I had this great post written in my head about how happy and relieved and gratified I was, with one week to go in my fellowship and with the symposium looming. I was going to talk about how Annika and I had finished our poster a few hours ago and sent it off for final approval, how our transcription process had been streamlined so we could finish in time to analyze and talk about our preliminary findings. It was, quite honestly, going to be a slightly contemplative fluff-piece to end my quaint blog.
This isn’t that post.
I’m more than a little peeved. I’m sick of trying and trying to rationalize and justify how my field should be taken seriously while some people in the “hard sciences” listen politely despite not actually giving the social sciences a chance. Without studying the human aspect of life, what’s the point of studying the “technical” aspects? Science is a process, and by creating a divide in which those who study natural processes believe their work is inherently more important than those who study social processes, both “sides” suffer due to a disconnect in ideas and perspectives. In case you don’t know much about language or linguistics, here’s a starting point so you can (hopefully) begin to understand why this is an important area to study and why I find it fascinating.
Language alone sets humanity apart from every other species. Without it, we would not be able to self-distinguish ourselves as a “superior” being, or innovate as we have for millennia. Without language, we are nothing. How did we alone develop language, while other species have not? We don’t know, but you can bet that there are hundreds of linguists studying and hypothesizing about it right now. What are the implications of identifying and isolating the cognitive processes of language creation and evolution in humans?
Forensic linguistics is a branch of linguistics used, yes, in criminal investigations, but also to identify the source of a writing or audio sample. This is how, for instance, JK Rowling was discovered to be writing under the pen-name Robert Galbraith, and just last week Abraham Lincoln’s secretary John Hay was determined to be the author of the Bixby letter, one of the most famous letters of all time (and called “the most sublime letter ever penned by the hand of man”). Forensic linguistics is also used in ransom notes, disputed suicide letters, emergency calls, and other areas where a person may try to disguise his or her authorship.
Have you seen the movie Avatar? Do you watch Game of Thrones? Are you a Trekkie? If so, you may have picked up a few words in Na’vi, Dothraki, or Klingon, respectively. These constructed languages, or conlangs, were created by linguists and follow the same rules as any natural language. (Some people have even taught their kids conlangs as a native language!) The most well known conlangs outside of academia are from pop culture, but some, like Esperanto, are designed to make communication easier across cultures.
Have you ever heard of computational linguistics? If you haven’t, you’re not alone, but you’ve probably heard of something that was created thanks to computational linguistics. Computational linguists use something called natural language processing, which is basically the instinctual linguistic knowledge a baby has, to try and improve AI so that some day soon, robots and computers can pass the Turing Test and fully understand human speech patterns the way humans do. Do you use Siri? That’s computational linguistics. Amazon Echo? Computational linguistics. Alexa? Computational linguistics. Anything voice-activated has been fine-tuned for years in a lab much like the one I’ve been working in since May.
I’m not even going to try and explain why, specifically, my subfields of adult (or post-critical period) foreign language acquisition and multilingualism “matters” to the world at large (as I was so eloquently asked this week while presenting research), simply because the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge should be reason enough. It certainly is reason enough for every other project funded through the MCubed program.
Linguists are constantly trying to better understand how humans work so we can apply that knowledge to the world around us and make a more intuitive, interactive world to live in. Please don’t disregard something just because you don’t understand it; every discipline has merit, and dismissal of an entire field as irrelevant because it isn’t “science-y enough” only exposes a person as narrow-minded.
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