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Leading Linguists Lecturing On Language Evolution At UC San Diego

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February 12, 2015 1:16 p.m.

GUESTS:

David Perlmutter, professor of linguistics, UC San Diego

Roger Levy, associate professor of linguistics, UC San Diego

Related Story: Leading Linguists Lecturing On Language Evolution At UC San Diego

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

This is KPBS Midday Edition I'm Maureen Cavanaugh

Poets play with language and children learn faster than you think and adults struggle to learn a second language. Language is so essential to our daily life that we seldom stop and think how did these sound I am saying -- and you are listening to -- come to mean anything? A group of language researchers from around the world are meeting in San Diego to discuss the evolution of language. They will discuss how humans developed a resonating ability to communicate. Joining me are David Perlmutter, professor of linguistics at UC San Diego. Welcome to the program.
Think you. But you to be here.
Roger leaves the associate professor at UC San Diego -- welcome. Both are cochairs of the symposium on the evolution of language. Roger, how can we study the evolution of language X isn't a lot of the information lost in time?
That's it's ugly right. -- Exactly right. There is a lot of interest in how language can about in human history. Unfortunately, unlike many other areas of human origins origins of language are very inaccessible. Unlike the case with -- fossils that allow us to study the evolution of human anatomy there are tools, cave paintings and so forth. Language doesn't leave a physical records. The methods that we used to study how present day languages historically have changed over time really only go back six or 10,000 years. We have reason to believe that the origin of language is much older than that. This means that studying the historical origin of language is really an accessible today. Lost in the midst of time.
Yes.
On the other hand there is evidence all around us today in the way that you languages are emerging in various communities around the world an existing let witches are being we shaved by speakers and children that give us insight into how language may have originally emerged.
David, that's one of the reasons there is an emphasis in the symposium on sign language. We can see how concepts and signs develop into a language.
What we can see with sign language is that they have a much shorter history. So we can see how language spontaneously arose within the deaf community. It's not something brought in by other people from outside the community. We can see telescoped in a much shorter time frame the kinds of development that must have taken place in human language in general over much longer time.
One thing that is fascinating most hearing people would assume that because British people and Americans both speak English that British and American sign language would be the same, but that is not true, is it?
No, it's not. In fact they are very different and mutually unintelligible languages. Each arose and developed within a different community and these communities -- the Deaf communities in the US and Great Britain did not have much contact until recently when there has been more recent contact. They have independent origins and development.
Again, it's one way that you can see back in time to how this all started. One of the speakers at the symposium, David [last name indiscernible] studies sign language using neuroimaging. What is the research been able to tell us about the way the humans develop language?
The amazing result of hers -- she has tested several Deaf adolescence toward the end of their adolescents who got no language input at all because being Deaf they could hear the languages spoken around them and they had no contact with a Deaf immunity or users of sign language. They had no language input at all until the late teens. At that point what she has done -- they tried to learn American sign language and they had to bring. She did brain imaging of what goes on in their brains. They tried to learn American sign language. She found that the parts of the brain that are usually active language were not active in them. They were using nonlanguage parts of the brain to try and get a handle on American sign language when they were finally exposed. So, this shows that human beings need to have exposure to language. Language experience. Experience using a language not only to learned that in order to activate the language areas of the brain. Otherwise they will be stuck without those abilities. For the rest of their lives.
Roger, what are some of the things that characterize a mature language?
Well, there are a number of things. I would describe -- I think the answer to the question -- we have to ask what is the signature characteristic of a mature language? The signature characteristic -- this will come over and over again in the symposium -- the nature of the structure that language contains. I mean regularities. Regularities within the patterns of how words are internally composed and how words are put together to form larger units. So at the level of -- for example, within the word -- let's take English as a spoken language -- there are English words composed of individual cells -- for example sat, sit, set -- they have 2 a component.
These components can be creatively recombine. Matt, Matt, Matt share some components but not others. This allows us to coin new words -- the sounds don't tell us what the words are but we can create them and give them new meanings. Less true like witches have much more holistic and less combinatorial internal structure within the words. At the level above the words -- how they are recombined -- languages that don't have a long history and which is emerging are much simpler. They have the utterances made that are much shorter. And they have much less internal structure -- for example -- I will give a sentence of English. I guarantee that the audience has heard -- never heard this. The sentences -- the longer the hair and the barber cuts the better the deal for the customer.
Okay. Sure. Makes sense.
You probably haven't heard this before. There are a lot of things we could say but I want to draw your attention to one thing -- there is a complex pattern inside the sentence which is the same pattern as underlying senses English phrases like the more the merrier, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. That expression carries a component that allows us to creatively express meanings we've never express before. Understand when people use that expression what they mean, even though you've never heard the sentence before.
Furthermore it is there's a level of arbitrary this in the pattern. Many languages -- maybe most mature languages have a pattern that expresses this meaning. But the actual form is going to different languages -- dramatically. A different pattern but the same -- different meaning expression it takes time for these patterns to crystallize and it specialized in language. So, young like witches don't have that because it takes time for these things to emerge.
As a result the sentence structure is simpler and you can't express complex thoughts as effortlessly and quickly and efficiently as you can with mature languages.
As you've explained to this, it also shows that there are many disciplines involved. In the field of language study. David talked about neuroscience. There is also psychology. What are some others, Roger?
Yes, the origin of language. The transdisciplinary field of apology which is the study of human origins. That is what the organization is devoted to. Contact is the sponsoring organization. -- Carter -- this derives from a broad group of sciences. Includes social, humanities, engineering. Various aspects of research on language draw from -- for example connections with archaeological research with helps us to understand the histories of existing human languages. As you said psychological research which allows us to use controlled experiments to study how language is understood. For example even how language is learned. Also neuroscience as we see in the symposium. There are indeed rich varieties of disciplines another one would be anthropology -- the study of humans and their communities and anthropology is an essential part of discovering the communities and doing work in the communities that reveals how like witches are being created spontaneously.
What are the benefits of bringing together a group of language researchers across disciplines?
The main idea is to establish connections at levels -- levels. Connections among individuals working in this area and connections between what they study which is usually compartmentalized into different fields. CARTA prides itself on being transdisciplinary -- ignoring the traditional boundaries from one discipline to another. Bringing together research from whatever area will help us understand the origins and evolution of our species.
I'm sure both of you are aware of how what you are learning and what is being developed in the understanding of how language is created and matures this could be used for artificial intelligence as well. That is an obvious application. Have you been involved in any of those research studies?
Great point. Absolutely. The scientific study of language has very close connections with artificial intelligence. Not necessarily that strongly manifest in the symposium but it is a very important part of the field today. For example, in my research I bring together both ideas and data from linguistics. With experimental evidence from psychology and also methods from computer science in particular artificial intelligence that allows us to together very precise versions of theories and ideas we have about how language is learning how we understand it and how people are able to actually speak in real-time to communicate what they want to mean. Those theories can be precise enough to implement on a computer and test them against a rich variety data. In fact, the ideas and tools and techniques that we use to do this in the scientific endeavor of studying language also plays a role in a number of the practical applications that you see today that are transforming how we interact in a society. Web search -- recently there was a computer from IBM that one on Jeopardy. -- One won on Jeopardy.
The CARTA symposium will take place next Friday, February 20 from 1 to 5:30. I been speaking with David to metal from US San Diego and Roger Leavy associate professor at UC San Diego. That you built.
Yes, thank you.