October 26, 2003

The "Terascale Linguistics Initiative"

I'm in Monterey, along with about twenty other linguists and people from allied fields such as anthropology and psychology, to participate in a two-day workshop on something called the "Terascale Linguistics Initiative". This is a brief report on the first day's session, posted from my hotel room the morning after.

I knew very little about this initiative before coming here. I was invited by Peter Sells, and I learned a bit more about the history and context from his presentation at the start of the first day's session. It seems that back in 2001, Cecile McKee (then the head of the Linguistics Program at the National Science Foundation) asked the NSF Linguistics Panel to suggest possible initiatives. I think that at NSF "initiative" then meant something like "effort to foster research by setting a theme," and that the new term for this is "priority area", though maybe I have the lexicography wrong here.

Peter, who was then a member of the linguistics panel, came up with the idea of an initiative to promote linguistic research based on "the opportunity created by new technology", as he put it in his presentation yesterday. To carry this idea forward, there was a small brainstorming meeting at Stanford at some point in 2002, as a result of which Peter and a couple of others applied to NSF for funding to hold this larger workshop, and to arrange a "town meeting" at the Linguistic Society of America 2004 meeting in Boston (though I can't find anything about it on the meeting site as yet).

The organizers are familiar enough with the "Terascale Linguistics Initiative" concept to use the acronym TSL in a familiar way -- as I will from now on -- but there is not very much of a web presence as yet for this concept. In fact, as I learned before coming here, "terascale linguistics initiative" does not occur in google's index. The URL that I used for the hyperlink in the first sentence of this post was cited in the paper packet of materials that I got at the workshop, but it's on a site at Stanford that is password-protected, and therefore isn't indexed by web search engines. I don't have the password, so I haven't seen the site either. I believe that Peter intends to open it to the public at some point, perhaps by the time you try it, gentle reader.
[Update 11/1/2003: the public site's URL is http://www.teraling.org.]

As for what TSL means, I learned a lot at yesterday's session, but the proposed initiative is still pretty diffuse for me. From the point of view of funding within NSF, the goals seem modest at least initially: what was discussed yesterday was the idea of having a kind of subordinate focus ("area of emphasis" might be the term) starting in 2004 under the NSF "Priority Area in Human and Social Dynamics", for which the 2003 call is here. From the point of view of intellectual content, the idea is still not clearer to me than what I can infer from Peter's phrase "the opportunity created by new technology," which is that the advance of networked computing technology makes big quantitative improvements in the accessibility and cost-performance of corpora and linguistic databases of all kinds. This enables old ideas to be carried out on a larger scale or by more researchers, and it also enables some entirely new kinds of research, in linguistics as in almost every other scientific and scholarly discipline.

At yesterday's session, in addition to Peter's brief history of TSL, we got a systematic survey of language-related stuff at NSF, presented by the current linguistics program director Joan Maling and the director of the Human Language and Communication Program, Karen Kukich. This presentation was enlightening but did not relate specifically to TSL. Then we heard presentations about "what TSL means to me and my subfield" (that's my characterization, not anyone's title) from five participants: Beth Levin, Katherine Demuth, Mary Beckman, Jack Dubois, Norma Mendoza Denton. These presentations were uniformly interesting, and in some cases I was happy to learn about pieces of work that were new to me. However, they were also very detailed and specific, so that as a whole they presented a sort of pointillistic sketch of what TSL might be. We got five wide-separated clusters of points, each representing some specific examples of "the opportunity created by new technology" in language-related research, but no synthesis or systematic vision as yet.

The eight background presentations took about twice as long as Peter had allocated for them, so that except for a few minutes at the end of the afternoon planning today's sessions, and a few brief exchanges during the presentations, that's pretty much all that happened yesterday.

I'll report about today's meeting, probably at some point after I get back home, as I'm taking the red-eye back tonight and won't have net access during the session today.

I should say that TSL seems to me to be basically a Good Thing. The trends that it reflects are important and deserve to be encouraged, and I'm in favor of anything that promotes an improvement in the very modest funding level of NSF's linguistics program.

[Update 10/29/2003: Peter Sells points out to me that the official acronym is TSL not (as I thought) TLI. My memory of having heard people talking about "TLI" is apparently a symptom of a low-grade acronymic aphasia, perhaps caused by the fact that all possible three-letter combinations are already taken many times over (google tells me that "TSL" is "Texas School Libraries", "Tokyo Specialty Love", "Triple Super Lead", and some 236,000 others, while "TLI" is only "Taipei Language Institute", "TOUGHLOVE International" and some 114,000 alternative readings). Anyhow, I'll make the change throughout my two posts on TSL, to avoid confusing others, and I'll add this one to my notes for the poignant memoir "The Man who Mistook his PDA for a PFD".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 26, 2003 05:36 AM