Why Linguistics?

This page of my blog is not devoted to musical theatre, or movies, or any of the myriad of nerdy topics I typically cover. This is a post about why the social and behavioral sciences are important, and why you should value and protect them. Why am I posting it here? First, because I want this message to reach as wide of an audience as possible, and I am willing to use any and all online resources to do so; second, anyone who has stumbled upon this blog is most likely a geek (kudos for that, btw). I am hoping that you love science the way I do, and will therefore think carefully about what I say here, and perhaps share it with others. So please, keep reading, even if you find this five years from now, when the immediate situation has passed.

Background: The FIRST Act

On March 13th, 2014, the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Research and Technology passed a bill called the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2014 (H.R. 4186; read it here). The bill will now move on to consideration by the full Committee.

One of the aims of the FIRST Act is to increase transparency between government funded research organizations such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the American public – to give taxpayers easy and open access to scientific findings gathered with their money. This is a laudable goal, and as far as I know, nobody in the scientific community has any issue with it. However, the bill does not actually provide effective open access.

Even more distressingly, the bill has added inefficient and duplicative new steps to the review process. This not only makes it harder for scientists to receive funding, it significantly undermines the excellent merit review system already in place. Finally, the bill includes a 22% funding cut to the Social, Behavior and Economic Sciences subdivision of the NSF (of which Linguistics is a part).

What can you do to help stop this bill from being passed? The Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) and several other organizations have each written responses detailing the general harm the First Act will cause to the SBE sciences, and COSSA has provided a message you can send to your House Representative urging him/her to oppose the bill as currently written. I have also written a personal letter to my Representative, discussing the negative ramifications the bill has for Linguistics, specifically. I am making a form-letter version of my letter available here) to anyone who also wishes to send it to their Representative. The more responses – and particularly the more unique, personal responses – that aides see, the more likely an actual Representative is to hear about our concerns him or herself.

Clearly, I hope that the FIRST Act does not pass; however, I also believe that it is merely a symptom of a deeper national (and international) dismissal and misunderstanding of the SBE sciences. This is the root of the problem, and this is what I am really writing about today.

Part 1 – How many languages do I speak? Defining linguistics

A significant part of the dismissal of SBE sciences is that they are not well defined in the public eye. People who are not physicists or biologists still have some sort of idea of what type of questions they are interested in, if only because we have to take those classes in high school. However, despite popular books like Pinker’s The Language Instinct, most people I meet ask me to describe what linguists really do. I suspect that a lack of public understanding is not just a problem for linguistics, but also for sociology, and even education and psychology in some cases. And if people aren’t entirely sure what a field does, why would they be inclined to think it worthwhile?

So let me start by describing what we do.

Linguistics is the scientific study of human language – not a particular language, per se, but the unique and almost entirely unconscious knowledge of abstract rules that underlie a person’s acquisition and use of language. Although some linguists speak several languages, many others speak only one (think of it this way — a doctor doesn’t have to contract a disease to study it). We also typically care far more about describing how language is naturally used rather than about the stylistic, presciptive rules of grammar and writing.

Generative linguists (like myself) believe that some component of language must be innate and separate from other types of reasoning. This ‘universal grammar’ is what enables infants to learn language so easily despite limited and flawed input—much like learning to walk. Non-generative linguists believe that language is learned, produced and used based on other, non-language specific cognitive properties. There are merits to both approaches, and in the end, it’s an empirical question.

Linguists study every facet of our unconscious knowledge of language, ranging from the acoustical and perceptual properties of the sounds that make up different languages (phonetics) to the rules of how those sounds interact and change when they are combined (phonology), to the rules governing the way words and even smaller units of meaning are combined (syntax and morphology), to the way the meaning of language is computed (semantics and pragmatics). Linguists also study how children and adults differ in the process of acquiring a language, what characterizes different language disorders, how language is processed in real-time speech and comprehension, and how to mathematically model language. I am leaving out some subfields; I hope my colleagues will forgive me.

In short, the main question of linguistics is: How does the human brain acquire, process, and abstractly represent language?

Part 2 – Science is science: The myth of soft sciences and hard sciences

In the spring of my Freshman year of college, we had to declare our major. This was, as far as my classmates and family knew, no problem for me. I had been determined for over a decade to study either immunology, vocal performance, or both.

