Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Influence of Language

Recently a fellow writer named Beans, who has an awesome fashion blog commented on my behaviorism and language acquisition post. She mentioned a study that showed speakers of a language where genders are used are more likely to assign adjectives characteristic of that gender to the word.

When I first started studying Cognitive Science, and people would ask me what exactly Cognitive Science is, I would try to explain to them the Whorf Hypothesis. Now, originally I was going to write about the Whorf Hypothesis, however in my summer reading, I have come across something that has made me lose faith in it. I am still going to write about it, but I want to make sure I understand everything clearly enough to regurgitate it back to you guys.

The study Beans mentioned was conducted by Boroditsky and colleagues in 2003 (full citation at the end of the post), which followed on the tails of related studies. This research is supposedly evidence for the Whorf hypothesis. The first study conducted before the one mentioned was done by Sera and colleagues; in the study they took German, English, Spanish, and French speaking children and told them to pretend they were going to make a movie, and in the movie there were going to be objects that needed a voice. "Should it have a woman's or a man's voice in the movie?" the experimenter would ask the children. Native speakers of French and Spanish were more likely than German or English speakers to assign "gender" appropriate voice.

The second study, which was conducted by Boroditsky, was concerned with native Spanish and German speakers, although the test was conducted in English. In this study they asked to describe words from their native language in English.For example:

German (masculine): hard, heavy, jagged, useful
Spanish (feminine): little, lovely, shiny, tiny

German (feminine): beautiful, elegant, peaceful, slender
Spanish (masculine): big, dangerous, strong, sturdy

These results, reflect that attributes of a noun may influence how somebody thinks of an object. If these results are genuine, then it surely pints the German language in an interesting light.

Of course this could all be a mix-up of correlation and causation. While the Whorf hypothesis suggests that different languages are assumed to lead to different worldview, it may be possible that different cultures lead to different worldviews. The two results listed above could simply be anecdotal. Like I said, I will touch upon this topic again in the near future when I know more about it. I plan I re-reading all of these articles and following up on this soon. Tell me what you think!

Sera, M. D., C. A. Berge, and J. Castillo Pintado. "Grammatical and Conceptual Forces in The Attribution of Gender." Cognitive Development 9 (1994): 261-92. Print.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Cases Against Learning German

 The most studied foreign language in the United States is Spanish. What is interesting about that, is a majority of Americans identify with a German ancestry. German is the fifth most studied language in the United States though. On the surface one may think that is a little odd, however there are obvious explanations to that; these people are only ethnically German. Generation after generation less and less of them probably learn the language. Meanwhile there is an ever increasing number of Spanish speakers in the United States. Some of which may not even speak English.

When I decided I wanted to learn a second language before I entered college, I originally picked Arabic. "Great!" Everyone said. "You will get a job with the state department no problem!" They were obviously missing the point, but I will get to that later in the post. Here is a hint: it has nothing to do with the fact that I believe governments of the world solely exist to keep people separated, and therefore ensuring government has a job.

For native English speakers the hardest concept for them to grasp when learning German is that of cases. Cases used to exist in Old English, they don't anymore except for the word whom and the last time someone amongst your friends said "whom" they most likely were ostracized. I have often had arguments with other German major friends because I believe that it is easier for a native German speaker to learn English than a native English speaker learning German because one does not have to grasp new concepts that do not exist in their mother tongue.

Deciphering this chart should be the first priority of a German language student
In German there are four cases, on top of that they modify the article (think a or the in English, in German they are der, die, and das) of the word. You need to know the gender of the word right off the bat or you are going to have to make an inference about what is being said. I do not want to tell you something wrong, so I am not going to give a comprehensive review of the  cases. Instead I am going to pull up some specific example that I borrowed from the book Brief German Reference Grammer by Nora Wittman.

Take for example the dative case which is actually Latin for "to give". Had I known this earlier and not simply because I read it in a book on psycholinguistics a week ago I probably would have stopped thinking it was a case that denoted when something happened. The dative case is used in three different contexts:
1. As the indirect object of a verb:
Er gibt dem Chemiker das Salz

2. As an object of certain prepositions, verbs and adjectives:
Wir helfen unseren Nachbarn.

3. To denote possession when referring to parts of the body or to articles of clothing:
Sie wäscht dem Kinde die Hand.

Number three is an exception to the genitive case, which is used to denote possession. Confusing, no?

German is not any more tougher than Latin, and I remember my Latin high school teacher telling the class that one of the finals he had in college was translating copies of Latin notes taken in shorthand.

