Searching Research Blogging for “bilingualism”, two blogs dominate the recent posts: mine and Language on the Move – a blog started by Ingrid Piller and Kimie Takahashi at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Since starting last year, they have been joined by a host of international collaborators. It’s a really well organised blog – they even have separate facebook and twitter officers!
The blog discusses topics on language learning, multilingualism and multicultural sociolinguistics. The writers are bilingual and certainly pro-bilingualism, but it’s good to see a genuine debate over the so-called ‘bilingual edge’ (see Piller 2010- a review of ‘the bilingual edge’ which argues that differences elicited in controlled conditions don’t necessarily translate to the real world where variables are correlated).
There’s been a recent spurt of posts and publications aimed at trying to get people out of a mono-mindset. Alastair Pennycook writes about Metrolingualism (see also, Otsuji & Pennycook, 2010) – the common use of many languages to construct identity. He reminds us that people are most cultural traits are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the majority of people can communicate in many mediums. Despite this, there is a tendency both in research and general opinion to see monolingualism as the norm and bilingualism as exceptional.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, the monolingual mindset extends into computational modelling of language acquisition and evolution. Often, there are implicit monolingual assumptions. On the other hand, whole paradigms such as Steels & Belpeame’s ‘Naming Game’ focus on how populations of agents can arrive at the same, single mapping between words and meanings.
In fact, there is much evidence to suggest that children can acquire multiple languages easily. My own research focusses on a simple question – why did we evolve to be able to learn multiple languages? It would be more efficient to have a single human language – especially if it were innately specified. Instead, we have a culturally transmitted system that exhibits a large amount of variation.
I’m looking at two possible answers: Either there is no selective pressure on language and bilingualism is the product of historical accident (drift) or there is an inherent advantage to the flexibility that bilingualism affords, both for communication and for the evolvability of the system. Along the way, I’m hoping to look at whether monolingualism is a legitimate abstraction, or whether bilingualism is a fundamental part of language (for a recent talk, see here).
However, Pennycook points out the paradox of a monolingual mindset in a pervasively bilingual world, suggesting that it may be a political affliction rather than a scientific approach:
“If we take the current sociolinguistic literature on styles, registers, discourses, genres and practices seriously, then monolingualism is also a myth: a monolingual mindset does not emerge from a state of monolingualism, because no such state can exist. If languages are myths, so too is monolingualism!”
Piller, I. (2010). The bilingual edge: why, when, and how to teach your child a second language International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 13 (1), 115-118 DOI: 10.1080/13670050802645942
Otsuji, E., & Pennycook, A. (2010). Metrolingualism: fixity, fluidity and language in flux International Journal of Multilingualism, 7 (3), 240-254 DOI: 10.1080/14790710903414331
In a series of posts, I’ll review the current state of the field of the Evolution of Colour Categories. It has been argued that universals in colour naming across cultures can be traced back to constraints from many domains including genetic, perceptual and environmental. I’ll review these arguments and show that if our perception is affected by our language, then many conflicts can be resolved. Furthermore, it undermines the Universalist assumption that universal patterns in colour terms are evidence for innate constraints.
Part 1: Domains of Constraint
Part 2: Universal patterns are not evidence for innate constraints
For the full dissertation and for references, go here.
An upcoming book by Cordelia Fine explores the role of society in shaping gender differences that have been traditionally thought of as innate. There’s an informative article here.
The way children learn language sets the adaptive landscape on which languages evolve. This is acknowledged by many, but there are few connections between models of language acquisition and models of language Evolution (some exceptions include Yang (2002), Yu & Smith (2007) and Chater & Christiansen (2009)).
However, the chasm between the two fields may be getting smaller, as theories are defined as models which are both more interpretable to the more technically-minded Language Evolutionists and extendible into populations and generations.
Also, strangely, models of word learning have been getting simpler over time. This may reflect a move from attributing language acquisition to specific mechanisms towards a more general cognitive explanation. I review some older models here, and a recent publication by Fazly et al.
Ok, so my previous experiment was an incredible failure. The program crashed in sixteen different ways, including suddenly deciding not to respond to key presses for no apparent reason. A rather lazy Ghost in The Shell. Although about 8 people participated, the data was unusable. What on earth was I trying to achieve?
The experiment was a typical human Iterated Learning experiment (e.g. Kirby, Cornish, Smith, 2008) – there were a set of meanings (Tetris blocks) which varied along two dimensions (shape and colour). Participants were shown the words for half of the meanings, but then asked to recall words for each meanings. These responses were then given to the next participant as input. Over time, other such experiments result in meanings which are compositional and more learnable. However, the meaning space tends to ‘collapse’ as the same label is applied to many meanings.
I was trying to do an iterated learning experiment which teased apart the difference between labelling a form and labelling a function. If participants label the function of an object, the environment will play a greater role in the evolution of the language.
There were two chains – one played Tetris where you have to complete lines to score points – colours are irrelevant. The other chain played “Coltris” where you scored points by placing more than 4 blocks of the same colour next to each other. Also, each individual block in a brick finds its own lowest point (i.e. the brick breaks apart), meaning that shape is much less important. That is, for Tetris, the functionally salient feature was shape while for Coltris it was colour.
What I was hoping was that, for the Tetris players, the signal space would ‘collapse’ in the colour dimension. That is, labels would distinguish bricks by shape, but not colour. For the Coltris, the opposite should have happened – labels would have distinguished bricks by colour but not shape.
Gary Lupyan has shown that naming categories of objects can affect your perception of those objects (Lupyan, G. (2008). The Conceptual Grouping Effect: Categories Matter (and named categories matter more). Cognition, 108, 566-577.). My experiment looks into where those distinct category names came from in the first place. Having said this, the experiment would have been more neat than illuminating.
A recent comic from SMBC derives a cultural transmission universal from the observation that honesty tends to be evolutionarily unstable.
Hello, people of the Blogosphere!
Why not take some time out from your dedicated reading to do a little language evolution experiment! And all you have to do is play Tetris!
… and learn an alien language. It takes no more than 10 minutes.
The instructions and game are here:
Due to me being a terrible programmer, it’ll probably crash or do some weird things. But it’s all in the name of pseudo-science!
P.S. – users of the latest Firefox will need to update java.