Monthly Archives: October 2019

LingLang Lunch (11/7/2019): Judith Kroll (UC Irvine)

Judith Kroll is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Language Science at the University of California, Irvine. Her research employs bilingualism as a tool to reveal the interplay between language and cognition. For more information, her website is here.


The fate of the native language in second language learning:
A new hypothesis about bilingualism, mind, and brain

In the last two decades there has been an upsurge of research on the bilingual mind and brain. Although the world is multilingual, only recently have cognitive and language scientists come to see that the use of two or more languages provides a unique lens to examine the neural plasticity engaged by language experience. But how? Bilinguals proficient in two languages appear to speak with ease in each language and often switch between the two languages, sometimes in the middle of a sentence. In this last period of research we have learned that the two languages are always active, creating a context in which there is mutual influence and the potential for interference. Yet proficient bilinguals rarely make errors of language, suggesting that they have developed exquisite mechanisms of cognitive control. Contrary to the view that bilingualism adds complication to the language system, the new research demonstrates that all languages that are known and used become part of the same language system. A critical insight is that bilingualism provides a tool for examining aspects of the cognitive and neural architecture that are otherwise obscured by the skill associated with native language performance in monolingual speakers. In this talk I illustrate this approach and consider the consequences that bilingualism holds more generally for cognition and learning.

LingLang Lunch (10/30/2019): Joshua Hartshorne (Boston College)

Joshua Hartshorne is an assistant professor of psychology and the director of Language Learning Lab at Boston College Department of Psychology. His research in language development covers a variety of phenomena in syntax, semantics, and pragmatics, and has lately been focusing on bootstrapping language acquisition, language and common sense, and critical periods. For more information, her website is here.


Critical periods in language, cognitive development, and massive online experiments

Only a few years ago, it was widely accepted that cognitive abilities develop during childhood and adolescence, with cognitive decline beginning at around 20 years old for fluid intelligence and in the 40s for crystalized intelligence. The obvious outlier was language learning, which appeared to begin its decline in early childhood. All these claims have been challenged by a recent flurry of studies — both from my lab and others. In particular, the ability to collect large-scale datasets has brought into sharp relief patterns in the data that were previously indiscernible. The fluid/crystalized intelligence distinction has broken down: at almost any age between 20 and 60, some abilities are still developing, some are at their peak, and some are in decline (Hartshorne & Germine, 2015). Most surprisingly, evidence suggests that the ability to learn syntax is preserved until around 18 (Hartshorne, Tenenbaum, & Pinker, 2018). This has upended our understanding of language learning and its relationship to the rest of cognitive development. In this talk, I review recent published findings, present some more recent unpublished findings, and try to point a path forwards. I also discuss the prospects for massive online experiments not just for understanding cognitive development, but for understanding cognition in general.

LingLang Lunch (10/23/2019): Uriel Cohen Priva (Brown University)

Understanding lenition through its causal structure

Consonant lenition refers to a list of seemingly unrelated processes that are grouped together by their tendency to occur in similar environments (e.g. intervocalically) and under similar conditions (e.g. in faster speech). These processes typically include degemination, voicing, spirantization, approximantization, tapping, debuccalization, and deletion (Hock 1986). So, we might ask: What are the commonalities among all these processes and why do they happen? Different theories attribute lenition to assimilation (Smith 2008), effort-reduction (Kirchner 1998), phonetic undershoot (Bauer 2008), prosodic smoothing (Katz 2016), and low informativity (Cohen Priva 2017). We argue that it is worthwhile to focus on variable lenition (pre-phonologized processes) in conjunction with two phonetic characteristic of lenition: reduced duration and increased intensity. Using mediation analysis, we find causal asymmetries between the two, with reduced duration causally preceding increased intensity. These results are surprising as increased intensity (increased sonority) is often regarded as the defining property of lenition. The results not only simplify the assumptions associated with effort-reduction, prosodic smoothing, and low informativity, but they are also compatible with phonetic undershoot accounts.

LingLang Lunch (10/16/2019): Jeff Mielke (NC State)

Jeff Mielke is professor of the department of English at North Carolina State University. His main research interests include linguistic sound patterns and segmental phonology. For more information, his website is here.


Phonetic studies of vowels in two endangered languages

I report acoustic and articulatory studies of two endangered languages with typologically unusual vowel systems. Bora, a Witotoan language spoken in Peru and Colombia, has been described as having a three-way backness contrast between unrounded high vowels /i ɨ ɯ/. An audio-video investigation of Bora vowels reveals that while none of these vowels are produced with lip rounding, the vowel described as /ɨ/ is actually a front vowel with extreme lingual-dental contact. This appears to be a previously unknown vowel type. Kalasha, a Dardic language spoken in Pakistan, has been described as having 20 vowel phonemes: plain /i e a o u/, nasalized /ĩ ẽ ã õ ũ/, retroflex /i˞ e˞ a˞ o˞ u˞/, and retroflex nasalized /ĩ˞ ẽ˞ ã˞ õ˞ ũ˞/. An ultrasound study of Kalasha vowels shows that the vowels described as retroflex are produced not with retroflexion but with various combinations of tongue bunching and other tongue shape differences, raising questions about if and how these phonetic dimensions should be integrated with notions of basic vowel quality. I discuss implications of the Bora and Kalasha data for models of vowel features.

LingLang Lunch (10/2/2019): Lisa Davidson (NYU)

Lisa Davidson is professor and chair of linguistics at New York University. Her main research interests include laboratory phonology, speech production & perception, language acquisition. For more information, her website is here.


The link between syllabic nasals and glottal stops in American English

Examples of syllabic nasals in English abound in phonological studies (e.g., Hammond 1999, Harris 1994, Wells 1995), but there is little explicit discussion about the surrounding consonant environments that condition syllabic nasals. In this talk, we examine the production of potential word-final syllabic nasals in American English following preceding consonants including oral stops, glottal stops, fricatives, flap, and laterals. The data come from a laboratory study of read speech with speakers from New York and other regions. Acoustic analysis indicates that [n̩] is only prevalent after [ʔ], with some extension to /d/. The results suggest that /ən/ is the appropriate underlying representation for syllabic nasals, and an articulatory sketch to account for the prevalence of [n̩] after coronal stops is laid out. To provide a link between the [ʔ] allophone and syllabic nasals, previous analyses of acoustic enhancement proposed for glottally-reinforced [tʔ] in coda position (e.g. Keyser and Stevens 2006) are extended to the syllabic nasal case.