Just fucking kill me now

Besides the fact that German may be perceived as less useful than Spanish. I wonder if less high school students study German simply because they know / think that it is tough. But then why learn Latin? We saw that an understanding of Latin can help you understand technical words, such as the names of cases. Is studying German too much work? Doesn't every language have it's own quirks? Unfortunately I do not have an answer to these questions. 

Of course if you make the decision not to learn a language based on how tough you perceive it to be, you are in the wrong mindset and you will never learn the language. Everyone I have met, from my high school Latin teacher to foreign university students in the US have loved the language they study; and to a certain extent obsess over it. If there's on thing I have noticed it is that the foreign student who tell me that they want to learn language because it will be useful when they have a career never speak as well as the students that have a general interest in the language. Take that as you will.Take a language that you're interested in, and if you don't care about learning one then just take whatever is going to get you an A.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Childhood Synesthesia

This is actually me getting my first bike!
When I was a child I could taste music. I never thought this was a big deal, and for the most part I always thought that I just had a really good imagination. Had I ever brought it up with my parents, my mother probably would have told me to shut the fuck up. In the meantime it made videogame music awesome.

The phenomenon of synesthesia is when the stimulation of one sense leads to other unrelated senses being stimulated. These people can see numbers and letters in different colors, taste phonemes, associate touch with colors and everything in between. I do not experience this anymore. I can remember tasting things that I have never actually eaten before as well as getting a metallic like taste in my mouth when I heard certain slow love songs on the car radio.

Yesterday's post was on language acquisition, where I wrote about how children have a critical period in which they are able to learn language. During this time the developing brain is more "malleable" due to neuroplasticity; which means that neurons in the brain are moving around (your neurons literally miagrate to get where they are in your brain HOLY SHIT!), connecting and removing themselves from each other and adding new cells and dendrites. Every time you learn, you are physically altering your brain! This process is simply accelerated in small children, and why it is so easy for them to learn languages they are immersed in, and why it becomes so tough for adults later in life.

At the end of the critical period there is a stage of synaptic pruning, where neurons that have not been firing together are removed. I have a feeling that it was during this period in which I lost my synesthesia. Perhaps it was not used enough, and therefore not pruned. After all while it was pretty neat, it was in no way helpful. I need my sense of taste to tell if my milk is spoiled, and therefore prevent me from becoming sick; but sappy love music wont kill me. I wonder if many other children experience this phenomenon, and then simply forget that they ever had these abilities. Many people who have synesthesia simply never tell anyone because they assume everyone perceives their environment the same way.

Now because I am writing about a personal experience that happened to me as a child, it is only based off of anecdotal evidence. I could very well be appealing to the availability heuristic, or confirmation bias. Nevertheless I would love to run a population of small children in a survey / experiment where we could see if on average they experience synesthesia more than an adult control population. However given the many different types of synesthesia that exist, as well as the amount of participants we would need to run in order to reach a significant result would take too much time and money for me to do on my own. One day perhaps...

Behaviorism and Language Acquisition

Read the first chapter of any Psych 100 book and you will be familiar with B. F. Skinner and behaviorism. Skinner was a radical behaviorist, he believed that we all had a reinforcement history, and we all developed response patterns to things that were positively reinforced in us, as well as adverse responses to things that had been negatively reinforced. (If you don't know what conditioning is, then check out the Wikipedia article on classical conditioning.) This was his explanation from everything to how the nature of societies developed to how we started to speak. He also likened cognitive science to creation science (asshole).Therefore, when someone asks you "Hey Jim how are you today?" your response of "I'm well thanks for asking Dick" is a conditioned response... well to Skinner anyways.

There is no set number of stimuli in this painting (artist: James Fowler)
Before Noam Chomsky was known for his political writings, or known for anything for that matter; in 1959 as a linguist, he wrote a review of Skinner's book Verbal Behavior. In the review he made several points against behaviorism. The first being that there is no set number of stimuli in certain objects, such as artwork. When any one person that sees a painting is bound to say or think anything in response to it, there is no way to record the amount of different responses. Second, Chomsky argued that our responses to new sentences come about because we have "internalised the grammer of our language". Skinner had said our responce to a new sentence would come about from a sentence that sounded simmilar to it.

