In Praise of the Garrulous

Today we had a talk by the author and translator Allan Cameron on his new book ‘In Praise of the Garrulous‘.  In it, he sings the praise of ‘Garrulousness’ or talkativeness, and rejects the idea that human languages were initially homogeneous.  Indeed, he claimed that monolingualism is not our natural state, but we are designed to handle multiple languages, dialects and registers.

He also talked about the idea that there is a trade-off between linguistic diversity and the ability of a society to accumulate knowledge through technologies such as writing.  Although he did acknowledge that some systems (e.g. Chinese) protect linguistic diversity by transcending exact phonetic representation.

The talk was illustrated by a wide range of sources – literary and historical – including the role of the printing industry in Venice on the standardisation and spread of modern day Italian.  The book promises to be an  interesting approach to language evolution that takes into account many aspects that current scientific researchers leave out such as how power and war influence how languages change.

Under the Influence: An overview of recent insights into the CNTNAP2 gene

In my last post I outlined a number of experimental studies using the Zebra Finch that have highlighted an additional dimension to the FoxP2 gene – not only is it upregulated in the avian brain throughout song development, but it is also downregulated in important song nuclei of adult birds in singing contexts that seem to involve ‘listening to one’s own song’ and subsequent error correction.  Given that the pattern of expression of this gene is very similar in the developing brain of both humans and birds, one conclusion that has been drawn from this research is that FOXP2 downregulation may equivocally serve to facilitate online language processing function in the adult human brain.

General background on an intriguing new celebrity

Naturally, the next step has been to try and identify the downstream genes regulated by FOXP2 in order to build up a more detailed picture of how interactions between complex genetic networks influence key language-related disorders in humans.   It is as a result of such efforts that another gene, although discovered almost a decade ago, has found its way into the spotlight: CNTNAP2.

In the developing human brain, CNTNAP2 is enriched in functionally specialised regions such as the frontal cortex, the stratium, and the dorsal thalamus (circuits within these regions are referred to as cortico-striato-thalmic circuits) central to executive function, planning and executing complex sequential movements, and thus potentially, language.  This presents a striking contrast to the more uniform expression of Cntnap2 observed in the developing rodent brain where there is no evidence for enrichment in specific regions, suggesting a functional difference in the human version that could be related to vocal learning and modification.

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Futurama Supports Cultural Evolution

A recent episode of Futurama – ‘A clockwork Origin‘ – sees the Professor go head to head with Creationists, and makes a good point about the difference between Creationism and Evolution.

After his work on the origin of man is mocked, the Professor decides to leave Earth for a desolate planet. However, the nano-bots which he designs to purify the water evolve overnight into a full-scale ecosystem, complete with robo-dinosaurs that are eventually wiped out by a solar flare.

At first, the Professor is unwilling to see the change in the robots as Evolution, saying ‘Those robots didn’t evolve by themselves, I put them there – I’m a genius, get over it’. However, after the crew is captured by robo-anthropologists (anthrobopologists?), he’s forced to admit that they really have Evolved. Further, he’s forced to admit that he has no problem with the idea of a creator playing a small part in the origins of Humans, just as he started the race of robots.

This is all good news for those studying Cultural Evolution – people are coming round to the idea that Evolution is an abstract process rather than the theory of how humans evolved from apes.  Perhaps us researchers will be spared in the robot uprising, which is sure to come:  As Bender says “Robots do everything faster, including evolving”.

Language, Thought, and Space (V): Comparing Different Species As I’ve talked about in my last posts (see I, II, III, and IV) different cultures employ different coordinate systems or Frames of References (FoR) when talking about space.  FoRs

“serve to specify the directional relationships between objects in space, in reference to a shared referential anchor” (Haun et al. 2006: 17568)

As shown in my last post these linguistic differences seem to reflect certain cognitive differences:

Whether speakers mainly use a relative, ego-based FoR, a cardinal-direction/or landmark-based absolute FoR, or an object-based, intrinsic based FoR, also influences how they solve and conceptualise spatial tasks.

In my last post I also posed the question whether there is a cognitive “default setting” that we and the other great apes inherited from our last common ancestor that is only later overridden by cultural factors. The  crucial question then is which Frame of Reference might be the default one.

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Alcohol Consumption affects Morphological Complexity

I previously talked about how changes in the demography of learners can affect the cultural evolution of a language.  The hypothesis is that language adapts to the balance between declarative and procedural memory users.  Since alcohol consumption affects procedural but not declarative memory (Smith & Smith, 2003), we might expect to see communities that have a high alcohol consumption using less complex morphology.

I find that communities that have a morphologically marked future tense have significantly higher alcohol consumption than communities that have a lexically marked future tense (Alcohol consumption data from WHO, language structure data from World atlas of language structures, 198 languages, t = 14.8, p<0.0001).  This statistic does not take into account many factors, but is meant as a motivation for further research into language structure and social structure.

Smith C, & Smith D (2003). Ingestion of ethanol just prior to sleep onset impairs memory for procedural but not declarative tasks. Sleep, 26 (2), 185-91 PMID: 12683478

Language Log and The Future of Science Blogging

Last night I head a talk by Geoffrey Pullum about the linguistics mega-blog language log.  Amusing as always, Pullum introduced us to the writers and took us through some of his favourite posts.  We even got to see a post being published live!  I shouldn’t have to tell this audience about language log, but I did learn a few new things – did you know that Mark Liberman sometimes gets up at 4am to write posts?  Did you know Pullum has written his own computer program for keeping track of what he’s said?

