I teach a variety of classes here at SDSU.
The two classes that are closest to my heart are Ling 502 & 602: Language, Mind, & Society and Advanced Topics in LM&S. These classes dig into the relationship between language as a system and the major influences that shape it. Language doesn’t just exist; it has to be learnable by children, easily usable by adults, and effective at achieving our social and communicative goals.
In these classes, we examine the psychology of language, including language acquisition, and the social sides of language, including sociolinguistics and communicative effectiveness. We read through a lot of cutting-edge research, explain how children rapidly learn to use their expectations to disambiguate noisy speech, why we might switch between languages in the middle of a sentence, and when people get by without perfectly understanding what they heard.
I fell into phonology, the structure of linguistic sound patterns. All through graduate school, I thought that syntax was the place for me and sounds were something for other people to deal with. Frankly, I’ve always been bad at sounds. At the end of my first-year French course in college, right after finishing my final oral exam, my professor pulled me aside and told me I had the worst accent of any student she’d taught. When I got to grad school and took phonetics (the study of linguistic sound production), I learned why that was the case; I’d been essentially unaware that French used different vowels from English and had pronounced words like lune about the same as I pronounced the English word loon.
But once properly introduced to it, I came to appreciate the structural forms in linguistic sounds. In particular, I’m very fond of Optimality Theory, a constraint-based approach to understanding why our utterances sound quite the way they do. It fits in very nicely with existing research in psychology and cognitive science on how we make decisions and weigh different options.
Although the title for our Ling 521 class is just Phonology, the class actually spans both phonetics and phonology. We start out by examining articulatory phonetics, the way we produce sounds (exactly the thing I ought to have known in my college French class). Then we turn to acoustic phonetics, the actual sound waves that come out when we make our linguistic sounds. In phonology, we start with rule-based accounts for phonological processes before moving on to my favorite part, the constraint-based account called Optimality Theory.
Ling 354: Language & Computers
A lot of our modern language is computerized. I’m typing on a computer, and my words are reaching you through some sort of computerized device. Does that affect our language? Does language affect our computers?
In Ling 354, we try to grapple with the complexities of the modern computerized world and language’s role within it. Humans really like language, and are able to deal pretty well with its complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity. (Take Ling 502 to find out how!) Computers aren’t. Computers like cold, categorical, unambiguous information. Programming languages aren’t much like human languages, and even they need extensive compiling to function on a computer. So how do we reach an effective compromise with computers when it comes to language?
We examine applications like speech recognition, predictive text, and language identification from the perspective of both a human and a computer. We look at the overlaps, like the way that both humans and computers combine ambiguous information with uncertain expectations to resolve unclear speech. But we also look at cases where human linguistic understanding fails to carry over to computers and what we do to help the computers out, plus places where computers rely on their own opaque calculations, as in deep learning. Through it all, we try to keep an eye out for the ways that computerized language creates or reinforces injustices, or the potential downsides of overzealous computerization.