Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker was the guest at the Kentucky Author Forum on Oct. 2, 2012, interviewed by NPR's Neal Conan. Pinker is a Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He conducts research on language and cognition and is the author of numerous books, including The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature, and most recently, The Better Angels of Our Nature.
In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker examines human violence through the centuries. We’ve all had the experience of reading about a bloody war or shocking crime and asking, “What is the world coming to?” But we seldom ask, “How bad was the world in the past?” In the book, Pinker argues that violence in the past was actually much worse than now. Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate of Medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then suddenly were targeted for abolition. Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals—all substantially down.
In 1994 in the Ardeche region of France, three explorers pulled rocks away from a tiny opening at the base of a cliff and opened the door to another world. Inside the deepest recesses of what turned out to be a 1300-foot long cave were remarkable images of animals painted there by humans living 30,000 years ago (Herzog, 2010).
The images are remarkable in their style and beauty, virtually perfectly preserved in the near airtight conditions of the cave. Lions, bears, bison, reindeer, mammoth, rhinoceroses and other beings line the walls in almost three-dimensional form, many captured in dynamic action--hooves raised, mouths, open, legs bent midstride--as if they were living beings.
Today, it is easy to take language for granted. The majority of the civilized world both reads and writes, allowing communication in very specific topic and form. But what is it to “have language”--be linguistic creatures? What would life... (Click title to continue reading)
Economist Keith Chen starts today’s talk with an observation: to say, “This is my uncle,” in Chinese, you have no choice but to encode more information about said uncle. The language requires that you denote the side the uncle is on, whether he’s related by marriage or birth and, if it’s your father’s brother, whether he’s older or younger.
“All of this information is obligatory. Chinese doesn’t let me ignore it,” says Chen. “In fact, if I want to speak correctly, Chinese forces me to constantly think about it.”
This got Chen wondering: Is there a connection between language and how we think and behave? In particular, Chen wanted to know: does our language affect our economic decisions?
Chen designed a study — which he describes in detail in this blog post — to look at how language might affect individual’s ability to save for the future. According to his results, it does — big time.
While “futured languages,” like English, distinguish between the past, present and future, “futureless languages,” like Chinese, use the same phrasing to describe the events of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Using vast inventories of data and meticulous analysis, Chen found that huge economic differences accompany this linguistic discrepancy. Futureless language speakers are 30 percent more likely to report having saved in any given year than futured language speakers. (This amounts to 25 percent more savings by retirement, if income is held constant.) Chen’s explanation: When we speak about the future as more distinct from the present, it feels more distant — and we’re less motivated to save money now in favor of monetary comfort years down the line.
But that’s only the beginning. There’s a wide field of research on the link between language and both psychology and behavior. Here, a few fascinating examples:
Babies only hours old are able to differentiate between sounds from their native language and a foreign language, scientists have discovered. The study indicates that babies begin absorbing language while still in the womb, much earlier than previously thought.
Sensory and brain mechanisms for hearing are developed at 30 weeks of gestational age, and the new study shows that unborn babies are listening to their mothers talk during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy and at birth can demonstrate what they've heard.
"The mother has first dibs on influencing the child's brain," said Patricia Kuhl, co-author and co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. "The vowel sounds in her speech are the loudest units and the fetus locks onto them."
Previously, researchers had shown that newborns are born ready to learn and begin to discriminate between language sounds within the first months of life, but there was no evidence that language learning had occurred in utero.
"This is the first study that shows fetuses learn prenatally about the particular speech sounds of a mother's language," said Christine Moon, lead author and a professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. "This study moves the measurable result of experience with speech sounds from six months of age to before birth."
It's time for language learners to give up trying to nail the perfect accent. Instead, it's intelligibility that counts.
To truly speak a language fluently, do you need to have the accent too? It’s certainly something that even experiencedinterpreters can struggle with, particularly as there are so many dialects and regional accents for every language.
Anne Merritt, an English as a foreign language lecturer based in South Korea, writes in the Telegraph that the key to speaking a second language well lies in pronunciation, rather than accent. In fact, she says that battling to perfect an accent “sets you up for failure”.
She explains that it is notoriously difficult to learn an accent different from your own and speak it flawlessly. As any actor who has attempted a regional accent knows, it will almost always be criticised by the people who grew up speaking with that accent. Just ask Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway, who attempted a Yorkshire accent in the 2011 movie One Day. The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin said at the time that it was “impossible to tell” how good Hathaway’s performance in the film was, as every line of dialogue she speaks in it is “masked by one of the most honkingly rubbish Yorkshire accents you’ve ever heard”.
It’s what you say, not how you say it
Luckily, Ms Merritt says being able to speak another language complete with the authentic accent is not essential, and instead people should focus on pronouncing the words in the correct way. She gives five tips for this:
1) Listen and repeat
2) Learn the language’s stress patterns
3) Use a mirror to watch how your mouth moves
4) Practice words in sentences, as context can alter the pronunciation
5) Record your practice sessions and listen back to identify areas for improvement
Her advice for getting to grips with speaking a language fluently includes listening to songs and watching movies recorded in that language in order to mimic the way people speak. She also suggests listening to podcasts, as they can be played at a slower speed in order to hear in detail how a particular sound is made.
It has long been thought learning to speak in a perfect foreign accent is an impossible goal in adulthood. However, a study by linguistics professor at Canada’s Simon Fraser University Murray J Munro and linguist at the University of Alberta Tracy Derwing revealed it is possible to nail the pronunciation. The key is making the goal communicating clearly with people, rather than speaking with an authentic accent.
Time reports that the linguists suggested replacing the “nativeness principle” – the idea of mimicking an accent perfectly – with the “intelligibility principle”, where it’s how understood you are that guides your learning. The authors pointed out that with the correct pronunciation it is possible to understand people speaking a foreign language, even if their native accent is heavy.