Thursday, June 15, 2006

Singlish and the left caudate

Interesting article in New Scientist about how bilingual brains switch between different languages. Apparently there's an area of the brain called the left caudate that gets more active when switching between words in different languages (though it also lit up when, in the study, the bilingual volunteers read words in the same language but with very different meanings). Another, quite compelling, piece of evidence for the left caudate's role is the case of a trilingual woman whose left caudate was damaged, and who would switch involuntarily from one language to another.

I wonder what results one would get with Singlish speakers. Singlish is, of course, a dialect of English (maybe even a creole?) whose vocabulary is drawn from many different languages, primarily English, but also the various dialects of Chinese, Hokkien primarily, as well as Malay and Tamil. The Wikipedia entry on Singlish is very comprehensive, so read it to find out more. Would switching between English and Hokkien words activate the left caudate? Of course, there is ample evidence for even the least linguistically sophisticated speaker as to which original language a word belonged to, as their phonologies are very different. But, if Singlish is truly language-y, then perhaps pairs of words that are standard Singlish would behave similarly to pairs of words in another dialect of English.

Of course, there are issues that would need to be cleared up. I would like to know, first of all, whether a person who learned, say, German and English at a very young age and thus has two first languages and is equally fluent in both, would see the same caudate-lighting-up. The New Scientist article itself mentions "bilinguals", but doesn't mention how bilingual they truly are. And, of course, getting similar words in Singlish may be difficult. Hokkien words are usually used as exclamations, modifiers or idioms, as far as I have observed, while English words are used as connectives or if the word is technical.

[DIGRESSION: This isn't Singlish per se, but one good example of the code switching that goes on in Singapore, as well as where the words are used, is a sentence I heard the other day:

Julie 的 presentation 在 哪里?
Julie POSS presentation at where
"Where is Julie's presentation?" ]

Monday, April 03, 2006


Wow, I can't believe it took me a week to finish Puzzle 17 of the Linguist List Lexicon Game! Anyway, I was kinda slow it seems...but at least "neither the last nor the faintest were we" as the song goes. It really felt like someone at the Linguist List was mocking me today...I finally deciphered the cryptogram that is Puzzle 17 this morning, and was on tenterhooks all day waiting to get home and put in the answer...and the server was down for a couple of hours. Talk about great timing!

If you're stuck on #17, big hints can be found here. I'm kinda glad I didn't see the hints before I solved it though :-) Of course, now I'm kicking myself I didn't solve it sooner. I got a lot of Perl practice in trying to solve it, too. Learnt all about hashes and everything.

Anarchic hand syndrome

MindHacks points to an article in The Psychologist [html|pdf] about anarchic hand syndrome. Far Side readers will of course recognise this as being Stuart's problem:
(Cartoon from The Far Side by Gary Larson)

Really, the range of neurological syndromes is quite fascinating. I love reading Oliver Sacks and Ramachandran et al - just as fascinating is the light that these neurological disorders throw on the workings of the brain.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Time scale modification, part 3: the $0 version (again)

For more background:

Time scale modification for language learning purposes - the $29.95 version
Time scale modification - the $0 version

I just figured out that you don't have to pay $29.95 and buy Enounce to do time scale modification inside Windows Media Player - it comes straight built into WMP. This means that you can speed up or slow down the playing speed of an audio file without having to go into Audacity and repeatedly save the file with different settings. This is how you activate it:

1. When playing a file, click on the 'Now Playing' tab. This brings you to a visualisation of the file being played. Of course, you might have 'No visualisation' selected, in which case you will have a screen that's about 3/4 black, with your 'Now Playing' list on the right hand side and player controls on the bottom.

2. Just beneath the 'Now Playing' tab, there's a small button with three lines and a down arrow. Click this, then select Enhancements > Show Enhancements. This brings up a little window above the player controls.

3. Click on the right or left buttons in that little window, until you get to 'Play Speed Settings'. This is where you can speed up or slow down the player to your heart's delight.

Wow, I wish I had figured this out before. There are other enhancements you can play around with, such as turning on the WOW effects. This makes classical music sound grander and more echo-y (as far as I can tell). It's a nice effect, especially with headphones.

Friday, March 17, 2006

I'm goin' dahntahn tomorrow to catch me a bus

There's a cute article in the New York Times (reg req'd) [via the CogSci Librarian] about a roadtrip across the Eastern U.S. to listen to different dialects starting in New York City, going up through Rochester and down into Pittsburgh.

Having been in Pittsburgh for the last six weeks, I can attest to the reality of the pronunciation of "downtown" as "dahntahn". I heard it when I first got on a bus and asked, "Is this bus going downtown?" and the driver replied, "Yeah, dahntahn." It was like a lightbulb going off in my head, bringing back memories of Linguistics 109 ("I'm goin' dahntahn to get me a sammich"). I can't say I've noted too many other Pittsburgh quirks though - didn't notice any sammiches, for instance. Being in the university area, most people I hear are decidedly not native Pittsburghers.

I'll try to pay more attention this weekend as I travel into the Northern Cities Vowel Shift area, but seeing as I lived in upstate New York for four years, the accent around there seems pretty normal to me now.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Plagiarism doesn't always pay

Philipp Lenssen over at Google Blogoscoped discusses a case of Google-enabled plagiarism in his mother's (who is a teacher) class. It reminded me of a funny little story told to me by a good friend. So there was this boy in his class who was well-known (among the boys) for plagiarising. One day, he was summoned by his Spanish teacher, who held up an essay he'd just handed in and asked, "Did you copy this from the Internet?" He vigorously protested his innocence. "In that case," the teacher replied, "why is it in Portuguese?"

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Dragonair tail logo

Okay...I'm sure Dragonair is a great airline, but...couldn't they have designed their logo so that it doesn't look like a dragon flew SPLAT into it? And why does the dragon have three legs on its left side and only one leg on the right? Does it spend its day going around in circles?

(Image taken from the Aussie Pin Shop, because I couldn't find the photo I took out the window at Seoul airport a year ago.)

Friday, January 13, 2006

Is language learning Bayesian?

There's an interesting article in The Economist about how Bayesian statistics are increasingly being used in the cognitive sciences [via MindHacks]. Two researchers set out to test how well humans apply Bayesian reasoning, by giving them nuggets of information and asking them to draw general conclusions.

For example, many of the participants were told the amount of money that a film had supposedly earned since its release, and asked to estimate what its total “gross” would be, even though they were not told for how long it had been on release so far.
All of these things have well-established probability distributions, and all of them, together with three other items on the list—an individual's lifespan given his current age, the run-time of a film, and the amount of time spent on hold in a telephone queuing system—were predicted accurately by the participants from lone pieces of data.

The participants in the study could moreover hold their own for data with many different sorts of naturally-occurring prior distributions. (Priors are "assumption[s] about the way the world works...that can be expressed as a mathematical probability distribution of the frequency with which events of a particular magnitude can happen.") Psychologists therefore suggest...

...that the Bayesian capacity to draw strong inferences from sparse data could be crucial to the way the mind perceives the world, plans actions, comprehends and learns language, reasons from correlation to causation, and even understands the goals and beliefs of other minds.

Hmm. Drawing strong inferences from sparse data? Sounds a lot like a solution to the problem of the poverty of the stimulus. But if language learning is Bayesian, then what is the prior? Does the prior = UG? What structure would it take? How are language universals encoded into it? Are language universals encoded into it? Certainly an interesting problem to think about.

Original paper [pdf]
Tom Griffiths' webpage, which includes a Bayesian reading list.
Josh Tenenbaum's webpage, which also has a paper on word-learning as Bayesian inference.