February 06, 2004

Excitement at the Guardian about language research

In the Guardian of 2/3/2004, under the headline "Brain scan sheds light on secrets of speech", Ian Sample surveys a potpourri of recent language-related research in the UK. He sketches fMRI studies on lateralization of intonation perception and functional localization of speech vs. nonspeech sounds, and other work on aphasia, on stylistic correlates of personality types, on textual information extraction for data mining, and on a new screening test for children's language-related disorders.

It would be easy to find something to complain about in every paragraph. The commonest mistake is presenting a recent link in a long chain of research as if it were the first work ever. There are also cases where the thumbnail sketch of a research result is misleading or even outright wrong as stated. For example, the work of Jon Oberlander and Alastair Gill at Edinburgh, which Oberlander's home page describes as "modelling personality-based differences in discourse generation", is said by the Guardian piece to have "found tell-tale signs that reveal how extrovert or neurotic you are". As a shy person, I object to the implied opposition between "extrovert" and "neurotic"; and in fact the Edinburgh work (e.g. here) uses conventional personality scales, in which extravert/intravert and neuroticism are separate dimensions.

But really, it's wrong to complain. Or at least, those of us who care about the study of language should celebrate first, and try to straighten out some of the mistakes later on.

The main point here is that the popular press is excited about linguistic research. It might be technically false to talk about how we've "discovered for the first time" things we've known for a while, or to exclaim that the "results are startling" when they're more or less what most researchers have thought for decades -- but it's poetically true. There really are discoveries here, even if the press is sometimes a little confused about just who discovered what when, and the research really is startling and exciting, on a slightly larger time scale. The article is full of words and phrases like "amazing", "big guns", "unprecedented insight", "research thrust", "revolutionise information gathering", "acute interest", "direct impact". So let's just relax for a while and enjoy the flow of positively-associated vocabulary items.

The key to the article is this quote (about half-way through):

"Language is at the very heart of what makes us human," said Geoffrey Crossick, chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Board. "It is about how we think, understand the world and communicate with each other. If we are to understand these activities, let alone to harness technology to help us carry them out, it is essential that we understand language and how it works."

I'll raise a glass to that.

[Guardian link via Zoe Toft]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 6, 2004 10:01 AM