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)