September 19, 2004

The language faculty in a business school

Since language and speech are central to human experience, linguistics should be a normal part of all levels and aspects of modern education. That's my opinion, anyhow, but I recognize that not everyone understands this yet. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Copenhagen Business School has Fakultetet for Sprog, Kommunikation og Kultur ("Faculty of Language, Communication and Culture"), which has an Institut for Datalingvistik (translated on their web site as "Department of Computational Linguistics"), which in turn has a Center for Computermodeller af Sprog (translated as "Center for Computational Modeling of Language", and generally identified by the English-based acronym CMOL, rather than Danish CMAS or whatever).

I don't know of any business schools in the U.S. with serious linguistics programs, computational or otherwise. Presumably speech and language seem like more pressing business issues in a country like Denmark, where I suppose that most business activities involve other people's languages. Still, there are plenty of reasons for business education in the U.S. to cover language-related topics, both old and new.

The research projects at CMOL look interesting -- I especially want to find out more about "Discontinuous Grammar". I was also interested to find that the research goals at CMOL are framed primarily in psychological rather than engineering terms:

The general purpose of CMOL (Center for Computational Modelling of Language) is to develop computational models of human language processing (comprehension, production, and learning). This means that research funded by CMOL must aim to model:

  • the linguistic representations and processing mechanisms used by the brain;
  • the interactions between the linguistic processing systems and higher cognitive functions, such as reasoning, perception, and memory.

Thus, research at CMOL must aim at developing language formalisms and algorithms that accurately model human language processing, rather than taking an existing formal framework for granted and trying to analyze linguistic phenomena within it. It must also work towards the goal of modelling language users as intelligent agents with linguistic capabilities, inference capabilities, general knowledge, and communicative goals, which jointly determine how the agents communicate.

Nevertheless, there are no trained psychologists among CMOL's research staff. Most projects these days with that sort of staff profile -- computer science, mathematics, computational linguistics -- tend to frame their goals in a less psychological terms. Designing airplanes rather than studying birds, so to speak.

A hundred years ago, it was generally regarded as obvious that the study of nature and the design of machines are closely connected. Up to the present moment, a tight and productive connection among psychologists, neuroscientists and engineers has continued in areas related to vision. However, in areas related to sound, the research culture has become much more balkanized, with suprisingly little communication among researchers in the various relevant areas of psychophysics, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, audio and speech technology, phonetics and phonology, sociolinguistics and so on. The reasons for this are complex -- at least I don't entirely understand them -- but it's clear that the negative influence of a handful of strong personalities has been a crucial factor.

Research in CMOL's area -- parsing, discourse analysis, corpus linguistics, lexicography, and the like -- has been somewhere in the middle between the tight federal integration of vision and the hostile and inward-looking city-states of audition. A cynic might (somewhat unfairly) describe the situation as a combination of federal rhetoric and independent action.

Anyhow, I learned about the situation at the Copenhagen Business School because Dan Hardt, a forskningslektor at CMOL, set up a reading group on "The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve?" The readings include the 2002 Science article by Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch; Pinker & Jackendoff's reply; the 2004 Science article by Fitch & Hauser; and a series of Language Log comments on Fitch & Hauser. This morning, I saw some people clicking through from Dan's site in our referrer logs, and found the context.

It's gratifying to see weblog postings participating in intellectual discourse within the academy as well as outside it. I know Dan Hardt, who is a Penn alumn, and I knew he was in Denmark these days, but I didn't know that his affiliation is at a business school's Faculty of Language :-), and it's also nice to learn about that connection.


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 19, 2004 08:42 AM