3rd year at Dalhousie University. Major in psychology, minor in journalism. From Georgia.
|January 16 2010||Language and Thinking||The concept of language has always been something that I usually take for granted, but when I really stop and think about how impressive it is, I am amazed. Every part of language – writing, speaking, listening and understanding, etc., is so complex. I marvel at the fact that we are able to look at symbols and understand the noises they make, and how those noises form words, and how those words form sentences, and at such a fast speed. Those sentences allow us to express thoughts, engage in discourse, and breed new ideas. As complex and beautiful as language can be (poetry, lyrics, speeches), it is born out of necessity. As social beings, we have a fundamental need to communicate with others. The development of a language has always been regarded as one of the basic building blocks of any society. As society evolves, so does our language – although an argument could also be made for the devolution of a language, particularly in regards to heavy media influence.
In class, we discussed whether or not people could think without language. It was a concept I had never previously considered. When I was younger, I had a friend who was bilingual in Spanish and English. I remember asking her which language she thinks in. She said that she used whatever language she was currently speaking – she didn’t translate every phrase from her first language (Spanish) into her second language (English). But if a person had no language, would be they capable of thought, and if so, how deep would that thought process be? I wonder if, like animals, people without language would be conscious of their desires, but not be conscious of being conscious of their desires. I doubt they would be able to think of abstract concepts. I wonder if Kant and Heidegger would every have been able to express, or even form, their complex theories if they had no language to guide them through their thought process. I think language is not only a fundamental need of expression, but also a way to organize thoughts in one’s head. If I was unable to define at least aspects of my thoughts in concrete words, I believe I would get lost in the chaos of thought without language.
|January 23 2010||Disorders and Perception of Phones||At the beginning of this week, we discussed different language disorders. When I thought about some of the more serious disorders, I contemplated how frustrating it must be to feel like no one can understand you, and how isolated one would be. Going back to last week’s questions of the possibly of deep thought without language, I wonder if people with global aphasia are able to at least think clearly, or if that becomes scrambled as well. As tragic as it is that individuals are so isolated by their disorders, we are able to learn so much from case studies about these people. Perhaps one day these case studies will allow us to discover some form of effective treatment through neurosurgery or other means.
Later this week, we discussed the basic building blocks of language. When I was researching my topic – perception of continuous language – I thought about how the perception of phones could be skewed if they were not perceived in the appropriate context. When I played around with a few words, I realised that sometimes when consonants are not separated by a vowel, if they are isolated from the word, it sounds like there is a vowel between them. For example, in the word “train” we hear “t” and “r” as “tr,” but if I just say “t” and “r” together without the rest of the word, it almost sounds like there is an “i” between the two letters, resulting in a “tir” sound. I wonder if the context of the sounds in a sentence, or even just in a word, affect our ability to understand how phones are supposed to sound and if that contributes to our understanding of what they mean.
|January 30 2011||Reading and Understanding Language||I have always been fascinated with the ability to read. Last week, I was tutoring a child who has significant delays in language development. When we were trying to write a paper for her class, I found that she had a difficult time spelling. If she tried to sound out words, she was unable to guess what letters were in them, but if she listened to me sound out each letter in the word, her spelling improved. She was more successful at guessing the correct letter if it was a consonant than in her attempts with vowels.
Sounding out words made me realize how skewed the Grapheme-to-Phoneme Correspondence is in the English language. For example, the word “stop,” seems like it would be pretty easy to sound out, but the vowel sound is more of an “ah” then an “o” sound – a difficult concept to explain to a child who can barely speak. I found that although most consonants are pretty easy to sound out, (excluding irregularities such as “th” and “gh” sounds) the different sounds each vowel can make complicate the ability to understand and learn English. This is especially true when the same sounds can be created by different vowels.
I also found it interesting that when I asked her to read it back to me, it was as if she was reading it for the first time. Even though she was the author, she seemed to labour over every word. I wondered if it was because she had difficulty saying the words out loud, or if the added task of reading was adding to the challenge.
|February 6 2011||Updating Language||In class this week, we discussed morphology and the rules associated with it. In particular, we discussed the different theories of processing regular and irregular words. In general, theories seemed to support the notion that regular words follow some sort of rules and are accessed in the most direct way. Irregular words, however, require additional memorization. The dual route system and the parallel race model both seem to support the idea that regular words are easier to access than irregular ones.
