Language quest turns to the brain

April 18, 2011

Fifty years ago, most linguistics research required little advanced technology beyond a tape recorder, with a notebook and a No. 2 pencil to jot down findings.

But lately the field has grown to encompass ideas from computer science and cognitive psychology. Linguists increasingly make use of sophisticated tools such as high-speed cameras, eye trackers, visual recognition software, and EEG machines that track brain activity.

Linguistics researchers at the University of Chicago are finding new ways to incorporate the field’s latest approaches and tools. Computational linguists like John Goldsmith, the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor in linguistics and computer science, and Greg Kobele, a Neubauer Family assistant professor in linguistics, use computer programs to model different components of human language. Phonologist Alan Yu, associate professor in linguistics, runs experiments that investigate how sounds change over time. Professor Anastasia Giannakidou, a semanticist, collaborates with faculty in psychology to study sentence building in sign languages.

Traditional methods are still the core of the department, but we’re adding on these other elements in a complementary way,” says Chris Kennedy, chair of linguistics. “I do see it as enhancement of what we’ve already got. You want to build on traditional strengths.” (click on the link below for the entire article)