Yet, the very day after I declared my major as biochemistry, I went back and changed it to dual linguistics and biochemistry. I was worried to tell anyone what I had done. Why? I was afraid they would think I was too stupid to do biochemistry by itself.

Today, I am ashamed that I was ever ashamed of linguistics, but the truth is that the feeling I had back then – that cognitive science was lesser, somehow – is not only not unique, but is extremely prevalent.

Just in the past week, I have heard members of the US government dismiss social, behavioral and cognitive sciences as having little economic value. I have heard both strangers and friends from physics, chemistry, biology, computer science, and mathematics backgrounds express moderate to severe disdain for the ‘soft’ sciences, although they always hedge if they know I am present.

Perhaps I need to let up a bit on my 18-year-old self. Her fears seem pretty justified.

Why do people feel this way? Why did I feel this way, back then? It’s wrong.

Let me start with the terms ‘soft science’ and ‘hard science.’ To see how they are commonly perceived by the general public, here is a link to the Wikipedia article. The first paragraph defines them as “colloquial terms used to compare scientific fields on the basis of perceived methodological rigor and legitimacy,” with natural sciences being the presumably more rigorous. Later in the article the following is said about the ‘soft sciences’: “although they often study less complex phenomena than natural sciences, social science findings are more likely to intersect with everyday experience and are therefore dismissed as ‘obvious or insignificant.'”

Here, then, we have three things that are supposed to characterize social sciences (as well as behavioral and cognitive sciences, which are generally lumped in with social sciences): (1) lack of methodological rigor, (2) studying less complex phenomena, and (3) intersecting with everyday experience.

Lack of methodological rigor is a common complaint levied against social and cognitive sciences, including linguistics. I do not believe it is a fair one, certainly not in the last decade. Experimental linguists like myself design quantitative studies following the scientific method. We formulate hypotheses, conduct controlled experimental studies, analyze findings, and present them to an audience of peers who critique the value of the contribution. Does everyone implement their study correctly, or run the appropriate statistical analyses for their type of data? No, of course not. But that doesn’t always happen in other scientific disciplines either. And when people slip up, their peers catch them and tell them to fix it (hopefully nicely, but…).

Some of my colleagues, both in linguistics and related fields, use qualitative methods instead, which follow a different set of scientific rules. One of the primary tools of linguistic research involves interviewing speakers of a language to find out what sentences are possible and impossible in that language. That a statistical analysis cannot be conducted on this type of data does not necessarily mean that these individuals are not following the scientific method.

And I should add, linguists regularly debate about why types of methodologies are appropriate, effective, valid, and reliable. Some of the most important papers (in my opinion) of the last 5 years have been on exactly this topic.

To address point (1) then: if a social, cognitive or behavioral science conducts their research according to the scientific method, to the best of their ability at that time, why would we think of it as lacking methodological rigor?

Regarding point (2): every definition I can find of the word complex appeals to either level of difficulty or the number of interrelated parts (intricacy) in a system. Based on Wikipedia then, the topics studied in the social, cognitive and behavioral sciences are either less difficult, less intricate, or both. My response to this is brief: first, different people find different things difficult; second, I reject the claim that the processes underlying human cognition and behavior are less intricate phenomena than fractal math, genetics, or astronomy.

I think that point (3) is the crux of the matter. Even though the part of language that linguists tend to care about is the unconscious patterns underlying it, we are still investigating language, and language is certainly something that “intersects with everyday experience” – we even study it in school. Of course, gravity is (thankfully) intersecting with my everyday experiences right now, too, but I feel no particular ownership of gravity – it’s not tied in with my identity as a person. My language, behavior, and emotions are.

When people feel ownership over something, when they link it to their personal and cultural identity, they form opinions about it. They become, in a sense, experts. I suspect that intro chemistry professors rarely have students question the periodic table, yet I am challenged to defend the tenets of my field every semester (and that’s fine, by the way, when it’s done politely. I think it’s important to constantly question the basic assumptions of linguistics so that I can remind myself which of my beliefs are ‘unshakable’ and which are somewhat more speculative).

Perhaps feeling ownership and identity with a topic leads to the natural consequence of questioning and devaluing the work of those who study it for a living, to the unconscious formation of the thought ‘I know about language, but I do not know about physics, so language must be a less complex topic.’

