Last post, I discussed the main thrust of my comments at the roundtable. Now I raise some of the points raised by the keynote speakers and my thoughts on them.
The standard perception of an outsider looking at formal linguistics (e.g., a psychologist or neuroscientist) is that rather than pursuing fundamental questions about the nature of the mind/brain, they are really philologists interested in the history and grammar of particular languages divorced from psychology and biology. Cedric’s talk and comments throughout the conference explicitly made this point – that linguists have overwhelmingly focused on the analysis of particular constructions and/or particular languages using the tools of generative grammar, but not really addressing the foundational questions driving the field: the basic architecture of the faculty of language (Humboldt’s problem), the relative contributions of its genetic and environmental components (Plato’s problem), how it is implemented in the human brain (Darwin’s problem), and how it evolved (Darwin’s problem). Readers of this blog are certainly aware that Norbert has repeatedly made this point (i.e. the linguist/languist distinction). Cedric’s presence at the conference amounted to being an evangelist for biolinguistics and a return to these core questions, with dire warnings about the future of the field (and job prospects) if linguists do not.
There is a lot of truth in these statements. From my perspective, I rarely see somebody in linguistics (or psycholinguistics) explain to me why exactly I as a neuroscientist should care about this particular analysis or experiment regarding some construction in some language.Neuroscientists and those studying aphasia or other language disorders repeatedly make this point
. Of course there are relevant connections, in that analyses of particular phenomena (should) inform the general theory, which is ultimately a theory of biological architecture. When aspiring to communicate with other cognitive scientists, these connections need to be made explicit. Cedric would have the philology essentially stop wholesale – while I do not agree with this extreme view, I do agree that much of this work seems unnecessary to the broader goal of advancing the theory, especially in absence of even attempts to make these connections.
I would like to add two points.
First, this issue is hardly unique to linguistics. Largely the same issues hold in other fields (e.g., why exactly
does it matter which lesion distributions are associated with a particular syndrome, either for patient care or theoretical development?). But there isn’t the convenient languistics/philology label to apply to those that seem distracted from the central questions at hand. In some ways this is a credit to linguistics – the philosophical foundations of the field have been laid explicit enough to point out the difference between philology and linguistics. Neuroscientists are ostensibly interested in asking fundamental questions about how the brain works. But I think this widespread myopia arises in part because of sociology – we are constantly interacting with our peers, feeling compelled to react to (and express sympathy for) what they are doing, and it is far easier for a new graduate study to perform a neuroimaging experiment and publish a paper following up on what somebody else has done than to reflect on the basic nature of the mind and brain. For good or bad, our field rests on interaction and personal connections: being invited to conferences, having reviewers knowledgeable of our work and sympathetic to it, asking for letters of recommendation. There are few worldly incentives for pursuing the big questions, and this cuts across all of the sciences.
Second, at least within the GG community (as exemplified by SinFonIJA), people really do
seem to care about the fundamental questions. The people who gave keynote lectures whose careers are devoted to linguistic analysis within the generative tradition (Ian Roberts, Lanko Marušič, and Tobias Sheer) all presented on topics about the fundamental questions listed above. Every senior linguist I talked to at the conference clearly had thought and reflected deeply on the fundamental issues. In fact, one linguist mentioned to me that the lack of focus on fundamentals is not from lack of interest but rather distraction (in the manner described above). Many of the young people at the conference buzzed Cedric and me with questions and seemed quite interested to hear what we had to say. Apparently these issues are at the forefront of their mind – and it’s always telling to get a sense of what the young people are thinking, because they are the future of the field (that is, if
they get jobs).
Overall, I agree with much of what Cedric said, and there were quite similar currents in both of our talks. The main question that I think linguists should be asking themselves is this: what do I really care about? Do I care about the philosophical problems outlined above? Or do I care about analyses of specific languages, i.e. philology? If the answer is the former, then I very much recommend thinking of ways to help reconnect linguistics with the other cognitive sciences. If the answer is the latter, then I don’t have much to say to you except, to quote Cedric, “good luck”.
I love languages – I see the appeal and the comfort of leaving the heavy theoretical work to others. I have spent much of my life learning languages and learning about their corresponding cultures. But that is not nearly enough to sustain the field of linguistics much further into the modern age, in which funding for the humanities is being dramatically cut in the U.S. and other scientists, potential collaborators who will still be funded, are very much disenchanted with generative grammar.
One last comment about Cedric’s talk. While we agree on the point above, we disagree about what is currently being done in other fields like language evolution. His perspective seems to be that people are making real progress, and my perspective echoes Chomsky – skepticism of much of this work, particularly with respect to evolution. I think that Cedric has a bit of a “grass is greener” syndrome. However, I do not mean to be completely pessimistic, and the work by people like Alec Marantz, Stanislaus Dehaene, Christophe Pallier, Greg Hickok, John Hale, Jonathan Brennan, and others presents promising connections between neurobiology and linguistic theory. As reviewed here on FoL, Randy Gallistel has been highlighting interesting findings in cellular neuroscience that inform us about how neurons actually store representations and perform computations over them.