We know today that Chomsky is right because we have solid proof of the internalization of grammar; the development of linguistic abilities in children. Children make up grammar rules that they could have never learned on their own. Irregular plurals ("sheeps", "fishs", "tooths") for example, are all common speech errors made by children, and reflect the fact that they are making grammar rules and inferences about the language they are learning as they go along. This all happens in the critical period, a time in everyone's life where they acquire the language(s) that they are immersed in. Tomorrow's post will be on the critical period.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance and Breaking Up

Being a Cognitive Science major I am interested in how and why people think. For this post I would like to drift away from language and whip up some pop-psychology, if you're interested in how people interact I guarantee you will find this post thought-provoking. What brought up the idea for today's topic is something I currently am experiencing, which is the dreaded post break-up stage of a relationship.

Time for real talk, because here things get a little personal. I once fell in love with a girl, who for the sake of the post we will call her Jahi, after the Persian female demon who specialized in debauthery and was responsible for causing the menstrual cycles of women. I told Jahi that I loved her and she told me the same. We dated and even carried on a long distance relationship for a while. Eventually things broke down; she would criticize me, pick fights with me, and accuse me of avoiding her. Eventually, of all platforms, she broke up with me over Skype.

image from scientificamerican.com
Months passed, I did not think much of Jahi or our relationship until I saw her new Facebook profile picture; her and her new boyfriend. Something deep inside my amygdala, outdated primordial testosterone fueled feelings of ownership perhaps, clicked. I turned off the computer and went out with my friends for the day, I needed a change of brain chemistry. Nonetheless I couldn't help but think about that picture, why did I stick around for so long with someone who I now realize was verbally abusive? Also why was I having feelings of jealousy and regret of not being with Jahi after six months?

The answer is a form of cognitive bias called cognitive dissonance. In a great book entitled Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion Dr. Robert Cialdini gives a wonderfully simple example of cognitive dissonance in the chapter Commitment and Consistency. Commitment is a desirable human trait and as a result people strive for it, even when they are wrong; because of this, people are easily exploitable. The example given was a test where people at a race track were more confident in their horse after they bet on it. Cialdini goes further to say that the more exclusive social groups have more committed members, because there is more desire amongst the members. Why can this not be true for individuals? One of the rules of logic is that the less of something there is, the more valuable it becomes. Do I see my old girlfriend as being more valuble because she is with someone else, and thus unavailable?

Just like the gamblers at the horse track I "bet" on Jahi and stuck with her for too long. How could I leave her? I loved her and how could love be wrong? How could we be wrong after telling each other how much we meant to each other and how we would never ever leave no matter what? I / we needed to stay consistent. By the time the relationship ended, I had realized that the relationship should have ended way earlier. Whoops!

My feelings of regret for leaving her is the result of rosy retrospection, seeing the past in a positive light, even if it was not necessarily as great as I remember it. All I had do to was crack open one of my journals to see just how miserable I was during the tail end of our relationship. According to logic, my girlfriend may now be more valuable in a social context because she is unavailable, but I wasn't happy before our relationship ended. If only I had started taking psychology classes earlier! At least now I am able to recognize why I feel the way I do and pass off my feelings of anger and jealousy as irrational, unfounded, and stupid for the most part. Good riddance!

In Dr. Cialdini's book he goes on to explain how cognitive dissonance is important for telemarketers and how it plays a role in fraternity hazing. It is a must read for anyone interested in social psychology.

What do you have to say about this?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Applicable Learning

This book was cited in another book I was reading. I originally thought it was going to be an academic article that I could read in under an hour, but now that it's a whole book, and with my giant reading list this summer; it will take some time before I get to read the whole thing.

One of the points made by this book, as well as an academic article by Steinke is on how figuring out ways to apply the material you are trying to learn is more useful to the learner than memorization (full source and citation at the bottom of this post). This is because you are thinking critically and using problem solving:
"As a pedagogy, service-learning inherently teaches the kind of thinking skills and knowledge application necessary for success outside academia."
For this reason it is always important to think about how something is applicable when you are learning it, especially if you have a terrible professor. "How is this equation important or useful to something I might do?", "Why am I learning this?"  And "Is this course work important for what I want to do after school?" are all important questions to ask yourself time to time. If you can't answer these question, it might be time to reevaluate your academic priorities.

Steinke, Pamela. "Assessing Service-Learning." Research & Practice in Assessment 1.2 (2007): 1-8. Penn State. Web. 23 May 2011.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Political Rheoric

Steven Pinker is the man.


On top of being the man, he is also a professor of psychology at Harvard College, and a linguist. He has also been on The Colbert Report. Multiple times. I was going to hold off writing about him but I recently read an article Douglas Adams (author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy) wrote over ten years ago entitled How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love The Internet. In the article, where he writes concerning people who thought the Internet was just a fad, he mentions Steven Pinker. Today it might be a bore to read because it is redundant about how the Internet has turned out.

