Field of Science

Building a Better Spell-Checker

LinkToday Slate carried an interesting piece about spell-checker technology by Chris Wilson. A spell-checker typically works in the obvious way: a word you type in is compared to a dictionary. The question is where the dictionary comes from. If you use a lot of proper nouns -- or, in my case, a lot of technical jargon -- you risk the red-squiggly wrath of Microsoft Word.

It's been clear to me for a while that search engines work from much larger lexicons than do word processors. The article fills in some detail as to how they do this (not surprisingly, it involves some of the sophisticated statistics that has become so important in computer approaches to language). Read the article here.

(image borrowed from

Science in the New Administration

During the Fall, I wrote a number of posts (starting with this one) arguing that science policy in the US was in poor shape, and that Obama looked like the more likely of the candidates to turn that around.

While I focused more on support for basic science, I was certainly concerned about how policy-makers use science to support their policy decisions. So far, all signs from the not-yet-nascent Obama administration continue to be promising.

Children giving orders to Mom and Dad

During the last month, I have been studying requests. Requests are interesting because there are many ways of making them, including commands ("Give me that"), requests ("Please give me that"), indirect requests ("Could you give me that?"), and hints ("Wouldn't it be nice if I had one of those?").

I just ran across a description of a fairly old line of research that is worth quoting directly:

Studies of role playing (Andersen (1978, 1989), Corsaro (1985), Mitchell-Kernan and Kernan (1977) have made it very clear that children make use of the symbolic value of characters' control acts types and forms. In Andersen's study, children of four and five were assigned specific roles through puppets, and she played a complementary role. This allowed her to see, within each child, the representation of contrasting roles, such as Father and Mother and Child, Doctor and Nurse and Patient. Fathers received fewer orders but gave them more, and received few imperatives, but gave them. Doctors were the same. The Child addressed six times as many imperatives to Mothers as to Fathers, and eight times as many 'let's' forms to Fathers as to the Mothers.
It would appear that children not only think fathers outrank mothers on the dominance hierarchy but that they seem to think they themselves outrank their mothers. Why this is I leave to others to speculate on.

Ervin-Tripp, S, Guo, J., Lampert, M. (1990). Politeness and persuasion in children’s control acts. Journal of Pragmatics, 14, 307-331

(Photo borrowed from

Mind and Brain

In periodic posts, I've been trying to lay out the modern scientific consensus on the mind/brain problem, with mixed success. If I had come across the following passage, from Ray Jackendoff's Language, Consciousness, Culture, a bit earlier, I might have saved some trouble, since I feel it is one of the clearest, most concise statements on the topic I have seen:

The predominant view is a strict materialism, in which consciousness is taken to be an emergent property of brains that are undergoing certain sorts of activity.

Although the distinction is not usually made explicit, one could assert the materialist position in either of two ways. The first would be 'methodological materialism': let's see how far we can get toward explaining consciousness under materialist assumptions, while potentially leaving open the possibility of an inexplicable residue. The second would be 'dogmatic materialism,' which would leave no room for anything but materialist explanation. Since we have no scientific tools for any sort of nonmaterialist explanation, the two positions are in practice indistinguishable, and they lead to the same research...

Of course, materialism goes strongly against folk intuition about the mind, which concurs with Descartes in thinking of the conscious mind as associated with a nonmaterial 'soul' or the like... The soul is taken to be capable of existence independently of the body. It potentially survives the death of the body and makes its way in the world as a ghost or a spirit or ensconced in another body through reincarnation... Needless to say, most people cherish the idea of being able to survive the death of their bodies, so materialism is more than an 'astonishing hypothesis,' to use Crick's (1994) term: it is a truly distressing and alienating one. Nevertheless, by now it does seem the only reasonable way to approach consciousness scientifically.

CogLangLab по-русски

One of the advantages of posting experiments on the Web rather than running them in a lab is that it makes it easier to recruit participants who don't happen to live near the lab.

Two years ago, I was testing an idea in the literature about the differences between reading an alphabetic script like English vs. reading a character-based script like Chinese. Although there are a fair number of Chinese-speakers living in Cambridge, it was still a lot of work to recruit enough participants. When I finally do the follow-up study, I'll post it on the Web.

In the meantime, I have a new experiment in Russian. Because America produces the bulk of the world's scientific research (for now), much of the work on language has focused on English. Periodically, it's a good idea to check other languages and make sure what we know about English generalizes (or doesn't). And so was born

Угадай кто сликтопоз

It takes about 5 minutes to complete. Participate in it by clicking here.