As I mentioned above, Ian Roberts gave an interesting keynote lecture highlighting the viability of a single cycle that underlies all of syntactic derivation. It is this sort of work, reinforcing the basic components of the competence model from a forest (rather than a trees) perspective, that presents a tantalizing opportunity for asking how such properties are implemented in the brain.
However, I was somewhat disappointed in Ian’s response to my presentation calling for such an integration. He pointed out the viability of a purely Platonic view of formal linguistics; that is, that the study of linguistics can be perfectly carried out without concern for integration with biology (to be clear: he did not endorse
this view, but merely pointed out its viability). He also seemed to dismiss the absence of invitations for interaction to formal linguists from the other cognitive sciences as flaws in those fields/individuals. The underlying thread was something like: “we’re doing perfectly fine, thank you”.
I do not disagree. One can
do platonic linguistics, and cognitive scientists are
unfairly dismissive of formal linguistics. But this misses the point (although perhaps not Cedric’s). The point was: assuming
we want integration of formal linguistics with other fields (and I think almost everyone agrees that we do, at least given my impressions from the conference), one
critical obstacle to this integration, that linguists are in a very good position to address, is how competence relates to performance (or, the grammar-parser relation) on a mechanistic level.
Ian is clearly very thoughtful. But I was worried by his response, because it means he is missing the writing on the walls. Perhaps this is in part because the situation is better in Europe. The cognitive revolution was born in the United States, and I believe that it is also the place of its potential deathbed. The signs may be clearer here than in Europe. Altogether, if the orcs are about to invade your homeland, threatening to rape and pillage, you don’t keep doing what you’re doing while noting that the situation isn’t your fault because you were always nice to the orcs. Instead, you prepare to fight the orcs. And if there is one thing that Cedric and I heartily agree on, the orcs are here.
Tobias’s main point at the roundtable was that there is still a lot of work to do on the competence model before it can be expanded into a performance model of online processing. This is perhaps the best counter to my argument for working on the performance model – that it’s a good idea, but that there are practical limitations of the sort Chomsky outlined in Aspects that have not gone away.
As I discussed in my previous blog post, I often find myself remarking how important this issue is – language behavior is so complicated, and if you add on the complexities of neuroimaging experiments, it is hard to really make anything coherent out of it. The competence performance distinction has been invaluable to making progress.
The main question is whether or not it is possible
to make progress in working on performance. With respect to language, the competence-performance distinction is an absolutely necessary abstraction that allows for focus on a small set of possible data that still allows for analyzing a wide range of constructions across the world’s languages and for theoretical development to occur. The disagreement concerns whether or not it is possible at this time to move beyond this particular abstraction to other, slightly less focused, abstractions, such as a model of real-time language processing that can account for simple constructions and the acquisition of such a model.
This is an empirical assessment. It’s pretty much impossible to understand what the hell people do mechanistically when they perceive a garden-path sentence (much less interpret a neuroimaging experiment on garden-path sentences). But, in my view, it is possible to largely preserve the virtues of the competence-performance distinction with respect to limiting the relevant set of data by only aspiring to develop a performance model for fairly simple cases, such as simple transitive active and passive sentences.
In addition, there might be something (a lot?) to be gained about thinking in real-time that could explain troublesome phenomena from the traditional standpoint of linguistic theory. For instance, I don’t know of any better approach to the constituency conflicts Colin Philips pointed out in his 1996 dissertation and 2003 LI paper than the idea that sentences are built incrementally, which naturally accounts for the conflict of constituency tests
. There may be many more such phenomena that could be addressed from the standpoint of real-time processing that help simply competence model itself
. How do you know until you try?
Ianthi’s talk at the conference presented data illustrated differences in language behavior between monolingual and bilingual speakers.
Ianthi Tsimpli’s comments at the roundtable and much of her other work points out that there are really fantastic opportunities to make more direct connections between work on developmental disabilities and theories of universal grammar, i.e. the genetic contribution of the language faculty. Ianthi was one of the main scientists who studied Christopher, the savant who was severely intellectually disabled yet able to learn many languages fluently. She summarized for me some of the major findings on Christopher regarding British Sign Language (BSL), which I believe illustrate the biological (and likely genetic) autonomy of language from other aspects of cognition.
There are three main facts.
(1) Christopher did essentially as well as L2 learners in learning BSL, despite his severe mental handicap. This is important because it reinforces the notion (that I believe is not really in need of reinforcing) that sign languages are like spoken languages in all the relevant psychological aspects, including the distinction between language and other cognitive domains, but more importantly that language is something different
from other things, potentially with distinct biological underpinnings.
(2) The one domain where Christopher struggled is on classifier constructions, which rely heavily on visual-spatial abilities that Christopher is already impaired on. This is not a very interesting except for the fact that it clarifies the nature of what may seem like important differences between speech and sign – if you cannot process certain rapid formant transitions because of a disorder of your auditory periphery, you probably will not learn consonant speech sounds very well, but this is merely a barrier to processing speech, not an indicator that the deeper levels of organization between speech and sign are fundamentally different. The same with classifiers – they are exciting properties of sign language that clearly rely heavily on the visual-manual nature of sign languages, but this does not mean much about their more abstract organization in the language system.
