UCSD Grads at conferences this summer!

The first wave of students are off on the summer conference circuit:
• Younah Chung and Page Piccinnini are presenting posters at the Acoustical Society of America/International Congress of Acoustics meeting in Montreal June 2-7, 2013
Bethany Keffala is giving a talk at the International Child Phonology Conference at Radboud University in Nijmegen on June 11.

Laura McPherson (UCLA) – June 7th

The Linguistic Fieldwork Working Group will be hosting a talk by Laura McPherson (UCLA, Linguistics) on Friday, June 7 at 11am in the Field Lab (AP&M 2452).

This talk is part of Laura’s ongoing doctoral research on Tommo So (http://www.degruyter.com/view/product/186148).

Tone-tune association in Tommo So (Dogon) folk songs

This talk presents the preliminary results of a study on Tommo So folk music. Tommo So is a Dogon language, spoken in east central Mali by around 60,000 people. The language is tonal, with a two-way contrast between H and L tone, used at both the lexical and grammatical levels. Among the Dogon people, songs are traditionally sung in Tommo So, regardless of the native language of the singer.

In what little attention tone-tune interaction has received in the literature, findings have been mixed. Some musical traditions (e.g. Cantonese pop music) have clear tone-tune associations, while many African traditions are more ambiguous, with researchers arguing both sides. Based on recordings made with native Tommo So speakers, I demonstrate that the melody of folk music is in fact constrained by the lexical tone of the language, but that pitch mappings are not exact: mismatches in pitch movement (e.g. rising melody on a HL word or falling melody on a LH word) are rare, while level melodies can host monotone as well as multitone words. In contrast, grammatical tone, which takes the form of replacive overlays in the Dogon languages, is apparently ignored or not applied in tone-tune mapping. Should these preliminary results be confirmed by deeper study, it will be the first recorded case of such a division in African music, suggesting that singers draw only upon lexical representations when singing rather than considering the tonal patterns of words in context. In sum, this talk explores the possibility of using musical expression as evidence in linguistic analyses of tone.

June 5 – Naja Ferjan Ramirez

The Department of Linguistics is pleased to announce Naja Ferjan Ramirez’s dissertation defense on Wednesday, June 5, 2013, 11:00 am- 1:00 pm in the Applied Physics and Mathematics Building room 4301.

Acquiring a first language in adolescence:

Behavioral and neuroimaging studies in American Sign Language

One of the most challenging questions in linguistics is why the ability to acquire language declines with age. The critical period hypothesis, which claims that language acquisition is driven by brain maturation, is widely accepted despite a lack of evidence to support it. Because most children experience language from birth, the relationship between brain growth and early language experience is poorly understood. This dissertation describes the language acquisition and the neural language processing in three deaf individuals (cases) who were cut-off from nearly all language until adolescence; they could not hear spoken language and, due to anomalies in their upbringing, did not experience sign language until adolescence when they became immersed in American Sign Language (ASL). These developmental circumstances allow us to investigate the effects of first language acquisition begun in adolescence, and test the critical period hypothesis from a unique perspective.

The first part of the dissertation focuses on the cases’ language following one to two years of ASL use. Their language is remarkably similar to that of young children: their lexicons are biased towards nouns, and their utterances are short and simple. The second part of the dissertation explores the link between the age onset of language acquisition and the neural representation of sign meaning using anatomically constrained magnetoencephalography. Chapter 3 demonstrates that under ideal developmental circumstances, when language is available from birth, the neural processing of sign in deaf participants is highly similar to the processing of speech in hearing participants. However, in subsequent studies with the cases (Chapter 4), we observe atypical neural activation patterns, which diverge significantly from those associated with native sign or spoken language learning.

These results indicate that early language experience is crucial in establishing canonical neural language processing patterns. The atypical neural activation patterns we find in the cases may be associated with the slowed rate of language development we observe in follow-up language studies. Our findings provide some of the initial direct evidence in support the critical period hypothesis and have important theoretical and practical implications.


You are what you speak (or sign)

UCSD Department of Linguistics

“You are what you speak (or sign): Effects of language learning on brain”

A talk by Dr. Robert Kluender

Professor of Linguistics at UCSD

Received wisdom about learning a language is often wrong: people think that children are better language learners than adults, that you’re fine learning a language before puberty but basically doomed afterwards, and that you can never acquire a native-sounding accent as an adult learner — even though none of these things is true.

While it is still true that the earlier you are exposed to a language, the better off you will be, we now also know that the adult brain is a lot more flexible (“plastic”) than we used to think it was. If you expose the brain to systematic input (e.g. language) on a regular basis (e.g. in a language class, on the internet, or reading on your own), your brain not only soaks it up, but literally incorporates this input into its own internal anatomical and physiological structure.

Consequently, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that your brain knows things about the language you are learning before you are even aware of it — you may not be able to say which answer is correct on a test, but your brain can, and does. Even more remarkably, your brain learns things about language that your teachers and instructional materials never even mention.

