For the love of language: Guest post

I met Emi Karydes as she was beginning her last year as an undergrad at UCSD. I knew she wanted to be involved in linguistic research, and although my work is really more about cognition, I convinced her that language was my first love and is at the center of my cognitive science research, and Emi became a research assistant. She taught me cool things about American Sign Language, made me laugh, and was tremendously helpful with whatever project I threw at her. A couple months after graduation, Emi reflects on her relationship with language – past, present, and future:

I started my freshman year at UCSD with an interest in everything, but no idea what I wanted to focus on. I had narrowed down my options to “something in the Arts/Humanities.” Then I took LING7, the Linguistics of American Sign Language, and I fell in love. (I am still a bit upset that it took me so long to learn about linguistics, but that is an issue for another day.) I don’t know how I feel about the idea of predestination or fate, but it certainly feels like I was always meant to be a linguist. The study of language touches on so many different aspects of life, from communication, to culture, to technology, to art, just to name a few, that it was the perfect major for someone who wanted to study everything.

Language is something that most people are fortunate enough to take for granted, so when you take a step back and analyze how and why language works it can be mind-boggling. I remember sitting in Phonology freaking out about the fact that as we are talking about the different sounds on the IPA chart, we’re producing them. It is impossible to study linguistics without using language, which I will admit has led me to start speaking  and just not stop because I get distracted by how my vocal tract produces the different phonemes. Lots of fun for the people stuck listening to me listening to myself, I’m sure. But my point is that there are so many amazing things happening in your brain and your body allowing you to communicate almost effortlessly, and we aren’t even consciously aware of it most of the time. Language is as close to magic as I’ve been able to find concrete proof for, and I love it.

“So, what exactly are you planning to DO with a linguistics major?” Honestly, whatever you want. Don’t let this question scare you away from a Linguistics major. Since language is so engrained in our everyday lives, linguistics can be applied to almost anything. Scratching the surface, there is speech pathology, or computational linguistics, or language construction, or gathering data on a language that is nearing extinction, or research into any of a number of unanswered questions. I graduated this year with a degree in General Linguistics, and am taking a year off to relocate from San Diego to Portland, but I am really looking forward to applying to grad schools and furthering my study of linguistics. I genuinely feel that what I’ve learned these last four years has helped me grow as a person, expanding my personal perspective and giving me a new method by which to think about the world as a community. So if you are going into this year with no idea what to study, try linguistics. It might just change your life.

P.S. Emi has some other talents you might want to check out.

How We Learn: A Guest Review

I mentioned in a previous post that I have some stellar undergraduate Research Assistants. I neglected to mention that this summer I also have some stellar high school assistants. Juliette Hill is a rising senior whose main goal for her time in the lab was to learn what it’s like to be a cognitive science grad student. She worked on some open-ended and exploratory questions as well as some very detailed data collection. She also read and thought about cognitive science ideas beyond the specific ones we’re addressing in the lab. Here are her thoughts on How We Learn, a book by Benedict Carey:


Like most of us, Benedict Carey grew up with the belief that in order to learn best, one had to find a quiet, designated study space. Practice was the only path to perfection. The Internet and all other electronic devices should be turned off lest they disturb your concentration. Highlighting and rereading notes, if done frequently, will improve your test scores. Forgetting is the enemy of learning.

Yet most of these adages are far from the truth.

Distractions can actually aid learning in ways that remaining focused cannot. Studying in the same spot repeatedly may weaken your grasp on the subject. After an intense study session of revising notes, we feel confident we know our subject inside out, but we still barely manage a B on the test. Why?

With the advent of modern science, we are barely able to scrape the surface of discovering the cognitive aspect of learning. In his book How We Learn, Benedict Carey walks the reader through a multitude of discoveries that may revolutionize the way we perceive the learning process. Here are some of the findings he explains:

Distraction can aid learning. While this is not an absolute (checking Facebook during a lecture does not help you learn what the teacher is presenting you), it certainly has much potential, especially in today’s society. While stuck on a difficult math problem or other similar pit, taking a study break can definitely boost your ability to solve the problem the second time around. Does this mean taking an hour-long nap will have similar effects? Absolutely! And it can possibly help even more than a simple distraction.

Sleep is your friend. Most people know that sleep can help consolidate learned facts and motor skills, but few people know when such benefits occur in the night. Each night is comprised of several cycles, alternating between a deep sleep and a more wakeful one. The times in the night when you sleep the deepest occur around the first 2 to 3 hours of sleep. This deep sleep has been found to reinforce the learning of rote facts. Yet if you are preparing for a music recital (which would involve your motor skills and learning), your peak of the night would occur slightly later.

Highlighting and rereading of notes will not carry you far. In fact, you will feel as if you know the subject manner by heart, but will be disappointed when you see an unexpected score on your test. What happened? You knew the content so well, right? The danger of highlighting and rereading is that it gives you the impression that you know the material, when you actually are only familiar with it. The best way to review content is to maintain a “desirable difficulty” (as coined by Dr. Robert Bjork) in your studying. This means that testing yourself (as opposed to just reading the content) will help you retain the material much better. So you can dig up those flashcards you never thought you’d use again. This applies to preparing a speech too, in that you will be better prepared if you practice reciting your speech instead of just rereading your notes.

