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Changes in Language

news_jimUCSC’s linguistics department answers old questions with new methods

What is a question? How do you ask one? How do you answer?

These are some of the many queries UC Santa Cruz’s linguistics department is trying to solve and they are using some innovative techniques to get at the answers.

“This is an exciting time in the field [of linguistics],” says Jim McCloskey, chair of the department. “The field is changing fast. The basic questions remain the same … but the methods are changing.”

Until recently, the focus in linguistics research was on informal methods, generally one-on-one talks with a native speaker, asking them questions about the language. Now the focus is shifting toward more large-scale, quantitative, and laboratory-based studies—methodologies more akin to those of the “hard” sciences. UCSC is unique in that it integrates both techniques.

“I don’t know of another linguistics department that does that—combines cutting edge theoretical work while maintaining its commitment to marginalized languages,” say McCloskey, adding that there is a growing concern with said marginalized languages. “Languages are dying at a rate never before seen in history.”

UCSC’s linguistics department is known for its work preserving endangered and marginalized languages. However, McCloskey says that it is challenging to find ways to implement the growing number of new technologies and methods for these more marginalized languages. He points to the “prosperity gap” as one of the challenges: many endangered or marginalized languages are spoken in poor or third world countries. Gathering the quantity of native speakers required to make the results significant may not be possible.

“You may not be able to bring 25 speakers of Dakota into a lab,” says McCloskey. “You need to be aware of the difficulties and have contact with these communities. You need to bridge the first and third world gap.”

One way to achieve this is to bring technology to the communities, instead of the other way around. For example, linguists use a type of ultrasound machine to examine what happens in the speech areas when a person produces sound. Unlike other devices, this one is portable. Instead of bringing people into the lab, linguists can bring this device to them.

Another key to bridging the gap is giving back, says McCloskey. “There’s a set of skills involved in making contact with these communities,” he explains. “How do you explain your goals to them, and that you’re not there to exploit them? You must give back.” To show their appreciation, research teams give back by training teachers, providing dictionaries, or giving whatever the community needs to help preserve their language.

To help address the puzzle of reconciling endangered languages with new experimental techniques, the linguistics department recently hired faculty with experience in the newer quantitative and experimental techniques to complement the current faculty’s knowledge of traditional fieldwork techniques. “What we have is a group of senior, very experienced faculty and a group of young, very able faculty,” says McCloskey, excited by the new additions. “The combination of established expertise and young energy and smarts. And we all get along very well!”

The department also plans to apply for interdisciplinary grants to establish links with the computer science and psychology departments. McCloskey points out that there are already many connections between these disciplines: many psychology theories are used in linguistics, and computer engineering is considered one of the practical sides of linguistics (computer engineering requires a sophisticated grasp of language for developing search engines).

So what does a linguistics department get when it combines quantitative and experimental techniques, traditional fieldwork methods, new and established faculty, and other disciplines? Perhaps—at least they hope—a way to move linguistics forward without leaving any languages behind.

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