Seminars

  • Founded
    2000
  • Seminar Number
    681

What can the study of language contribute to our understanding of human nature? This question motivates research spanning many intellectual constituencies, for its range exceeds the scope of any one of the core disciplines. The technical study of language has developed across anthropology, electrical engineering, linguistics, neurology, philosophy, psychology, and sociology, and influential research of the recent era of cognitive science have occurred when disciplinary boundaries were transcended. The seminar is a forum for convening this research community of broadly differing expertise, within and beyond the University. As a meeting ground for regular discussion of current events and fundamental questions, the University Seminar on Language and Cognition will direct its focus to the latest breakthroughs and the developing concerns of the scientific community studying language.

Seminar Website


Chair
Professor Robert Remez
remez@columbia.edu

Rapporteur
Elizabeth K. Green
ekg2132@columbia.edu

Meeting Schedule

09/22/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University
4:00 PM
Social influences on the developmental acquisition and performance of birdsong
Jon Sakata, McGill University
Abstract

Abstract

Speech and language acquisition are shaped by social interactions and environments. Indeed, social influences are so powerful that social interactions have been proposed to “gate” speech and language acquisition (e.g., Kuhl, 2007). The potency of social interactions in modulating and guiding vocal learning can also be observed in various animal communication systems, in particular the vocal communication system of songbirds. In this talk, I will summarize my studies revealing how social interactions between adult and juvenile songbirds modulates the developmental acquisition of birdsong. In addition, I will discuss how social audiences shape vocal performance and how this modulation in performance could modulate vocal learning.





10/20/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University
4:00 PM
Tapping into change over the lifespan: Sir David Attenborough’s /r/s across styles and time
Laurel MacKenzie, New York University
Abstract

Abstract

Later life is an understudied age period in sociolinguistics, in part because of what Pichler et al. (2018:2) call “longstanding assumptions about post‐adolescent linguistic stability.” However, a growing body of work has shown that older adults are more linguistically dynamic than has been previously assumed, and that they may participate in or retreat from ongoing youth-led language changes in their community (e.g. Sankoff 2019). Still, many questions remain about how and why older adults engage with language change in progress. As a first step toward answering them, I carry out a longitudinal study of /r/-tapping in a corpus of Sir David Attenborough’s nature documentary narrations, sampled roughly every 5 years from 1956 (age 30) to 2015 (age 89). Comparing Attenborough’s /r/-tapping in two styles — pre-recorded narration and extemporaneous onscreen speech — I find that Attenborough remains a stylistically dynamic speaker across the 60-year time period, though his rate of tapping in narration style decreases after the earliest years of his career have passed, resulting in a diminished stylistic range. I discuss possible explanations for this finding, including changes in television broadcasting norms since the 1950s; sensitivity on Attenborough’s part to the ongoing community change away from /r/-tapping (Fabricius 2017); and the reduced social pressure to use high-formality variants in later life, particularly after having achieved great success in one’s career (e.g. Shapp, LaFave & Singler 2014).





10/24/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University
4:00 PM
The Deep Roots of Language Development and Evolution (Joint Meeting with 603)
D. Kimbrough Oller, University of Memphis
Abstract

Abstract

Language emerges in empirically discernible steps, the first of which is recognizable in the vocal activity of infants, who produce massive numbers of speech-like vocalizations (“protophones”) from the first day of life. Based on all-day recordings, we estimate they produce ~3500 protophones/day, 4-5/minute every waking hour, even in the first two months. >90% of protophones are directed to no one, often occurring when infants are alone. Even when parents are instructed to interact with infants, the majority of protophones are not directed to the parents, and deaf infants produce protophones similarly. Endogenous, exploratory vocalization is a prerequisite to vocal language, because without the ability and inclination to produce sounds flexibly, with no connection to immediate need, one could not begin down a path of development/evolution leading to language. Why? Because every act of language, every syllable, every word, every sentence must be accessible at any point time—people must be able to produce each string of speech for a great range of illocutionary intentions or for no social purpose at all. No other ape produces exploratory vocalizations, their repertoires instead serving immediate functions (expressing fear, aggression, affiliation, submission, etc.). Hominin infants are altricial, requiring years of protection and provisioning—consequently there has long been a special selection pressure for them to signal their fitness to potential caregivers. We propose this pressure selected hominin vocal inclinations/capacities that formed a foundation for developments that led to language.





11/03/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University
4:00 PM
(Joint Meeting with Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience)
Michael Frank, Stanford University
Abstract

Abstract

Every typically developing child learns to talk, but children vary tremendously in how and when they do so. What predicts this variability, and what is consistent across children and across learners of different languages? In this talk, I will describe our efforts to create predictive models of early language learning as a way of formalizing hypotheses in this space. This goal has led us to create open data resources like Wordbank, childes-db, and Peekbank that capture data from tens of thousands of children learning dozens of different languages.





12/01/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University
4:00 PM
Language. Cognition. ←?, →?
Virginia Valian, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY
Abstract

Abstract

Why are very young children’s early utterances very short? One possibility is that 18‑month-olds have a meager vocabulary and know nothing about language structure. Another possibility is that children know a lot about language structure but have limited cognitive resources. Their working memory is limited, ditto their planning abilities, and ditto their ability to integrate the multiple levels of language. Working memory, planning, and multitasking are all forms of executive function. I will present data and analyses suggesting that children’s limited executive functions constrain their language comprehension and production. A further conclusion I draw is that limited cognition constrains what languages can be learned.

What about the other direction? Can higher cognitive processes (not to be confused with cognitive representations) be increased via language? More specifically, does knowing and using more than one language improve executive function? I will suggest that it does not, and that is because, at least in adulthood, executive functions cannot be improved.