Matt Orr 
A third year Psychology student at Dalhousie University as well as the vice president of the Dalhousie Gaming Society.
|January 16th 2011||The First Week||I am in love with the format of this class. Since my first year of university I've been exploring the recent increase in free digital education (Ex. The Khan Academy) and I've wanted to participate in a course which informed these resources. I'm super excited to be involved.
One of the first things about the material in chapter 1 that really struck me was how concrete the categorization of the pieces of language is. I'd read about them before, but never really thought about how distinct they are. I mean, language seems like a really big, intimidating object to me. It seems like it would be difficult to neatly classify the types of symbols and sounds. Thinking about it now, it seems silly to think this! It makes sense that language is so easily categorized. I mean, people are able to make up languages (see: J.R.R. Tolkien) all the time using these basic concepts. I guess I'm less intimidated by language as something to analyze. Neat-o!
When we first started reading/talking about linguistic relativism and determinism I was really interested in how language could restrict the way people think. I was pretty much having a nerd fit over Whorf's hypothesis. I mean, that's so cool! Something as abstract as language could influence the way we think about and perceive the world around us. What if linguistic determinism were true? What if the language we use determines how we think in a fundamental way? Does this mean that none of us are perceiving the world correctly? Is there a correct way to perceive the world? Could a language be created that would change the way we think so that we perceive the world correctly? Color me intrigued. I realize there's not much research that supports the idea of linguistics determinism, but it's a very interesting idea.
P.S. (Please don't consider anything below this line of text part of my weekly blog post, I just felt like writing about it!)
I play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons, which is a high fantasy role-playing game. While in class the other day I realized something about this game: it's completely based on language. I mean, sure there are stats in involved (Ex. ability scores, dice rolling) but the real "meat and potatoes" of this game is the discourse between the players and the game master (usually myself when I play with friends). The way the game plays out is based on what information I give the players, how I say it, and who I say it to. It's a game that is composed completely of abstraction! Isn't that neat? I mean, you're creating a world in which your friends can interact and make influence in the completely abstract medium of vocal communication. It's wonderfully elegant.
Like, with a video game or a board game you tend to constantly have some sort of mechanical visual representation of what is going on. There are concrete rules and systems which restrict what you can and cannot do. In D&D you just... /talk/. For example, let's say you're playing D&D and the GM says you've been captured by the Dread Pirate LeChuck. You're being held captive in his bedroom. At this point what you do depends solely on what information you ask from the GM about your surroundings, your own creativity, and whether or not the GM has a grudge against you. All language! Huzzah!
|January 23rd 2011||History of Aphasia||In the text book it says that reports of aphasia (speech disturbances caused by brain dysfunction) have been around since the sixteenth century. I'm very interested in how these reports describe aphasia and how people reacted to those suffering from it. As well, I'd like to know how these reports are definitely reports of aphasia. For example, if it's the sixteenth century and I'm a fellow who happens to be afflicted with fluent aphasia and some other, more scholarly fellow decides to write a report of my strange behavior how do we know now, in 2011, that this report is actually describing aphasia? Maybe these reports are describing another phenomena that happens to express itself in a way very similarly to aphasia.
Also, sex differences in lateralization. I know it's a controversial issue in that there's evidence for and against it, but what if it's true? Why would one sex have a more lateralized language function than another? Why would we develop in that way? I suppose, if this were the case, that it would be adaptive if one of our hemispheres were destroyed because the other would take over, but wouldn't that imply that at some point in history there was something which went around destroying a single hemisphere of the human brain (hence, making us adapt to it)? If that were the case, why would it only occur in one gender?