In the text book, the distinction is made between open-class words and closed-class words. Open-class words are influence by society and are prone to change over time. It made me wonder if these words are more likely to be irregular words, and thus, more difficult to access. However, in regards to past-tense, they may still follow the same lexical rules. The word “Google,” as a verb, has followed the basic rules that apply to similar verbs when being converted to the past tense – “Googled.”
As open-class words evolve over time, I wonder if our models for internal lexicon are updated as well. In the spreading activation model, for example, are there longer links between new words as they are added to the vocabulary, or does it depend on the significance of the word in modern society? And how much priming is required to shorten these links? In the semantic feature model, words are connected on the basis of definition and characteristics of the word. If the concept represented by the word is new, and has few definable characteristics, but is very important in societal context, how does that word compare in accessibility with words that are more common, but less significant?
Lastly, I wondered about how these concepts are processed by a person with a language disability. If words are all equally difficult to understand and learn, are the rules and associations less important? Would each word have to be learned by whole-word memorization, as proposed for irregular words in the dual route system? Would the internal lexicon models continue to be updated, or would no amount of priming ever make new open-class words more accessible? I also wondered about the effect of age on the updating of these internal models, and how that, in turn, affects older generation’s alienation with modern society.
|February 14 2011||Understanding Language||At the beginning of one of our classes this past week, we discussed what it means to really know a word. The class decided that to know a word, one must know the meaning. For a while I wondered if this assumption was accurate. Many times in daily conversation I hear people use words and I think, “You clearly don’t what that word means.” The word “somniferous,” for example, is a word that I can spell, and pronounce, but I don’t know what it means. So I wondered if I really knew the word, or if I could only recognize it. I decided the simple act of recognizing a word was necessary but not sufficient in knowing it. In reading, an illiterate could potentially recognize letters, even words, if they spent enough time looking at letters and words. However, this act of recognizing characters does not provide knowledge about the semantics behind the figures. Without knowing the meaning of words, in spoken or written form, I agree that we do not really know a word.
In the last class of the week, we discussed grammar and its role in language. We reviewed that grammar is not equated to meaning in language. While this is true, the relationship between grammar and meaning is integral in the understanding of language. I read a study conducted by Miller and Isard (1963) in which they presented participants with sets of statements varying in grammatical correctness. They found that when different types of sentences were played over white noise, participants were able to recognize the words in the grammatical sentences over the words in anomalous sentences, and participants were more successful in both cases than in the instances in which ungrammatical sentences were used. By using top-down processing, the participants were able to identify the words in the more grammatical sentences because they made sense and were coherent with what the listeners were expecting. Clearly, grammar plays a role in understanding the meaning of language, even if it is not equated with meaning.
Just because I was curious, somniferous: bringing or inducing sleep, as drugs or influences.
|February 27 2011||Discourse||The last week of class, we discussed sentence parsing and discourse. While, sentence parsing is complex, I found the lecture on discourse fascinating. Before this course, I always just thought of discourse as talking, but there as so many more elements than just the verbal exchange. For example, the very definition of discourse includes written statements as well as verbal statements. I suppose I subscribed to the product view of discourse, when the most comprehensive research of the topic is part of the process view.
I found the concept of the construction of a mental model particularly intriguing. I reflected on how I often create a mental representation of the situation in my head. However, sometimes I make assumptions that are incorrect and incorporate them into my mental model. This often happens when I am reading a book that gives a description of a location. I picture it in my head, but when more details are added, I find that my original construction is inaccurate. However, even though I have this new information, I generally having a very difficult time editing my mental model, which I have relied upon for my comprehension of the story. While mental models, by nature, are usually under constant revision, if the new information has a serious impact on the macrostructure of the representation, I wonder if it makes it more difficult to incorporate that revision into the mental model.
I think mental models are most prone to error when we make bridging and causal inferences. Although these allow us to understand the statement easier and faster, they make people vulnerable to making inaccurate assumptions that can necessitate a serious revision in the mental model.
