On Language

In every part of the world, humans piece together sounds, gestures, and written symbols in order to organize, record, and communicate ideas. Whether expressing the deepest of emotions or jotting down a grocery list, nearly all of us use some form of language on a daily basis. Yet, though we are all immersed in language, scholars continue to approach this complex, evolving concept in new and varied ways. How do children first learn the difference between letters and pictures? Does the brain process American Sign Language differently than it does oral speech? What types of questions and problems arise when translating a piece of literature from one language to another? What is linguistic discrimination, and how can we prevent it? Join us to explore the ongoing research behind these questions and more.

image flickr: TobiasMik, Nofrills.


April 30, 2014

Chinese Writing and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms

On Language: Episode #10

Nearly 500 years ago, the Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms was first published. Readers across the country and continent began experiencing this epic, historic tale, which is still one of the most popular novels in China today. But in many cases, these readers would not have been able to have a conversation. They could read the same book, but they could not speak the same language. Robert Hegel, professor of East Asian languages and cultures, describes how the existence of a common written language in China has affected Chinese literature across time.

April 23, 2014

What's the Point?

On Language: Episode #9

The gesture of pointing is something we all do without much thought. We point to ourselves, at other people, at objects, or in the general direction of where we want to go - it's a seemingly straightforward communication tool that even small children use on a regular basis. Yet sometimes the act of pointing is not so simple. As Richard Meier, chair of the linguistics department at the University of Texas - Austin, explains, this is especially true for some children with an autism spectrum disorder. In this week's podcast, Meier introduces us to the complicated relationship between words and gestures in American Sign Language, and explains how this line of research has shed light on one aspect of autism.

To learn more about the ongoing work of two of Dr. Meier's students, mentioned near the end of the podcast, see this article from Al Jazeera America.

April 16, 2014

Language Seen, Not Heard

On Language: Episode #8

For people who have grown up being able to hear, it can be easy to equate language with speech - the audible conversations that make up so much of human day-to-day communication. However, for some 70 million people around the world, these types of conversations happen in silence. Stephanie Berk, a postdoctoral research associate in linguistics and neurology, studies the linguistics of sign language and has worked with children who - because their parents were at first unaware of their child's deafness - began learning their first language later in life. In collaboration with the Washington University School of Medicine, she is now beginning to look into the human brain to see what American Sign Language (ASL) can reveal about how humans learn and process any language, whether spoken or seen.

March 26, 2014

The Foreign Language Question

On Language: Episode #7

What do the history of physics, the international women's movement, microfinance, the modern philosophical novel, and the fight against the spread of AIDS in Africa all have in common? According to Joe Loewenstein, professor of English and director of the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities, in order to study any of these topics and countless others, students are well-advised to begin the slow and rewarding process of mastering a foreign language. The important question becomes, which languages open which doors of opportunity?


March 19, 2014

The Music of Conversation

On Language: Episode #6

Whether or not you can play the drums or keep your body in rhythm out on the dance floor, if you're reading this sentence, you're participating in the unheard music of language. In his research at Washington University in St. Louis, linguist Brett Hyde, assistant professor of philosophy, delves into the rhythms behind everyday conversation. By studying the accent patterns of languages around the world, Hyde's goal is to discover the underlying principles that organize these patterns. Feel free to clap along as you hear about the connections between music, poetry, and the distinct beats of every sentence ever spoken.

March 12, 2014

Jane Eyre and the Art of Translation

On Language: Episode #5

When you think of the novel Jane Eyre, you might think of its author, Charlotte Brontë, or perhaps certain elements of the plot, like Jane's time at Lowood School or her tumultuous relationship with Mr. Rochester. However, in a recent project, Lynne Tatlock is exploring how the original novel is only the beginning of the Jane Eyre story. Like many other 19th century texts, this novel was repeatedly translated into other languages and adapted into new works. Tatlock, a professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures and chair of the Comparative Literature program at Washington University in St. Louis, seeks to uncover the German portion of that international journey. In addition to sharing thoughts on this new line of research, Tatlock discusses 19th century German romance novels in translation and reveals some of the challenges and insights that she has personally encountered as a translator.

February 26, 2014

Youth Poets Take the Stage

On Language: Episode #4

High-school students sometimes have a bad reputation when it comes to language and literacy. Teenagers may be well versed in YouTube and social media, but these outlets are more known for shortened words and poor grammar than articulate speech and writing. However, Korina Jocson, assistant professor of education, sees a much different picture. As a researcher and teacher, Jocson has observed and analyzed the ways that students use the beauty and power of poetry to make sense of their experiences, to comment on culture and politics, and to create multimedia art and storytelling. The question now becomes, how can educators bring the energy of a slam poetry competition back into the classroom?

February 19, 2014

The ABCs of Reading and Writing

On Language: Episode #3

What can parents and teachers do to help young children become successful readers and writers? In what ways does a 2-year-old begin to understand the differences between written words and pictures? Rebecca Treiman, the Burke and Elizabeth High Baker Professor of Child Developmental Psychology, shares recent research that explores how children around the globe take their first steps toward reading and writing. Treiman heads the Reading and Language Lab at Washington University in St. Louis.

February 12, 2014

You Are How You Sound

On Language: Episode #2

Imagine that you're walking down the street and hear someone speaking with a British accent. What assumptions might you make about that person based on his or her voice? Would you come to the same conclusion if that person had a heavy southern drawl or sounded like he or she spoke Spanish as a first language? John Baugh, the Margaret Bush Wilson Professor in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, continues his discussion of linguistic profiling and describes how he hopes his research will lead to policies that increase Americans' acceptance of linguistic diversity.

February 5, 2014

Linguistic Insights

On Language: Episode #1

To kick off our newest topic, On Language, John Baugh, the Margaret Bush Wilson Professor in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, shares two stories of personal linguistic epiphanies. Baugh researches linguistic profiling, or the ways in which people react to and treat one another based on speech. His initial interest in this line of work began when he himself encountered linguistic profiling earlier in his career. Baugh shares that experience, as well as a childhood incident in which he first realized that accents can carry as much meaning as words. Baugh will also be featured next week on Hold That Thought, when we'll hear more about specific research projects and the types of policies that he believes would help Americans accept linguistic diversity.