|January 30th 2011||Reading and Deafness||According to the text book, when we read we hear voice saying the words we read. This is phenomena called inner speech which is a result of the recoding process during reading. Deaf people don't have inner speech because they cannot engage in this recoding. I am extraordinarily interested in how deaf people experience reading. I've always had inner speech myself, and cannot imagine what it would be like to read something without it. Do deaf people have some kind of replacement for inner speech? Does it take the form of images, maybe? I plan on gathering more information on this in the future.|
|February 6th 2011||Lexical Access: Gestures and Ambiguity||In the Words and Word Recognition chapter of the text there is a small section talking about the influence gestures have on lexical access. Apparently hand gestures used during communication facilitate speech production, but how they do this is not yet known (according to the text, anyways). It seems to me that hand gestures exist not just to facilitate speech production but to reduce ambiguity. I've caught myself and others using hand gestures to make a statement more clear or make it obvious which meaning we're using when choosing a particular word. Perhaps gestures are there to purge ambiguity as well as facilitate speech production.|
|February 14 2011||Syntax||In class last week professor Newman showed us a passage from Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky". It was kind of cool because I'd actually heard that poem for the first time just a few days before. It had fascinated me because, as Alice apparently says in the book it's from, "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas, only I don’t know what they are!". It stuck out in my memory because it sounded like it meant something, but didn't seem to mean anything at all. Since I heard it, I'd often sit and repeat the words under my breathe and wonder what Carroll was trying to say when he wrote it. When the professor brought it up in class and explained what Carroll had done to get this effect (replaced all the content words with nonsense words but left the function words intact) my mind was blown! Since then I've been using it as a conversation starter with all my bookish friends.
I never really thought about how people can mess with syntax that way. I kind of always assumed, I guess, that syntax and semantics were more dependent on one another.
|February 27 2011||This is your brain on music||Unfortunately, I was not able to make it to the last lecture before reading week and have yet to have time to listen to the podcast. I'm not sure what that lecture was about, so I'm going to talk about the last assigned reading I did for class: Language, music, syntax and the brain by Aniruddh D Patel. I find it very interesting that music and language seem to have similar syntactic processing in our brains. A few weeks ago, when this class first started, I listened to an episode of Radiolab (the WNYC radio program about science-related topics) titled "musical language". One thing that I remembered from this episode was a study where the way parents talk to children is compared across cultures. This study found that parent's voices change in pitch according to a pattern depending on what they're trying to communicate to their child and that these patterns were consistent across cultures. So, if a mother wanted to tell a child that she's angry, she'd use one pattern. If she wanted to tell her she was happy, she'd use another. I couldn't remember if they explained why this was in the show, and so I thought about it quite frequently trying to figure out why this was. Why didn't other cultures have different patterns? Since infants are not yet able to process language, but can still react to the musical cues in their mothers voice and language and music are processed the same way (according to the article), perhaps our processing of music eases our learning of language. Maybe we're born with an an inherent ability to process music better than language, we process the musical cues in our parent's voices easily and this allows us to learn language easily as well because we're able to generalize the syntactic processing.|
|March 6 2011||What happens before we say something?||The idea that we figure out what we want to say before formulating a general syntactic framework for a message is fascinating. We know that we do that, then form a syntactic skeleton, then find content words to flesh out the skeleton, and then they say something, but we don't know how the original idea for the message is formed. We know it happens, but not exactly what happens. At least, not according to the text book for this course. I guess that's getting a bit outside of the scope of this course. I mean, "how do we correlate ideas?" is a question that psycholinguistics probably couldn't answer on it's own. It's still really neat, though. I mean, what process (after or during reading) informs our brains to start making a skeleton sentence and fill it with information? What is that basic idea that starts the whole process? How is it formed itself? What causes reading to start that process? Etc.|