More amazing birds

I've been hearing for some time that starlings are remarkable vocal learners. For a brief time, there was a starling lab in our building.

I came across this video on grrlscientist's blog. I'm not sure if "amazing" or "creepy" is the right response.

Are elders better scientists?

A recent paper, discussed in a recent issue of Nature, found that across disciplines, professors in their 50s and 60s published about twice the number of papers each year as professors in their 30s. This is taken in the article as evidence that older professors can be very productive.

Nature allows readers to common on news briefs, and the comments raised the same issues I had. Here are the first two, for instance:

They don't seem to consider that older professors have larger research groups, i.e. more underlings to actually write the papers. Perhaps a better photo to illustrate the story would be the aged professor in their office wielding a red pen over their students' manuscripts.

Well, the older professors are also more established and have more connections, and therefore can participate in both small and large collaborative projects. No offense, but this survey only seems to prove an already obvious point.
Basically, older faculty tend to not only have more graduate students and post-docs, they also tend to have broad collaboration networks. This is not to say that older researchers are not productive, or that even less-productive older researchers aren't valuable members of the community, just that these data seem hard to interpret.

Language Wars

I was struck by a comment to a post a while back on Cognitive Daily:

It's "DOES the use of hand gestures." Please, pay attention; grammar matters. "The use of hand gestures" is the subject, and it is singular.

Grammar matters?

A certain segment of the population gets very worked up about "correct usage" of language. As a scientist, I understand the difference between "standard" and "non-standard" language, and why one might care, as an educator, about the standard. Language is most useful when everybody understands one another (cf The Tower of Babel). This is why the standardization of spelling was such an important -- and relatively recent -- achievement.

However, the people who say, "pay attention; grammar matters" seem to be concerned with something else entirely. I can't say for sure what this poster cared about, but most that I know believe that without proper language, one cannot have proper thoughts. Thus, if we could make everybody produce perfectly-diagrammable sentences, everyone would finally think right, too.

To actually prove this contention, you would have to do a controlled experiment. Find two people who speak with "poor" grammar and have similarly sloppy thinking, teach one the correct grammar, and see if that person now thinks more clearly than the uneducated speaker.

To the best of my knowledge, no such experiment has been done -- no doubt partly because scientists seem to as a group reject such thinking altogether. For one thing, you would have to define "correct grammar," which is a priori impossible to do. The only known way to determine if a sentence is grammatical is to querry a native speaker of a language. That's it. There are no other methods.

So, now suppose we have two people (for instance, Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle) who disagree as to whether a sentence is grammatical. How do we decide between the two of them? Typically, most people for whatever reason side with the wealthier and more politically powerful of the two (in this case, Henry Higgins).

That doesn't sound very democratic. So we could take a poll. Typically, you'll find that one judgment is more common than another. But now we have only defined a standard: not necessarily a "correct" judgment. Moreover, these differences in judgments often vary as a function of where you live. As I understand it, there are parts of the South where most people will agree that you simply can't refer to a group of people as "you" -- "y'all" is the correct term.

A war of words
If it is the case that there is no evidence that "correct grammar" helps people think more correctly, and that this is because there is no such thing as correct grammar -- and I assure you, there isn't -- then why do people get so hung up on it?

First, you might answer that most people live their lives just fine without ever thinking about correct and incorrect grammar. I suspect that is false. Much hay has been made about Palin's "mangling" of the English language, some of which is valid, but much of which is due to the fact that she speaks with a nonstandard dialect. It has been remarked by more than one Southerner that Yankees think they are dumb just because of their accent. If you've never done this, then I ask you, have you really never assumed someone with a West Virginian accent was dumb? If you haven't, then at least accept that even babies prefer people who speak with the local standard accent (note that somewhat older children may actually prefer a person with a locally high-status accent rather than their own accent).

I've heard it claimed that wars have been fought over linguistic differences, but I couldn't think of any obvious examples (please comment away if you have one). Still, I think the evidence is compelling that people really, really care about accent and language use, and this goes beyond a belief in the empirical claim that right language leads to right thoughts. This runs deeper. Hopefully we will some day understand why.

Who are you calling a neuroscientist: Has neuroscience killed psychology?