But it’s not.

In fact, I would argue that the everyday interaction humans have with cognition, behavior, and emotion makes studying these topics more difficult than they would otherwise be, not less. In order to get at the abstract universals that underlie language cognition, linguists must first peel away the conscious perception people have of their language.

‘Soft’ and ‘hard’ sciences don’t exist. There’s just science. Some of it is good science, and some of it is bad science, but that happens in every field. If we stop categorizing sciences in this way, and instead categorize them based on what they study (e.g. natural, physical, biological, cognitive, behavioral, social), we are not only being more accurate in describing the science, we avoid the denigration that is implied through the use of arcane and illogical terms.

Part 3 – Value of Linguistics as an academic discipline and to the public

So far I have addressed two reasons why the general public might undervalue linguistics: not knowing what it is, and thinking of it as a ‘soft’ science. I tried to fix the first (at least for anyone reading this), and argued why the second should be set aside. Now I would like to discuss some concrete contributions that linguistics has made to the academic and public sectors that will hopefully encourage you to value it more!

Like in many scientific disciplines, much of linguistic research is conducted for the sake of furthering knowledge. Taken collectively, however, that knowledge has far-reaching ramifications for all of us. One of the things that is so stunning about linguistics is that it interfaces with so many other fields. Here are just a few examples of collaborative work (biased towards UCLA because this is where I received my Ph.D. and so I know about these projects, not because this is the only university where such research occurs):

  • A current NSF-funded collaborative project at UCLA is combining phonetics, electrical engineering and bioengineering to develop improved physiological models of the vocal apparatus, with direct implications for speech synthesis (e.g. text to speech).
  • Another current NSF-funded collaborative project involving UCLA and Rutgers researchers in biology, chemistry, linguistics, psychology, and high school education is investigating learning of complex systems from a genetic, evolutionary, linguistic, perceptual, and behavioral level.
  • Conferences such as the Heritage Language Research Institute, the Boston University Conference on Language Development (BUCLD), and the International Association for the Study of Child Language (IASCL) annual meeting (plus others) bring together a myriad of disciplines interested in child and adult language acquisition, including specialists in the areas of linguistics, psychology, and education. The goal of these interdisciplinary conferences is to use classroom knowledge to inform linguistic study, and vice versa.
  • Many linguistics departments offer an extensive range of combined majors, not just including ‘linguistics and insert specific language here’ but also ‘linguistics and computer science’ or ‘linguistics and psychology.’ In recent years, Harvard University has developed the Mind, Brain and Behavior program, which includes a linguistics track, alongside neurobiology, psychology, and others.
  • The point is that because humans use language to interface with everything we do, linguistics as a science has ramifications for everything humans do.

    Let me provide two more examples of linguistic research that are relevant to everyone (and I welcome more examples from people who read this):

    An NSF-funded study at UNC Chapel Hill is working on the problem of how users can develop secure passwords that are easy to remember, based on their phonological structure. At the same time as these scientists are trying to learn something about how the human brain represents patterns of sounds, they are going to help me stop forgetting every single password I create.

    My final example returns to the role that languages play in our identity and our culture. Depending on what metric you use, the world has between 6,000-7,000 languages. A huge number of these languages are currently spoken by fewer than 10,000 speakers, and are likely to become extinct within the next 50-100 years. Linguists around the world are working to document these languages, not only as a way to preserve them should they go extinct, but also to engage with the community to encourage preservation and revitalization of the language, and the songs, poetry, stories, and cultural traditions associated with the language.

    Part 4 – And they all lived happily ever after, the end

    I don’t know if you’ve stuck with me through this behemoth of a missive, but if you have, thanks, and I hope that you take away something new about the field of linguistics, what it contributes to our society, and why it is so important that organizations like the National Science Foundation are able to continue funding and supporting it. I also hope you’ll consider learning more about what we do (I recommend both reading The Language Instinct and hanging out with linguists–we’re pretty neat), and if, in the future, other bills like the FIRST Act are proposed, you will join me in fighting them.

    One final thought: I’ve made these arguments for linguistics, because it is what I know and love best, but I am positive that a psychologist, sociologist, or any other –ologist from the SBE sciences could offer the same set of arguments for their field as well.


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