was significantly less civilized than what we've been doing in this class. I suppose there are a number of reasons for that-- maturity, knowledge (we don't need to rely on aggression and emotion to argue our points), and the format of the debate (tight time-constraints keep debaters to the main arguments, preventing them from veering off onto fervent tangents). To my former dismay and present relief, my group was one of the first to present. We argued against the effectiveness of a teaching program, FastForWord, in improving the reading and writing abilities of children with dyslexia. Now that I've officially argued "my position", I can admit that I think we had the easier side. When you tell a group of psychology students that there are no significant studies with peer reviewed support for a program, they are likely to disregard it. Their scientific mind they have been developing since they stepped foot on campus tells them to consider the data, the reliability of the study, and the researchers' motivation for conducting the study. True, FastForWord has weak support from independent researchers, but that isn't to say that the program would not work for some people; a lack of statistical significance is irrelevant to those students for whom the program works. I think the problem arises when the company tries to sell the product as the one and only treatment to all your reading and writing woes. As we have argued, there are many different deficits that can present themselves as dyslexia, and different deficits may require different forms of treatment. Perhaps with a different audience, support would have been less lop-sided in favour of the 'against' side. But in the face of aspiring scientists (and despite the strength of the arguments), it would have gone against that critical morale to support a program tested under such experimentally lax conditions.
Week 12 I think this class was a pioneer for the way acedemia is heading in the near future. Props to Dr. Newman for initiating an evaluation method that is so different from typical courses. In many ways, the structure of this course encourages students to engage more in the material. Public blog postings every week is a motivating way to reflect on the material and delve into some independent reseach to invetigate any lingering questions from the lectures. The chapter assignment also required some expertise in a particular topic - even more so than by writing a research paper. And I think it's a valuable exercise to express ideas from scientific reasearch in a way that assumes the reader has no background knowlede of the material. Everyone benefits when ideas can be shared with such ease.
This course does run the risk of having students neglect a huge portion of the material. It is possible to focus on just the topic of your chapter, and although you have to think of lecture material for blog posts, knowledge for this material is not nearly as solid as for the chater topic. It might be a neat idea to have students complete each others' learning exercises for a portion of their mark.
I enjoyed finishing the course with debates. Again, this exercise incorporated the notion of clearly conveying ideas based on research. I found the topics of the debates often one-sided. One group was rarely much stronger than the other, and so my vote usually went to the side I agreed with (from the start) rather than how well they argued. I feel like in order for some sides to have won, their argument would have to have been much stronger than that of their opponents, and their research would have had to been more extensive. Nonetheless, I thought they were fairly well done.
Overall, this class was a great experience. I would recomend it to other students, and I would definitely take another course with this structure.
Ozonoff, S., & Miller, J. (March 01, 1996). An Exploration of Right-Hemisphere Contributions to the Pragmatic Impairments of Autism. Brain and Language, 52, 3, 411.
Jay, T. (2003). The psychology of language. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Prentice Hall.
Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Washington: American Psychology Association.
Forster, K. I., & Chambers, S. M. (December 01, 1973). Lexical Access and Naming Time. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 12, 6, 627-35.