"Another problem with the net is that it’s still ‘technology’, and ‘technology’, as the computer scientist Bran Ferren memorably defined it, is ‘stuff that doesn’t work yet.’ We no longer think of chairs as technology, we just think of them as chairs. But there was a time when we hadn’t worked out how many legs chairs should have, how tall they should be, and they would often ‘crash’ when we tried to use them. Before long, computers will be as trivial and plentiful as chairs (and a couple of decades or so after that, as sheets of paper or grains of sand) and we will cease to be aware of the things. In fact I’m sure we will look back on this last decade and wonder how we could ever have mistaken what we were doing with them for ‘productivity.’
But the biggest problem is that we are still the first generation of users, and for all that we may have invented the net, we still don’t really get it. In ‘The Language Instinct’, Stephen Pinker explains the generational difference between pidgin and creole languages. A pidgin language is what you get when you put together a bunch of people – typically slaves – who have already grown up with their own language but don’t know each others’. They manage to cobble together a rough and ready lingo made up of bits of each. It lets them get on with things, but has almost no grammatical structure at all.
However, the first generation of children born to the community takes these fractured lumps of language and transforms them into something new, with a rich and organic grammar and vocabulary, which is what we call a Creole. Grammar is just a natural function of children’s brains, and they apply it to whatever they find."

Douglas Adams Playing With Pink Floyd on His 42nd Birthday.

Why I'm writing about Dr. Pinker today is because I want to post one of my favorite videos of him. It is about how politicians use empty rhetoric in order to get their messages across because they do not want to tick anyone off. At the same time we the voters push the candidates into a corner because we don't want them to support anything we are against. Check out the video:

I for one blame the two party system. If you're at all interested in psycholinguistics, reading any book by Steven Pinker is a must, and used copies go for a few bucks.

(revised 11/25/2012)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Flash Cards Redux

I recently made a post about using flash cards. A few people who commented on the post said they are comfortable with using Anki, a flash card program.

Anki is cool because it's a little program that lets you download "flashcard" sets that other users have already created to study with. It is also available for smart phones, so if you have one, you can take your flashcards on the go with you. However I personally believe that you lose an element of the learning process, which is writing the words down. 

You can find flash cards German speakers have made to practice their English. You can also find chemistry, biology, or anything else that flashcards could be made for. It is a really neat idea that all the content is user created stuff that is being shared, therefore every day there should be more and more content. Plus it beats having a stack of flash cards like this:
Although I do worry about the quality of the content. You could hypothetically study a few cards that are incorrect, and learn the wrong information. Researching the validity of every flash card might help with the memorization process.

Last night I went over to a friend's house and they were all studying for a Psychology final. This video came up with a simple search for "study music" so it's not some super obscure thing, but it's a wonderful thing nonetheless. The music and visuals are great.
Try it out while you use Anki, practice your flash cards, or study in general and tell me what you think!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Um... Uh... Er....

One of the guys I follow is Graham over at My Views on Science and News who pulls up articles from science news sites. A post he recently made was about a a study concerning persuasive speech conducted at the University of Michigan. I got really excited because I thought the science direct article would mention why the disfluency "um" was in the title. It wasn't, but it peaked my interest and now I want to write about it.

Filled pauses, or disfluencies (think uh um ah thee... etc.) can give us inferences in what the speaker is saying. There's many different examples of this but my favorite is one the was shown in the paper If You Say thee uh You Are Describing Something Hard. Which makes the argument that disfluencies are encountered because the speaker is planing a new utterance, describing something difficult, or is being distracted. I cannot directly link it to you, but if you have a college or university log in you might have access to it on one of the journal websites. You can find the full citation at the bottom of this page.

Here's how the experiment worked. If I take a native English speaker and hook them up to an eye tracking machine, while showing them a picture like this on a computer screen:

And they then hear LOOK AT THE RED UH...

they are most likely to look at that red Chinese looking character in the top corner (for the sake of this image it is a Chinese character). Being a native English speaker, the Chinese symbol would be foreign and different to them. This study suggests that disfluencies refer to unexpected objects.

The study goes on to show results for studies in which people were asked to click on objects, and also includes some ERP data. If you're interested I have the citation below:

Arnold, Jennifer E., Carla L. Hudson Kam, and Michael K. Tanenhaus. "If You Say Thee Uh You Are Describing Something Hard: The On-line Attribution of Disfluency during Reference Comprehension." Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 33.5 (2007): 914-30. Print.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Rosetta Stone

I used Rosetta Stone every day the summer before I  went to Berlin for a semester. When I took elementary Arabic my freshman year at college, we had to use the program once every two weeks. I'm interested in hearing what other people's experiences have been with the program.