I also found it interesting to learn about scripts and schemas from the perspective of psycholinguistics. I remember learning about schemas in previous psychology classes, particularly in social psychology. In that class, we discussed how people often react negatively when a part of their schema is violated. I wonder if people are as defensive about a violation of their schema from a language perspective. I’ve witnessed, and sometimes been a part of, people becoming angry when they think they’re talking about the same thing but are actually addressing two different topics. I wonder if this is related to violation of two different schemas which triggers a defensive reaction.
|March 5 2011||Language and Music||This week, we discussed language in relation to music; music and language share many similarities. Both can be broken down into smaller segments of understanding, and both have structural rules that are necessary to make sense. We also discussed how these rules allow for an infinite number of combinations in both language and music. However, we did not examine the effects of these combinations. By following these rules, people are able to produce powerful combinations, in music and language, which affect the emotions of the perceiver and can inspire new combinations. This example obviously applies to musical artists; we all have experienced an emotional change inspired by music. However, this is also true in language – in fact, the effects of combinations of words are arguably more powerful than even the most beautifully composed songs. Speeches have the power to inspire everything from rousing revolutions to promoting peace. People who cannot compose a sonata or write a speech, can still appreciate the message involved in language and music.
In class, we talked about how the frontal brain regions are responsible for the syntactic integration of music and language. It would be interesting to examine the similarities between processing an inspirational piece of music and an inspirational speech or other linguistic representation. Comparing these results to the processing of a simple musical combination and a simple linguistic combination might allow us to examine the similarities not only between processing music and language, but of processing the meaning and the effects of music and language.
There are strong similarities between the perception of continuous speech and music. Top down processing is the understanding of language by using our expectations to fill in the blacks; it plays a huge role in phonemic restoration. When something violates these expectations, our brains go back and try to figure out what the unexpected word actually was and what context it is being used in. I wonder if this is the same in music. In class, when notes were played, we expected certain notes to follow. When these expectations were not met, it sounded strange, almost as if the ‘wrong’ note had been played. I wonder if this is due to a similar phenomenon to top-down processing. It also occurred to me that, unlike in the perception of continuous speech, the understanding of notes is not influenced by whether or not it is played in context. For example, sometimes people are able to understand a sentence as whole, but would be unable to understand just one word of that sentence if it had been removed and heard in isolation; this does not hold true with notes. If you hear a note in a scale, or a note in isolation, it is exactly the same note and can be interpreted as such, whereas the production of the phoneme changes based on the phonemes that precede and follow it, contributing to a better understanding in context than in isolation.
|March 13 2011||Gestures||The most interesting topic we discussed this week was gesturing. We talked about how people use gestures in communicating. The two big uses for gestures that we covered were a) helping us to communicate information and b) helping us remember things (facilitating lexical access). Performing a gesture can help you remember a word, name or a place you’re trying to communicate about, or it can give the other person a clue to help figure out what it is you’re trying to say.
Gestures help us illustrate our points and tell our listeners what is important. If you watch any television show with the volume off, you can still tell when the characters are mad, depressed, shocked, happy, serious, etc., just by looking at their gestures, their body language, and their expressions. Actually, it can be argued that, in some situations, gestures say more than words. For example, if a person says nothing, but points to the door, it is more powerful than if the person said, “I’d like you to exit through the door, which is in that direction.” We all know that moment in all romantic comedies where it makes more sense for the hero to kiss the heroine rather than to continue talking about their feelings.
Gestures also help us communicate important information when speaking is not an option. The international symbol for choking, for example, is putting your hands to your throat. This vital gesture requires communicates, “I’m choking; please save my life,” without saying a word. Sign language is based entirely on using gestures to communicate. In a less serious example, the game of charades is based on our ability to understand and portray words/phrases through gestures.