Again – there is something about languageitself
that is not reducible to sensory-motor externalization of language.
(3) Christopher essentially ignored the iconic properties of signs when acquiring the lexicon, whereas hearing L2 learners are quite sensitive to them. This underscores that language acquisition, at its core, really doesn’t care about iconicity, and indicates that while the study of iconicity may be interesting to some, it is orthogonal to the essential properties of language, which are its abstractness and arbitrariness. This fact has been clearly lain out for decades (see e.g. Bellugi and Klima’s paper “Two faces of sign: Iconic and abstract
”), but again, is reinforced by Christopher’s remarkable ability to learn BSL effectively while ignoring its iconic elements.
In the roundtable discussion, Ianthi pointed out that there are problems waiting to be addressed that would greatly benefit from the insights of generative grammar. To me, these are the golden opportunities – there are a wide range of disorders of language use, and working on them presents opportunities for collaboration with biologically-oriented fields that generally have much greater funding than linguistics (i.e., language disorders, neuroscience, genetics). I recommend the book chapter she wrote with Maria Kambanaros and Kleanthes Grohmann
(edited by Ian Roberts), which discusses in more detail some of this work and highlights the possibilities for fruitful interaction.
Lanko Marušič’s talk reported behavioral experiments attempting to explain the roughly universal adjective ordering preferences addressed in the cartographic approach of Cinque. The idea was that if preferences for certain features (such as color, size, shape) come from non-linguistic cognition, then one should find the same preferences in non-linguistic cognition. Thus he reported behavioral experiments that attempted to map out the salience of these features of experimental subjects, ascertaining whether the results agreed with the linguistic ordering preferences. The experiments themselves were a bit complicated and difficult to interpret, as there were many possible confounding variables that the experimenters attempted to grapple with (again, illustrating the deep pitfalls of investigating performance generally). However, this was an experiment that certainly was interesting to me and is exactly the type of thing to interest non-linguists in linguistics.
Outside of the conference, I spent time talking with Lanko. In our informal conversations, he mentioned to me the possibility of attempting to localize syntactic representations in the brain by building off our understanding of the interfaces that syntax must deal with: the conceptual-intentional (CI) and sensory-motor (SM) interfaces. I.e., if language is accurately captured by the Y-model, then syntax should be in the middle of CI and SM. This is a great idea, and happens to be a cornerstone of the model I am currently developing with Greg Hickok. This illustrates that there can in fact be value for neuroscience taken from linguistics – not at the level of a particular construction, but at the high-level of broader components of linguistic theory. Like the Y-model, cyclicity, etc.
Most of the conference presentations were not concerned with the questions I addressed above. Most posters and talks addressed standard questions discussed in linguistics conferences – and these presentations were, for the most part, excellent. I was very happy to be part of this and to remind myself of the high quality of work in linguistics. One of the virtues of linguistics is that it is highly detailed and reflects the health of a mature field – one does not need a general introduction to acceptability judgments, the competence/performance distinction, etc. to understand the talk. These shared underlying assumptions allow for very efficient presentations and discussions as well as progress, at least in terms of analyses of specific constructions.
In some sense, as discussed above, the crisis that I (and Cedric) perceive in linguistics, in the context of the other cognitive sciences, is unfair to linguistics – other fields suffer from the same problems, and there are plenty of healthy aspects to the field. Linguists in general seem more thoughtful about the underlying philosophical issues of science than those in other fields, as evidenced by my conversations with the conference attendees (and particularly keynote speakers).
On the other hand – the crisis is obviously there, deserved or not. I spend much time talking to linguists about the job prospects for graduate students. It seems to me that what linguistics is
doing to address this issue is to shift from theoretical focus to working on issues that have a more superficial appeal to other fields, or that can provide training for jobs outside of linguistics (i.e., computational modeling). This might be helpful for getting jobs, but I worry that it essentially hastens the abandonment of the core questions of interest underling generative grammar: Humboldt’s problem, Plato’s problem, Broca’s problem, Darwin’s problem.
In my view, there is a fantastic opportunity at hand: a preservation of these core philosophical problems as well as
jobs. And this is working towards a performance model. This project, broadly construed, could include work along many dimensions, including much of the current kind of work that is being done: understanding the appropriate analysis of constructions/linguistic phenomena from the vantage point of incremental derivation, in the style of Phillips’s (2003) analysis of constituency conflicts. With respect to my world, it could mean developing a more realistic understanding of how linguistic theory relates to neurons and genes. In-between, it could involve the development of a plausible parser/producer that incorporates a syntactic theory (work that Shota Momma is currently pursuing).
At any rate, that’s my two cents. SinFonIJA was a lot of fun, and I cannot thank Marta, Ewa, and Mateusz enough for inviting me and being quite generous in their accommodations. At some point in the near future, conference proceedings will be published in the Journal of Polish Linguistics (edited by Ewa Willim) – stay tuned for what I hope is a very interesting set of papers.
Phillips, C. (1996). Order and structure(Doctoral dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Phillips, C. (2003). Linear order and constituency. Linguistic inquiry, 34(1), 37-90.