|March 13 2011||How have writing systems evolved?||It's really interesting how writing developed from pictographs to phonetic-based systems over time. It's like writing has been developing to be a closer approximation of spoken language. It starts very basic, just representing concepts, but that doesn't work so well so it develops pictures that represent words, but that's still kind of awkward so it develops symbols that represent the different phonemes. It's almost like looking at ancestors of a species and seeing how things gradually changed from generation to generation. It makes me wonder how our writing will develop in the future. It seems like we're starting to incorporate more pictographs into our discourse than we used to in the form of emoticons (Ex. :), ;), :D, :/). Maybe this means we're developing a more sophisticated form of writing that can convey emotion. Emoticons are, generally (outside of maybe <3 to represent "love"), not used to represent words in a sentence but, rather, emotions attached to the sentence. So, when someone sends another person a message like "I like your hat :D" it takes a different meaning than "I like your hat :(". It's interesting to think about whether this sort of thing will remain constant in our writing system or is just a temporary development.|
|March 18 2011||The mapping problem||I'm not sure if it's mentioned in the text book, and I can't find slides on it in the lecture slides on BLS (maybe I missed it when i skimmed through, though), but in class the professor mentioned something called the mapping problem. From the way he explained it, there's multiple theories for how children begin to associate words with particular objects rather than features of the object. So, if someone points to a red ball and calls it "ball", why does the child think of all bouncy, spherical objects as a ball rather than thinking of the color of the object as "ball"? If memory serves, the professor said there were multiple possible explanations for this. I find it fascinating that we don't know why this happens. It seems like such a fundamental thing to know, yet we're just left with some evidence and a conjecture about the evidence. We could be completely wrong in all our formulations and never know it. It made me think about how there's a lot of different theories and systems designed to explain one phenomena, like accessing lexical memory. It reflects the uncertainty of the field, I suppose. It's kind of beautiful.|
|March 28th, 2011||Bilingualism||I am not bilingual and have a hard time relating to people who are. For example, I once knew a man who could speak both English and French, but didn't know basic words in English. He'd be able to construct complex sentences about the art of culinary preparation, but he wouldn't be able to tell you what day it was (he only knew how to do this in French). I find that very strange. Shouldn't a bilingual person be able to see the similarities between the way dates are communicated in both their languages? Similarly, another person I knew who also spoke French and English would constantly mix up nouns between the two languages. To him, a bus was l'autobus and nothing else. While these are just anecdotes, it kind of makes me wonder if it's hard for bilingual individuals to switch between languages in a really flexible way. Maybe there are constraints on what they're able to translate from one language to another easily.|
|April 4th, 2011||Debates - Week 1||Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make it to the first debate as I was home with a terrible chest cold and vertigo. I also wasn't able to make it to the third debate for a similar reason. I was, however, able to make it to the second debate: the one I participated in. I'd like to build further on one of the arguments I presented in the rebuttal as I feel I did not make it very clear previously. My side, the opposed side, had originally argued that the Fast ForWord program seemed like a conflict of interest due to the fact that it was held completely exclusive to a cooperate entity. The for side countered this by saying that, while this is true it is also true for other treatments for learning disorders. I countered by saying that this doesn't really matter, but I don't think I made exactly what I wanted to say clear. The assertion that this doesn't matter because other treatments are in a similar situation is an irrelevant premise because we're not talking about the Fast ForWord program in comparison to other programs, we're talking about the Fast ForWord program on it's own. Just because other programs are also held exclusive like the Fast ForWord program does not necessarily mean that it's not a conflict of interest and potentially being taken advantage of by the Learning Company. I would have pointed this out during the rebuttal, but I was extremely nervous.|
|April 8th, 2011||The Last Debate||For the final debate of the semester the defense was: Language shapes the way we think. They presented some interesting studies, such as the one which showed that students think of feminine and masculine words and the objects they're associated to differently. As well, they presented a study which showed that Mandarin speakers think vertically, the way their language is written, as opposed to horizontally, the way English is written, more often and easily. It was really interesting. The offensive side was obviously arguing for the idea that language DOES NOT shape the way we think. It seems like most of the studies, like the color study, presented by the offensive side did not necessarily deny those presented by the defensive side. Like, both sides seemed to suggest that some parts of our cognition are affected by language while others aren't. Perhaps language constrains our thought in SOME ways, but not others?|