The moral of this story is that exposing yourself to as much language input as you can, in whatever form you can get it, is not only the best but actually the only way to help your brain help you learn a language. That means it’s imperative that you go to class (and not just because it’s required) and make liberal and consistent use of media (including reading) outside of class to get as much input as you can in the language you are learning.

TUESDAY MAY 14th, 2013 – 6:00-7:30 PM


Note: This talk is directed to students currently enrolled in language classes in the UCSD Linguistics Langauge Program. However, everyone is welcome to attend.

May 13 – Andrew Garrett

Please join the Linguistics Department on Monday, May 13th at 2 PM in AP&M 4301 for our colloquium. Andrew Garrett (UC Berkeley) will be presenting.

The chronology of Proto-Indo-European: New evidence from computational phylogenetics

This presentation reports on joint work with Will Chang, David Hall, and Chundra Cathcart.
Within Indo-European studies and historical linguistics more broadly, it remains controversial when and where Proto-Indo-European (PIE) was spoken. According to the hypothesis of Renfrew (1987, 1999, 2000, 2001), PIE was spoken in Anatolia and was spread broadly with the diffusion of agriculture. Since the chronology of farming dispersal is understood, on this hypothesis PIE was spoken in the 7th millennium BCE. An alternative hypothesis (Mallory 1989, Anthony 2007, Parpola 2008) is that PIE was spoken in the steppe north of the Black and Caspian Seas between about 4500 and 3500 BCE. According to this “steppe hypothesis”, language spread in Asia and Europe was associated with horse domestication, wheeled transport, and other cultural innovations. The two analyses of PIE origins thus differ in chronology by some 3000 years.
In the last decade this debate has been put on a new footing  with research by Gray & Atkinson (2003), Bouckaert et al. (2012), and other associated work by the same authors and their colleagues. In this line of research, computational methods from biological phylogenetics are applied to linguistic data (e.g. basic vocabulary lists) in order to infer phylogeny and chronology. The latter in particular does not rely on the glottochronological assumption of a constant rate of change, but assumes only that rates of change are distributed in a statistically tractable way. Without exception, and using a variety of tools, datasets, and statistical and model assumptions, work along these lines has pointed to the Anatolian chronology for PIE. Most Indo-Europeanists do not accept this chronology, so the results have been controversial and widely reported.
This paper reports on a computational analysis demonstrating that the data actually support the steppe hypothesis. Our approach has been to use methods similar to those of Gray & Atkinson, Bouckaert et al., etc., but to revise the data coding in way that is linguistically more plausible than in previous work. The relevant revisions will be discussed and supported in detail. When linguistically plausible assumptions are made, then it can be shown that a PIE chronology consistent with the steppe hypothesis is favored.

May 6 – Matt Wagers

Monday, May 6th at 2 PM in AP&M 4301. Matt Wagers (U.C. Santa Cruz) will be presenting.

Grammatical prediction in Chamorro: WH agreement and real-time dependency formation

 In this talk, I will discuss some recent sentence comprehension studies in Chamorro*, an Austronesian language of the Mariana Islands. Real-time studies of small languages, and languages outside of Europe and East Asia – like Chamorro – have played an essentially negligible role in psycholinguistics, for reasons practical but not scientific. In the case of Chamorro, the interaction of its rich agreement system, its flexible word order, and its principles for aligning syntactic and semantic roles make it a very attractive language for investigating core ideas in language processing. In two studies, we have leveraged these grammatical features to ask how comprehenders make predictions about upcoming linguistic material to interpret WH (filler-gap) dependencies.

Chamorro is of particular interest to the comprehension of filler-gap dependencies because it provides morphological cues to the gap site via its system of WH Agreement (Chung, 1982, 1998). In the first study, we examined the real-time comprehension of WH Agreement inflected extractions, drawing upon two experiments – self-paced listening and a variant of preferential looking. Based on the detection of semantic anomalies, we find that the presence of WH agreement morphology plays a strongly facilitative role in the interpretation of filler-gap dependencies. Based on patterns of reanalysis, we find that in the absence of (optional) WH agreement morphology, gaps may be projected but not synchronously interpreted. Additionally, as a side effect of our experimental design, we document an age-correlated decline in the availability of possessor extraction among Chamorro speakers.

The timecourse of comprehension in Chamorro highlights two important questions for psycholinguistic models: why might highly favored continuations sometimes be ignored? And what is the relationship between syntactic prediction and semantic interpretation? In the second part of the talk, I will discuss a second study on the person-animacy hierarchy which addresses these questions: in transitive clauses, and certain possessor extractions, only some combinations of subject and object (or possessor of object) are allowed, depending on person/animacy features. These constraints allows us to directly compare the influence of two sources of prediction in comprehension: (1) the space of possible continuations; and (2) the presence of unlicensed grammatical features.

*This project represents joint work with Sandra Chung (UC Santa Cruz) & Manuel F. Borja (Inetnon Åmot yan Kutturan Natibu, CNMI)