Daniel Altshuler is an assistant professor of linguistics at Hampshire College. His primary research interests are in the areas of semantics and pragmatics of natural language. His research investigates how compositional semantics interacts with discourse structure and discourse coherence. For more information, his website is here.
Causal reasoning about states
This talk will consider the asymmetry between how we interpret event-event sequences vs. event-state sequences such as:
(1) a. Justin fell down. Ava pushed him (Cause-Effect, Effect-Cause)
b. Ava pushed Justin. He fell down (Cause-Effect)
(2) a. The barn was red. I painted it. (Effect-Cause, Cause-Effect)
b. I painted the barn. It was red. (*Cause-Effect)
(3) a. A child was dead. A police officer shot him while he had his hands up. (Effect-Cause)
b. A police officer shot a child while he had his hands up. #He was dead. (*Cause-Effect)
Notice that (2b) cannot have the causal inference found in (1b) and (3c) is infelicitous. Based on these and other related data, we will consider the view that the coherence relation, Result, is aspectually sensitive in a way that Explanation is not. We will consider some challenges to this view and I will outline some ways to proceed. In the end, we will have a new lens through which to think about narrative progression and narrative regression.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lynnette Arnold is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow affiliated with the Department of Anthropology and the Swearer Center of Brown. Her research focuses on how language both produces and contests the political-economic marginalization of geographically mobile populations, in particular cross-border Latin American communities.
Paja Faudree is associate professor of Anthropology at Brown. Her research interests include language and politics, indigenous literary and social movements, the interface between music and language, the ethnohistory of New World colonization, and the global marketing of indigenous rights discourses, indigenous knowledge, and plants.
Language and Social Justice: Teaching About the “Word Gap”
Contemporary work in sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology is increasingly taking up social justice as an explicit framework, building on historical scholarship that laid the foundation for understanding how language use is tied to social inequality. In such efforts, educational contexts are crucial settings for intervention, sites where sharing scholarly insights about language can provoke effective public conversations about the roots and contemporary manifestations of social inequality linked to language. Inspired by this work, we suggest that conducting such language-related educational efforts within our institutions of higher education can make crucial contributions to the advancement of social justice.
In this talk, we describe our efforts to offer workshops on language and social justice for students involved in service learning, as part of the Swearer Center co-curriculum. We discuss in detail a workshop that focused on the topic of the “word gap”: research on disparities in how children perform in school that is based on the notion that the vocabulary of children from low-income communities lags behind that of their more affluent peers. This research claims that by the time they enter kindergarten, low-income children display a 30 million word deficit when compared to higher-income students. Narratives about this so-called “word gap” are among the most pervasive discourses about language and social inequality in the United States today, and have inspired programs around the country designed to illuminate this disparity—including, here in Providence, the 5 million dollar initiative Providence Talks. However, such interventions, and the research on which they are based, have also been the target of substantive critiques by linguistic anthropologists and sociolinguists. We suggest that teaching students and others about the word gap” debate can help them gain a deeper understanding of how language works to uphold and continually reproduce social inequalities, while also inspiring them to think about how language can be used as a tool for challenging these injustices.
Anna Bjurman Pautz is a Visiting Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Brown University. Her research focuses on philosophy of language and specifically fictional coreference. For more information, see a brief interview of her here.
Two-dimensionalism and Empty names in Propositional Attitude reports
Two-dimensionalism is no doubt the most interesting development to follow Kripke’s Naming and Necessity. It is interesting with respect to proper names and names of natural kind terms since it combines Frege’s distinction between meaning and reference with Kripke’s views. Chalmers has written extensively on two-dimensionalism and has recently given a detailed account of propositional attitude reports. In this paper I will raise a problem for Chalmers’ account of belief reports. I will argue that empty names are a challenge to Chalmers’ analysis of belief reports.
Granted that there are belief reports with empty names in the subject position of the that-clause, Chalmers’ analysis should assign those belief reports truth values in accordance with our intuitions. Since empty names are names that appear to fail to refer, two-dimensionalism has to be combined with some view about the nature of the semantic values of empty names. I will consider three different views: the semantic value is the empty set, the semantic value is a created abstract object, and the semantic value is assigned in possible worlds considered counterfactually. On the first two views, I think, Chalmers’ analysis of belief reports is false. The third view is, I think, partially successful.
Roger Levy is Associate Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the director of Computational Psycholinguistics Laboratory at MIT. His research focuses on theoretical and applied questions in the processing and acquisition of natural language. For more information, his website is here.
Implicit gender bias in preferred linguistic descriptions for expected events
Language production and comprehension involve rapid integration of diverse information sources. Stereotypes—implicit mental associations among concepts—can influence event expectations and thus bias preferred linguistic descriptions. Above and beyond the effects of stereotypes on event expectations, however, can the mappings between event expectations and preferred linguistic descriptions themselves be biased? Here we provide an affirmative answer in one test case: in English speakers’ preferences regarding pronominal references to individuals whose gender is not known or determined, expectations that the individual might be female manifest in “she” pronoun preferences at a lower rate than expectations that the individual might be male manifest in “he” pronoun preferences. In large-scale experiments conducted during the 2016 US and 2017 UK electoral campaigns, where major-party candidates and fluctuating electoral prospects provided natural experiments in changing event expectations, we found that “she” references to the next head of state were consistently disadvantaged relative to election-outcome expectations. In further experiments we find that this bias also generalizes more broadly to pronoun production preferences in a wider variety of contexts. Finally, we investigate the influence of pronoun gender on event interpretation. For a rational comprehender calibrated to the production preferences described above, the signal provided by “she” that the referent may be female should be stronger than the signal provided by “he” that the referent may be male. In text memory experiments, however, we find the opposite to be the case. Our combined experimental results imply that, in linguistic descriptions of events involving a individual whose gender may not be known, speaker expectations regarding that individual’s likely gender are not faithfully transmitted — rather, expectations that the individual may be female are systematically under-conveyed. These findings pose challenges for rational theories of pragmatics, and exemplify how the tools of experimental psycholinguistics can contribute to our understanding of implicit cognition.
This talk reports ongoing work in collaboration with Veronica Boyce, Till Poppels, and Titus von der Malsburg. An initial paper can be found here.