The science fiction film Arrival focuses on a linguist tasked with learning how to communicate with aliens. The film studio asked linguists from McGill University to consult on the movie, and we got a chance to talk with professors Jessica Coon, Morgan Sonderegger, and Lisa Travis about their experiences!
NOTE: There are some spoilers for the movie in this interview, which covers the following, and more:
- our interviewees' involvement in the movie - their thoughts on analyzing alien speech and writing - the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and linguistic determinism - linguistic fieldwork - language variation and finding it in sci-fi
Anne Charity Hudley
Dr. Anne Charity Hudley is an associate professor at the College of William and Mary, and the inaugural William and Mary Professor of Community Studies. She’s co-authored two books on English language variation in classroom settings, and also wrote the section on language and racialization in the Oxford Handbook of Language and Society. She’s a great sociolinguistic researcher who’s doing a lot of work on dialectal variation, linguistic justice, and more.
Our interview covered the following topics and more: - the importance of attending to language variation in the classroom - what teachers and students have to learn from linguists, and vice versa - the role language and linguistics has played in racialization, and how to get away from that - how to work to convince people of the importance of interacting with language variation and linguistic justice - why we should do more to get younger people involved in linguistics and research
Dr. Daniel Dennett is a University Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Tufts University, as well as the co-director of their Center for Cognitive Studies. He’s also the author of a number of books on evolution, consciousness, memes, language, and more, including Consciousness Explained, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.
Our interview covers the following topics: - the role of language in spreading culture - what linguists and philosophers can learn from each other - whether the gap between linguists and the general public is closing - computers and whether they’ll be able to use language in a human-like way - a question from one of our followers about whether we have a dedicated mental language
Dr. Lisa Pearl is an Associate Professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the director of their Computation of Language Laboratory. She’s published numerous articles on how to use statistical models to check different hypotheses about what kids do to learn language, as well as about natural language processing and textual analysis.
Our discussion covered all this and more: - what statistical models can tell us about how kids acquire language - what’s under our control in our writing, and what we unconsciously show as our write-print - why computers are so bad at detecting tone and picking out the right meanings of words - how statistical models and Universal Grammar interact - a question from one of our viewers about how to approach modeling for second language acquisition
Dr. Steven Pinker is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and a best-selling author whose books, including The Language Instinct, the Stuff of Thought, and the Sense of Style, help to broaden knowledge about linguistics, language, and cognitive psychology.
Our interview covers his thoughts on: - the role of social media in promoting science - the unifying themes under all of his work - the ongoing resistance to the idea that language is innate - the role of emoticons and emoji in discourse - the videos he watches on YouTube - three questions from our followers on machine learning, advice for starting out in research, and social media’s influence on language