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Conference explores connection between language and the mind

Words give shape and expression to human experience. They allow humans to retell stories, convey ideas, and express emotions. But different languages express these thoughts and feelings in different ways.

Earlier this month, scientists from many fields attended a conference at Lehigh to discuss the connection between thought and words and how people around the world describe their experiences.

The conference, “Words and the World: How Words Capture Human Experience” was held June 6-7. It is one of the first interdisciplinary conferences to discuss the relationship between language and the mind.

Barbara Malt, professor and chair of Lehigh’s psychology department, organized the conference along with Philip Wolff from Emory University.

“This conference,” Wolff says, “stands out as the largest conference to address these issues to date.”

Looking for common ground

Researchers from many countries and disciplines attended the conference. Experts in psychology, cognitive science, linguistics and anthropology spoke. They came from as far away as Australia, Japan and England.

“It was a great mix of people looking at different domains of experience,” Malt says.

Some of the speakers argued that the language of a culture affects the way people view their world. For example, words to describe color vary across languages, Malt says. Some languages such as English use many words to describe color (like mauve and olive green), while others use only two or three words (light and dark).

“The question is,” Malt asks, “do people with lots of color terms see the world differently from those only with words for light and dark?”

Words might not only affect how people see color, but also how they perceive the human body, emotions, events and motions. To examine these relationships between thought and words, the researchers compare languages across cultures.

Researchers seek to find universal similarities across cultures as well as differences. Cliff Goddard from the University of New England in Australia has been trying to identify common word meanings in all languages. So far, he has identified about 65 meanings common to all languages. But he has found that even words for some basic emotions, such as surprise, are not necessarily universal.

“What seems to the native speaker a simple, basic word with a simple meaning may not be the case,” Goddard says.

Different cultures are given different “emotional keyboards” to express their feelings, Goddard explains. Two people from different cultures can experience the same emotions, but they must talk about them using culture-specific interpretations.

How children learn language

Other researchers who spoke at the conference are studying how children learn language. Some languages are easier for children to acquire than others, Roberta Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek from Temple University suggest.

Children seem to learn languages easier when the verb describes an object’s path. (The ball “moved into the corner.”) Other languages, such as English, focus on how the object moved. (The ball “bounced” or “rolled.”) These languages may be more difficult for children to learn.

One speaker, Eve Clark, took a unique look at how children master their language. Rather than focusing solely on the child, she examined how parents teach their children new words.

Young children are “bathed in language,” Clark says. From this wide stream of words, the child needs to determine which words they hear are new and then learn how to use them. When trying to teach a child a word, the parents will highlight the word by stressing it and by using it in new sentence structures.

Clark and the other presenters represent a new and growing area of study in the connection of language and the mind. “Research in this area is flourishing,” Wolff says.

The recent growth in this non-traditional area of study is a welcome change.

“This kind of cross-linguistic research is risky,” Wolff says. “It has not always been recognized as important or has been dismissed as too difficult to conduct.”

Wolff and Malt are encouraged to have obtained National Science Foundation funding for the conference. The support confirms that this area of study is becoming more accepted.

Wolff and Malt considered the conference a success. “A graduate student from Canada wrote us that she awoke the next day with her head buzzing with new questions and ideas,” Malt said. “That is exactly what we wanted to happen.”

Following the conference, Malt and Wolff will begin editing a book with chapters written by the speakers at the conference.

--Rebecca Straw

Posted on Sunday, June 19, 2005

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