The Chronicle of Higher Education just produced a list of the five young scholars to watch who combine neuroscience and psychology. The first one listed is George Alvarez, who was just hired by Harvard.

Alvarez should be on anybody's top five list. The department buzzed for a week after his job talk, despite the fact that many of us already knew his work. What is impressive is not only the quantity of his research output -- 19 papers at last count, with 6 under review or revision -- but the number of truly ground-breaking pieces of work. Several of his papers have been very influential in my own work on visual working memory.

He is also one of the best exemplars of classical cognitive psychology I know. His use of neuroscience techniques is minimal, and currently appears to be limited to a single paper (Batelli, Alvarez, Carlson & Pascual-Leone, in press). Again, this is not a criticism.

Neurons vs. Behavior

This is particularly odd in the context of the attached article, which tries to explore the relationship between neuroscience techniques and psychology. Although there is some balance, with a look at the effect of neuroscience in draining money away from traditional cognitive science, I read the article as promoting the notion that the intersection of neuroscience and psychology is not just the place to be at, it's the only place to be at.

Alvarez is one of the best examples of the opposite claim: that there is still a lot of interesting cognitive science to be done that doesn't require neuroimaging. I should point out that I say this all as a fan of neuroscience, and as somebody currently designing both ERP and fMRI experiments.

EEG vs. fMRI

One more thing before I stop beating up on the Chronicle (which is actually one of my favorite publications). The article claims that EEG (the backbone of ERP) offers less detailed information about the brain in comparison with fMRI. The truth is that EEG offers less detailed information about spatial location, but its temporal resolution is far greater. If the processes you are studying are lightning-fast and the theories you are testing make strong claims about the timing of specific computations, fMRI is not ideal. I think this is why fMRI has had less impact on the study of language than it has in some other areas.

For instance, the ERP study I am working on looks at complex interactions between semantic and pragmatic processes that occur over a few hundred milliseconds. I have seen some very inventive fMRI work on the primary visual cortex that managed that kind of precision, but it is rare (and probably only succeeded because the layout of the visual areas of the brain, in contrast with the linguistic areas, is fairly well-established).

Talking in New Tongues -- How Easy is It?

Today's post is written by a guest, Kelly Kilpatrick.

It’s a diverse world we live in, where thousands of languages vie with each other to exist and flourish. Some are more widely spoken than others, and some are dying out even as I write this. We are born knowing only one language – that of tears and noises. And as we grow, we’re introduced to the language spoken by those who surround us, picking up bits and pieces as we pass year after year. Languages come easily to some of us, while others have to work harder than the rest to master a different tongue. But there are a few circumstances when picking up a new tongue is easy, and that’s:

• When you’re young: Children tend to learn new languages faster than adults, probably because their brains are still in the developing stage. The best time to learn a new language is when you’re a child, so if you want your kinds to excel in a language besides their mother tongue, it’s best to get them started as early as possible.

• When two languages are spoken at home: When both parents speak different languages, children tend to pick up both tongues pretty fast, especially when both are spoken with the same degree of frequency.

• When you live in a foreign country: Your mother tongue at home and a foreign language when you’re outside, either at school, college or work, helps you speak both fluently. You pick up a new language quickly when everyone around you understands and speaks only that particular tongue since sign language works only up to a certain limit.

• When you work with people of other cultures: Working in a multicultural environment means you get to interact with people of different races from various countries. If you hang around them long enough, you tend to pick up certain terms and slang expressions of their mother tongue. You may even be able to understand what they say even if you’re not able to talk as fluently as they do.

• When you’re forced to: Imagine having to go to another country to work or live amongst a different people; you must learn the language as fast as you can or you’re going to find things extremely difficult. Conditions like these are ideal in encouraging your brain to learn fast since your survival depends on your new ability.

While it’s easy to learn how to speak a new language, it’s much harder to master the written form of many scripts, especially the ones that are calligraphic, like Chinese, Arabic and many other Asian languages. Western tongues more or less follow the English script, so if you know the pronunciations and spellings, you’re good to go. But it takes years and years of practice to get the hang of calligraphic scripts. Learning a new language can be an exercise that’s both fun and useful; go ahead, try taking on a new tongue today.

This post was contributed by Kelly Kilpatrick, who writes on the subject of online colleges. She invites your feedback at kellykilpatrick24 at gmail dot com.

For previous posts on the subject of language-learning, click here, here, here, here or here.