I have always wondered if it is difficult for someone who has learned sign language later in their life to use sign language without making the same gestures they would if they were speaking. When I try speaking with absolutely no gestures, it takes a lot of concentration. If it takes that much concentration to not make natural speaking gestures, I imagine it must be difficult to focus on not making those gestures while simultaneously concentrating on making gestures that express words.
|March 20 2011||Language Development||This week in class, we examined the development of language. When I consider the concept of learning a language, I marvel at the acquisition of a skill as complicated as communication through language at such a young age. And while it makes sense that young children and infants are able to pick up a language quickly, especially when they are immersed in it, I still find it extraordinary. When I think back to when I was learning my second language, I remember how difficult it was to learn and remember all the rules involved in the language. While learning a language over a few hours a week is completely different from being immersed in the language with no other way to communicate, the acquisition of a language is no easy task. What I found really interesting is that infants as young as six months can differentiate between the phrase breaks of their native language and a foreign language, and infants as young as nine month old can already discriminate between stress patters in their native language and a foreign language.
I found the topic on the way children speak to be particularly interesting. Like most people, I remember having young family members that have their own code for speaking. I remember visiting my cousins throughout the course of the year. This family has five daughters – the first three, which we refer to as “Group A,” are currently 15, 16, and 17; the second group, “Group B,” are two seven-year-old twins. I remember visiting them when the twins were just learning how to speak, and not being able to understand a word they said, probably as a result of their use of overextension and underextension. The older sisters, however, seemed to understand them perfectly and often acted as translators. The older sisters were all renamed by the twins (names which they still go by in family settings), who were engaging in novel uses of words. Abigail became Abs, Danielle became Nano, and Julia became Lala.
Over the course of a few years, the family went through stages with the twins’ learning process. At first, they were proud when the girls started speaking and putting words together. During this time, everyone who addressed the children, even members of their extended family and friends, engaged in motherese, with the exception of their father. Although their father considered “baby-talk” to be silly, the slow rate of speech and the exaggerated pronunciation were probably very useful in helping the girls learn to speak. In class, we discussed the instructive qualities of motherese, which I had never previously considered. However, when I examine how often children are told to say words or phrases or perform gestures (i.e., waving), motherse is very almost exclusively instructive. Whenever a person uses motherese to address a child, they expect, at minimum, some sort of reaction. About a year later, the family of the twins carefully corrected the way the girls used grammar and their pronunciation of the words. At seven years old, the girls are now proficient English speakers, and we often have difficulty getting them to stop talking.
|March 27 2011||Bilingualism||Bilingualism is a fascinating topic. When I was younger, my best friend was bilingual in Spanish and English. When I asked her what language she thought in, she said whatever language she was speaking. I was learning Spanish at the time, and I until that moment, I just assumed she translated everything, word for word, in her head. The concept of fluently thinking in a different language seemed so bizarre.
When we studied it in class, we discussed how bilingual children develop. In some cases, there is a developmental lag, and the children may have difficulty keeping language separate. We also talked about attention control. Although this can be difficult for children, some studies indicate that later on, bilingual individuals have exercise more control over abilities relating to attention. I wonder if control over attention is also affected the age of acquisition. In the strong version of the critical period hypothesis, the differences between bilingual individuals and monolingual individuals may be more exaggerated than in the weak version hypothesis.
Marchman (1993) thought that once the brain makes the neural commitment to one language, it is difficult for it to learn another. I wonder if this is affected by how similar the languages are to one another. For example, Spanish and Italian are very similar. Some of the neural networks used for Spanish, especially in regards to grammar, might be used in Italian as well. However, when comparing English and Chinese, there would be less of a crossover between the neural networking of each language. At first I wondered if this crossover could lead to errors, but Ellis (1985) did a study on error analysis and determined that most of the errors from the second languages were not from the first language. I wonder if this is consistent across all languages, or if the similarity between languages affects the error rate. Perhaps languages that are more similar are more easily confused, or perhaps languages that are less similar are more difficult to learn, and so there are more errors in the second language.
In class, we tried to watch a video of a man who learned to speak many languages after what is usually considered to be the critical period. When I went home and watched the video, I was very impressed. It seems as though complete immersion into a language might counteract the effects of the critical period. This, in turn, made me wonder if the critical period has a strict cut-off after puberty, or if there is a negative correlation between age and the ability to learn a new language. For example, if a 30-year-old and a 50-year-old of similar intellect were both immersed in a foreign language to which they had no previous exposure, would they learn the language at an equal pace, or would the 30-year-old learn it faster?
