November 15, 2011

Cybertools Streamline Language Research

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Language acquisition –– the uniquely human capacity to acquire language –– is still a poorly understood phenomenon. Even today it eludes adequate explanation. To facilitate collaborative research on the world’s roughly 7,000 languages, new cybertools have been developed and are now being implemented at the University’s Language Acquisition Lab. These cybertools will enable researchers worldwide to access materials and organize their data in a practical way: eventually, in the hopes of providing an answer to that question of language acquisition which has been posed at least since the time of St. Augustine and his 4th century Confessions.

Examples of these cybertools include an “experiment bank”, which will allow for more ease in experimental replication, as well as a “data transcription and analysis tool”, which will provide, through graphical interfaces, a structure for such computer-based research.

The Lab is also partnering with Albert R. Mann Library’s Sinhala archive, a rare collection of audio recordings of native Sinhala speakers (children of ages two to seven years old) collected over the course of the 1980’s, to enter that language’s data into the cybertools. Sinhala, spoken only in Sri Lanka, the island nation off the coast of India, is a language of chief importance to scholars.

“[Sinhala has] properties that make it look like Hindi and Sanskrit, but it’s also got properties that make it look like Japanese,” said Director of the Cornell Language Acquisition Lab and project leader Prof. Barbara Lust, human development.

Sinhala and Japanese are distinctive syntactically in that they are “Subject-Object-Verb” languages, explained Lust.  Thus, where in English one might write, “The dog ate the bone,” in Sinhala or Japanese a translation would literally read, “The dog bone ate.”

The Japanese and Sinhala language families share absolutely no historical or geographic connection. Such structural similarities are of utmost interest to researchers who are investigating “what’s universal about language”—or, in Lust’s terms, “what’s universal in the child across all these languages.” Researchers hope to reach a consensus on a theory of language acquisition.

“There has always been tension in the field,” said Lust, describing the two predominant, competing theories. On the one side often associated with linguistics, there are those who argue, a la MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, that much of language learning is innate — that most aspects are biologically programmed in our brains from birth. Others, typically associated with psychology, argue that language is rather more a cultural production.There are also those like Lust who fall, more or less, in between.

“I don’t know if we could go back there to get this data again,” said Lust of the extraordinary Sinhala collection preserved in Mann, citing recent years of civil conflict in the region between the Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic groups.

Right now, access to the cybertools is limited to members of Lab and some select researchers like Prof. University of Texas at El Paso María Blume Ph.D ’02, who helped to develop them. Blume is now working at UPEC to compile a similar database on Spanish.

Stressing the collaborative nature of the work, Lust said, “We could never have built this without the students; in fact, many more undergraduates than graduates even.”

Original Author: Bob Hackett