Recently, I was talking to a mathematician about blogging and he revealed that most research in mathematics is presented, reviewed, criticised, corrected and incorporated before the journal article reaches print.  Publishing is more about prestige while the actual research has bypassed the review process.  David Dobbs writes this week about the inflated importance of paper publishing and argues that mediums like blogging are faster, cheaper and engage the public – which should be a priority for science.

I asked Pullum whether he thought blogs would take a similar role in Linguistics.  I was expecting a reply about the self-evident nature of mathematics and how Linguistics is a subject where you really need a peer-review and editorial process.  However, Pullum was very positive about the role of blogs in research, and pointed out that many theories undergo rigorous criticism on language log, sometimes within minutes of being posted.  Further, he feels that the blog has had an effect on science journalism and that people are much more cautious about putting forward the kinds of views that Language Log takes apart (Snowclones, prescriptive grammar etc.).  Pullum also feels that blogging requires more bravery than peer-reviewed publishing:  Your idea is open to the wide world without careful consideration by many people.

Certainly, I’ve benefited from blogging about my research.  On the one hand, it forces me to put my research in a clear, concise format.  On the other hand, other people do some of the work for me by asking questions, pointing out problems and even, in one case, checking the validity of my data.  There’s even talk of blogging being part of assessed coursework for the MSc course here.  Maybe one day, there will be no more need for the mysterious art of printing research on paper.

Memory, Social Structure and Language: Why Siestas affect Morphological Complexity

Children are better than adults at learning second languages.  Children find it easy, can do it implicitly and achieve a native-like competence.  However, as we get older we find learning a new language difficult, we need explicit teaching and find some aspects difficult to master such as grammar and pronunciation.  What is the reason for this?  The foremost theories suggest it is linked to memory constraints (Paradis, 2004; Ullman, 2005).  Children find it easy to incorporate knowledge into procedural memory – memory that encodes procedures and motor skills and has been linked to grammar, morphology and pronunciation.  Procedural memory atrophies in adults, but they develop good declarative memory – memory that stores facts and is used for retrieving lexical items.  This seems to explain the difference between adults and children in second language learning.  However, this is a proximate explanation.  What about the ultimate explanation about why languages are like this?

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The Evolution of Religion

I’ve been attending the Language as Social Coordination: An Evolutionary Perspective conference in Warsaw, Poland.  I heard a talk by Konrad Talmont-Kaminski on the Evolution of Religion.  Although there have been many approaches to this before (and he has a blog on related themes here), his talk was particularly clear.

First, he drew a distinction between the co-ordination of action between a group of people and the co-ordination of long-term goals.  For co-ordination of action (e.g. carrying a heavy load/ sharing food), the discourse must reflect reality.  However, for co-ordination of goals, this need not be the case.  He gave an example of a hunt.  Talking about where to go and plans for herding or trapping should try to reflect the real problem as closely as possible.  However, if the hunt becomes long and arduous, some members might give up.  Invoking a wrathful god that might motivate people to continue.

In this sense, long-term co-ordination needs to sole the free-rider problem (where a lazy minority who still reap the benefits of the group will eventually destabilise the group and the benefits disappear).  You can do this by invoking beliefs in higher powers that punish defectors or reward co-operators.  However, evidence against these beliefs might destabilise the group.

The evidence against a belief can come in three forms:  Evidence can directly contradict the content of a belief.  A belief that there is a Unicorn that follows me around will soon be destabilised.  The answer is to make the beliefs invisible, dangerous of far away (the Flying Spaggetti Monster comes to mind).

A belief can also exploit the current methodological context.  For example, it’s easy to claim the shroud of Turin really does date back to the time of Christ if Carbon Dating hasn’t been invented yet.

Finally, a belief can use social context to protect it from destabilisation – for example, you can make the shroud of Turin ‘sacred’ so that it can’t be examined or questioned.

A belief that harnesses all three of these tactics is, in Talmont-Kaminski’s terms, ‘Superempirical’.  That is, you can’t disprove it because it resists empirical investigation. This means that religion can be shaped by functionality rather than evidence.  This is exactly what you want to achieve social co-ordination of long-term goals.

Talmont-Kaminski also points out that the consequences of defecting should also be Superempirical.  For example, going to Heaven or Hell in an afterlife.

In the conference, a commentator pointed out that many nations that have very good co-ordination of social goals (e.g. Sweden) seem to be aethist, while many nations that are very un-coordinated (e.g. Afghanistan) are rife with religious belief.  Talmont-Kaminski took this point, but argued that there are now social constructs (banks, government) that can take over the role of co-ordination of goals more effectively.

Talmont-Kaminski has a book coming out soon, a preview chapter can be found here.

Konrad Talmont-Kaminski (2008). In a Mirror, Darkly: Does Superstition Reflect Rationality? Skeptical Inquirer, 32 (4)

More on The Social Sensitivity Hypothesis

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgIn a recent post, James wrote about the Social Sensitivity hypothesis.  Given findings that certain genetic variants will make a person more sensitive to social contact and more reliant on social contact under stress, it proposes that certain genetic variants ‘fit’ better with certain social structures.  In support of this idea, Way and Lieberman (2010) find a correlation between the prevalence of this variant and the level of collectivism (as opposed to individualism) in a society.

An alternative explanation I’ve been thinking about is migration patterns.  If genetic differences make a person less reliant on social networks, they may be more likely to migrate.  This would predict that areas settled later in human history will have more ‘non socially sensitive’ individuals.

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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