Archive for the 'Psychology/Psycholinguistics' Category

Evolang 08 – More Plenary Speakers

Okay, more biased rambling commentary on Evolang 08…

On day two the proper conference began and we were treated to two excellent plenary speakers, Gary Marcus and Susan Goldin-Meadow.

I’d never heard of Gary Marcus before but he presented one of the most stimulating presentations of the whole week. The title of his talk, “Language as Kluge”, was intriguing, but sounded a bit too technical to really whet the appetite. As he got into his talk I was very pleasantly surprised by the broad brush approach he used, and the attention-to-detail he used to back it up.

Continue reading ‘Evolang 08 – More Plenary Speakers’


Cool Neo-Whorfian Stuff

More evidence for language affecting cognition. Here’s a lovely long post at Mixing Memory about a PLoS paper showing language having a measurable influence on colour perception.

New PLoS Research Argues for Grammar-Specific Areas in the Brain

This interesting new paper by Fonteneau & van der Lely presents evidence that there is some specific language structure in the brain that deals with syntactic processing. They present evidence from children with SLIs (Specific Language Impairments); a condition that affects up to 7% of children and causes devlopmental problems in the children’s language learning. Interestingly there is increasing evidence that this linguistic impairment has a genetic basis. The research used novel electrophysiological data to demonstrate that the grammar impairment had a neurological basis.

“The findings indicate that grammatical neural circuitry underlying language is a developmentally unique system in the functional architecture of the brain, and this complex higher cognitive system can be selectively impaired… The results argue for grammar being a highly specific, specialised subsystem in the human brain and a particular developmental pathway to this exclusive neural system.”

They make an explicit link between this evidence and the debate in evolutionary linguistics about the the extent to which syntactic knowledge is represented in the brain. Yet more evidence that language is innate, but as has been mentioned before, innateness of the language faculty, and innateness of the rules of grammar, are not the same thing. I hope there will be more neurobiological evidence like this presented in future.

Major Language Evolution Papers # 3

The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve?

-Marc D. Hauser, Noam Chomsky & W. Tecumseh Fitch

Who’s it by?

The big dog Chomsky, granddaddy of modern linguistics, in association with Tecumseh Fitch and Mark Hauser, a psychologist and a biologist respectively, both heavily involved in the field of language evolution.

What’s it about?

A much misunderstood paper and probably the most debated paper on language evolution there has ever been. In it the authors make an impassioned plea for a comparative approach to solving the language evolution problem, and draw up a list of features that belong to the narrow language faculty possessed by humans (just recursion) and a those which belong to a broader definition of language features that can be found in the animal kingdom (everything else).

Why should an evolutionary linguist care?

Because this is the only meaningful attempt to reconcile language evolution with the chomskian consensus in modern linguistics. However, this paper is probably more Hauser and Fitch than Chomsky, and lots of people have used it to engage in a bit of Chomsky bashing by misrepresenting its central claims. The distinction between the FLN and FLB is meant to emphasise the value of the broad language faculty, rather than seeking to claim something special about the narrow language faculty, at least from Hauser and Fitch’s perspective.

Major Language Evolution Papers: #1

Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition – Tomasello et al (2005)

Who’s it by? It’s by Michael Tomasello and some illustrious associates. Tomasello is a cognitive psychologist with an interest in cognitive development.

What’s it about? It presents a unifying hypothesis for a lot of the recent discoveries in human evolution, primatology and childhood development. Tomasello argues that the ability to read and share intentions is the basis for human cognition, and that we are adapted to this purpose in a way that close relatives like chimpanzees aren’t.

Why should an evolutionary linguist care? Because buried deep in that hypothesis is the assumption that language is part of this cognitive aparatus. Tomasello’s argument therefore offers the biggest contemporary challenge to the Chomskian consensus on language evolution, placing it behind the cognition of shared intentionality in terms of both emergence and importance.

So, thanks to the generosity of Chrissy Cuskley, here is a PDF of her presentation about this paper.

Animal Cognition and Philosophy

There is a great philosophy paper about animal cognition here. It covers a lot of familiar ground for evolutionary linguists but there is some great discussion of metacognition experiments and a pretty comprehensive list of all of the most important animal behavior papers of the last thirty years. Well worth reading for newcomers and experts alike.

Armand Leroi – What Makes Us Human

Here is a high quality copy of the second part of Armand Leroi‘s acclaimed What Makes Us Human? documentary. It’s a little shallow in its representation of the issues and occasionally might have you screaming at the screen in frustration. (Pinker’s misrepresentation of the Chimpanzee language research programme had the veins popping in my neck). Overall however, it is a very good overview of all the most popular ideas in the field and is packed with great footage of Alex the Parrot, children with FOXP2 abnormalities, studies into autism and an exploration of mirror neurons. Requires the DIVX codec


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