Language is fascinating, and the older I become, the more I recognize it as a sign of intelligence. I have a friend who is not even 20, and is learning her fifth language. I find it moderately embarrassing that, as a typical North American, I can only speak two languages. When I travel to Europe and see how many languages everyone speaks, I am in awe. After I graduate, I hope I have time to learn at least one more language, even if I'm well past the critical period.
|April 3 2011 (My Birthday)||Ebonics||Participating and watching the debates have been very interesting. It pushes me to examine my thoughts on controversial topics. In my debate, for example, we discussed whether Ebonics should be the primary language that subjects are taught in at some schools where many of the students speak Ebonics more than Standard US English. I was on the against side.
At first I thought, Ebonics is a recognized language, and if the children can understand the subjects in their native language rather than Standard US English, isn’t it important to make sure they understand and are interested in the subject matter? Of course it is. But teaching in the native language doesn’t guarantee understanding or interest in the subject matter. Furthermore, to deprive the student who already speak Ebonics the opportunity to learn a new language is unacceptable. There are clear benefits to being bilingual, including improved brain functioning and cognitive reasoning abilities. The primary language, Ebonics, will be taught by the community. Standard US English will be taught in schools so the students at least have it as a second language.
Knowing Standard US English equips the children with the tools to go beyond their community. If they do not speak the national language, they are limited to interact only with the minority of people who speak this language. Public school is supposed to offer the students the chance to do whatever they want – schools that teach Ebonics as the primary language limit the children. If a child does not speak Standard US English, the language spoken at the vast majority of companies and all universities and colleges in the country, they are limited unless they put in the time and the effort to learn Standard US English later in life.
I also wondered, doesn’t restricting Ebonics prevent understanding of a culture? Absolutely. But it is not the public school’s responsibility to teach culture, unless it is a specific course designed to study a variety cultures. In the same way that schools do not teach religion, traditions and other cultural concepts, the school should not teach in Ebonics for cultural reasons. The culture associated with Ebonics, as rich as it is, should be taught by the community, not by the schools.
|April 11 2011||Debates||This week we had our final round of debates, and the last week of class.
In one debate, the topic was the following: “it is best for children of linguistic minority groups to be educated in the society's dominant language at early stages of schooling (ages 4-12), because this will ensure their success in later stages of school. Ethnic languages can be introduced later when they will not interfere.” I would like to first point out that I had to look up the topic after the debate, because neither side argued their point. The “for” side said that children should be taught in English and made no mention about how another language could be spoken at home or in the community. They also made no mention to the introduction of languages “when they will not interfere,” which some studies say is from the very beginning. Bilingual children are able to switch back and forth between the languages from a very young age. All this side focused on was the age of acquisition. The “against” side discussed the benefits of bilingualism a little. They barely touched on the cultural side of language or the line “ensure their success in later stages of school.” Bilingual studies indicate that children that are bilingual have access to areas of their brain that monolingual children do not. The benefits of speaking more than one language are extensive, especially in the later stages of school, and life. In the end, I had to look up the topic of the debate, because the entire debate was “age of acquisition” vs. “bilingualism,” when both concepts should have been incorporated to each side’s debate. These concepts were explained with little additional detail than they were in class, and they were barely related back to the topics. After watching this debate, I asked my professor if I could spoil my vote for future debates if I truly felt there was no winner.
The last debate was about language shaping the way we think - what an appropriate last class for the course. It’s a question I have wondered since I read George Orwell’s 1984. Can the language we speak affect our very thoughts? After the debate I have ultimately decided no, it cannot. However, the culture the language is based in does affect our thoughts, and that culture also affects language. It’s an example of the third variable effect in correlational studies. One variable does not influence the second; rather, they are both influenced by a third variable – in this case, culture. In regards to the debate itself, I found that the groups were a little under-rehearsed and under-prepared. As important as it is to cite studies, it is equally important, if not more so, to explain the studies in a meaningful way (i.e., without the jargon used in the paper) and relate it back to the original topic.
Overall, this class has been educational, entertaining and has forced me to be more insightful than most other classes I have taken. I enjoyed it thoroughly and would recommend it to future students.