Interleaving helps retain information best. If you are asked to memorize the styles of 12 different artists from different eras, do you think you would do best by studying all the works done by each artist one at a time (a method called “blocking”) or by mixing up the artists? If you are like most, you may choose to study by blocking. However, this has shown to be significantly less effective than mixing up the artists (interleaving) and studying that way. Ever noticed that when you do your math problems (by each section), you understand right away and feel like you mastered the skill, yet come time for the test, you are confused by which equations to use? This can easily be avoided with interleaving, which would mean, in this case, that you include problems from previous sections along with the night’s homework.

Your study corner is a trap. There have been several studies that looked at the effect of location on retention and found that if you studied certain information in a particular spot and were tested on it at that same location, you do better than if you studied the material in one place and tested in another location. The same is true for body states (hunger, influence of drugs, mood…) or when listening to music. You do best when these stay consistent. Yet it is often too hard to study and test in the same location, and more importantly, it becomes harder to recall the information when not in that same area. The answer is to vary your location when studying. If you only study in one location, the information will unconsciously (though not on a large scale), be tied to that location. This means that if you move to another spot, your recall will not be at its optimal. However, by altering your study spots, you can avoid this dependence on your surroundings and possibly increase your score on the next test.

These are just a few of the topics Carey explains in his book, and there are many more discovered since the book’s publishing. Therefore, I highly recommend that you look into this book and share your findings with others. It’s a shame so few people know about the science of learning, despite the fact that their lives revolve around it.

Linguist meets CogSci: Guest Post

I work with some really stellar undergraduates. They’re often the people behind the scenes collecting the data that drives my research. They teach me interesting nuggets from their classes, and they ask questions I can’t always answer.

Here are some thoughts from Austin German, a rising junior double majoring in Cognitive Science and Linguistics. Austin is a linguaphile, and here he tells a story about how cognitive science – thinking about this vast, intangible thing that is the mind – has changed the way he thinks about and appreciates language:

I’ve known I wanted to study linguistics since the 10th grade, so when I got to UCSD in 2014 I blew through my general ed requirements and dived directly into upper division linguistics courses. Even though I loved every one of them, I was disappointed- my major was only twelve classes. Twelve. By the end of my second year I would essentially be finished with my major. Desiring more, I sought research assistant positions.

I landed not in linguistics, but in cognitive science. Little did I know how significant this would be for my views on language and linguistics. Obviously valuable was the first-hand experience I gained in scientific research, but I could have gotten that in any lab. What really impacted me was the exposure to theories and research programs that directly conflicted with my training in linguistics. The lab I ended up in was run by a leading contributor to the theory of linguistic relativity– the idea that one’s language influences cognition. This made me uneasy. In traditional linguistics, the central assumption is the equality of all human languages in terms of expressive power and structural complexity. But actually reading the literature made it clear that no one was asserting that speakers of certain language were somehow limited in what thoughts they could express or even conceive of. The idea was that different languages obligatorily encode different kinds of information (tense, aspect, evidentiality, or agentivity, to name a few common examples). The increased attention speakers must habitually pay to such information leads to a different cognitive ‘partitioning’ of the world.

Even though my previous understanding of linguistic relativity was shattered, it still made me uncomfortable. Not because I didn’t like the theory, but because I realized how myopic my own field of linguistics could be. So much linguistic work had focused on description or abstract analyses of language structure (and these are a few of my favorite things!) without any wider perspective. How did language come to be so diverse? What are the implications of linguistic diversity?

I couldn’t find the answers in traditional linguistics. Chomsky tells us that it’s all the same below the surface. Really? Why are linguists so afraid to tackle the wider implications of language structure for cognition? Exposure to serious research in linguistic relativity pulled me out of the view that language was an island, uncontacted by other regions of the mind. Logically, then, linguists were not the only people with relevant things to say about language. To really understand language, I knew I couldn’t just study linguistics. So I declared a minor in cognitive science. After a few weeks I bit the bullet and went full double major.

Exposure to serious research in linguistic relativity pulled me out of the view that language was an island, uncontacted by other regions of the mind.

I’m still really uncomfortable as a cognitive science major. In linguistics, I’m a top student. I know something about pretty much any topic in linguistics, and quite a bit about a few very specific ones. But in cognitive science? I’d be hard pressed to completely and accurately explain pretty much anything in this field. And this is a good thing. Linguistics has always been defined to me as the scientific study of language- yet I was taught little explicit science in my linguistics classes (with a few exceptions). After just one quarter of lower division cognitive science classes, I’m armed with more tools- and more questions- than after a whole major in linguistics. I’m still a linguist at heart, but I’m excited to explore a new field for a while. Hopefully the next two years are just as enlightening.

-Austin German (agerman at ucsd dot edu)