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 the last post, I discussed some of the literature into experimental communication, with the intention of then following it up by looking at recent experiments done at Edinburgh (and beyond). But as Hannah pipped me to the post, with a great overview of the wide range of experiments into language evolution, I’ll instead limit this to two relatively recent papers on Human Iterated Learning (Kirby et al., 2008; Cornish et al., 2009)
Drawing from experimental approaches found in Diffusion Chain and Artificial Language Learning studies, Kirby et al (2008) show that as a consequence of intergenerational transmission languages “culturally evolve in such a way as to maximize their own transmissibility: over time, the languages in our experiments become easier to learn and increasingly structured.” In these experiments a subject is exposed to an alien language, made up of two elements within a finite space: meanings (consisting of a picture with three discernible elements: colour, shape and movement) paired with signals (consisting of a string of letters). Importantly, the subject is only exposed to a set amount of meanings (SEEN items), after which they are then presented with a group of meanings (some SEEN, some UNSEEN) without the corresponding signal — the goal being that they provide a response (be it the correct version or not). On completion of forming the meaning-signal pairs the experiment is repeated, except this time the new subjects are trained on the data provided by the previous generation. This continues until the experiment is finished, which in this case happened at generation ten.
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.
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.
When talking about language evolution there’s always a resistance from people exclaiming; ‘but how do we know?’, ‘surely all of this is conjecture!’ and, because of this, ‘what’s the point?’
Thomas Scott-Phillips and Simon Kirby have written a new article (in press) in ‘Trends in Cognitive Science’ which addresses some of the techniques currently used to address language evolution using experiments in the laboratory.
The Problem of language evolution
The problem of language evolution is one which encompasses not only the need to explain biologically how language came about but also how language came to be how it is today through processes of cultural evolution. Because of this potential ambiguity arises when using the term ‘language evolution’. To sort this ambiguity the authors put forward the following:
Language evolution researchers are interested in the processes that led to a qualitative change from a non-linguistic state to a linguistic one. In other words, language evolution is concerned with the emergence of language
Much of recent research in linguistics has involved the use of experimentation to directly test hypotheses by comparing and contrasting real-world data with that of laboratory results and computer simulations. In a previous post I looked at how humans, non-human primates, and even non-human animals are all capable of high-fidelity cultural transmission. Yet, to apply this framework to human language, another set of experimental literature needs to be considered, namely: artificial language learning and constructed communication systems.
When looking at culture-driven population dynamics, a common assumption is that there’s a positive feedback between cultural evolution and demographic growth. The general prediction, then, is for unlimited growth in population and culture. Yet models based on these assumptions tend to ignore important aspects of cultural evolution, namely: (1) cultural transmission is not perfect; (2) culture does not always promote population growth. Ghirlanda et al (2010) incorporate these two features into a model, and arrive at some interesting conclusions. In particular, they argue those populations maintaining large amounts of culture may run the risk of extinction rather than stability or growth.
For some time now, evolutionary biologists have used phylogenetics. It is a well-established, powerful set of tools that allow us to test evolutionary hypotheses. More recently, however, these methods are being imported to analyse linguistic and cultural phenomena. For instance, the use of phylogenetics has led to observations that languages evolve in punctuational bursts, explored the role of population movements, and investigated the descent of Acheulean handaxes. I’ve followed the developments in linguistics with particular interest; after all, tracing the ephemeral nature of language is a daunting task. The first obvious road block is that prior to the invention of writing, the uptake of which is limited in geography and history, language leaves no archaeological record for linguists to examine. One particular note I’d like to make is that when Charles Darwin first formulated his theory of natural selection, he took inspiration from linguistic family trees as the basis for his sketch on the evolutionary tree of life. So it seems rather appropriate that phylogenetic approaches are now being used to inform our knowledge regarding linguistic evolution.