                                          FUCKIN LANGUAGE AND SHIT

I got through the first level of German, which will run you about $180 for the newest version. It gave me a leg up on pronunciation for sure. Saying the same words over and over out loud really helps. Especially with the umlauts (ü ö ä) there to throw you off when you first start. I also had a general idea of how verb declension worked, as well as a basic vocabulary to work with.

Nevertheless when I was in Germany, speaking and being spoken to was still tough. Rosetta Stone doesn't have you actively recalling the language you are trying to learn enough of the time. The program made me feel confident in my German, but I couldn't do anything useful with it other than understand sentences like "the book is laying on the table." Another problem I had with Rosetta Stone was that it didn't teach me much grammar. There are four cases in German, and there's no real way for Rosetta stone to present them to you in a functional way.

When I used the Arabic version of Rosetta Stone at the "language lab" at my school I found it helpful because it helped me learn the new alphabet as well as pronunciation of letters that don't exist in English. However this was used in conjunction with the language class and there was a native speaker of Arabic in the classroom to help.

Please comment and let me know about your personal experience with Rosetta Stone. I'm really interested in what people have to say. Did you think it was effective? Was it worth your money if you personally paid for it? How long did you use it and how often?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Drill, Drill, Drill!

I know I said in my last post that in order to learn a language you need to drill yourself in it. Here's an example of what I mean:

These are all the German flash cards I have. From time to time I will take out fifteen at a time and go through them just to keep myself fresh.

Sometime mindless repetition is the only way to get things down, especially if you're not exactly the sharpest guy around. I make these by folding index cards in 1/3s, licking the fold and then tearing them. You can do this while you study the flash cards you've already made. Furthermore, simply writing out the flash card is half the step of memorizing the word for a lot of people. I usually have a few extra in my pocket or in my bag, and when I see a new German word I write it down on one side, and then when I'm home or in front of a computer I look it up and write the translation on the other side. Try it out, tell me what you think!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Learning German and Arabic

These are posts I made on a forum regarding learning German and Arabic. Considering the site I originally posted these on were a pay site, I figure they may do more people use here.

I'm currently a (not yet fluent) German language major.

Before I first went to Germany my sophomore year of college I had no experience in German. The three months of summer before I left I practiced on Rosetta Stone for an hour every day. It taught me some basics, but as has been mentioned before in this thread, I learned only very simple grammar. I did however get a leg up on pronunciation. To counterbalance this I bought some textbooks, here is what I suggest:

- Kom Mitt! : http://www.amazon.com/Komm-Mit-Leve...04304975&sr=8-1

- Themen Aktuell : http://www.amazon.com/Themen-Aktuel...04305108&sr=8-1

- Drill yourself in all the grammar and remember all the charts, it will help you later. When you're done with the level one books, move on to level two. Do the exercises, check your answers and DRILL DRILL DRILL. For example, you're in the Navy? Incorporate declensions or counting in German into your workout/push up/whatever routine.

- While you're at it you should buy either an Oxford German dictionary or one of the ones that's yellow and has a big L on it. Buy one full sized one and the biggest pocket sized one you can find.

- This book is a comprehensive German grammar review. We use it in every German language class. I have a love / hate relationship with it. Can be really helpful but it's dry as fuck: http://www.amazon.com/Deutsche-Wied...04305513&sr=1-1

- You can also find pocket German grammar books from time to time, especially in used book shops, if they have a language section. I've made a habit of starting a small collection of them because they're small and inexpensive.

Finally the best way to learn a language is immersion. Watch German films, read German books, even if you have to start with children books. Look up everything you don't know.
On that note, try to find a German speaking partner. Once you start studying a language you'll be surprised how often you hear people speaking it. Also, because of the Cold War there are a lot of people with dual American / German citizenship who you would never know that they fluently speak the language until they tell you. Try to find these people.

In short become an information sponge, and everything will fall into place after years of study! If you need any other pointers on learning German as an adult I would be glad to help. Hope this was helpful! Good luck!


I took elementary Arabic I and II in college. This is the textbook we used:


It was an ok book. While a lot of people say Rosetta Stone is not worth the money, it may help you with learning the alphabet and pronunciation of new letters.


Ok this is sort of a shameless plug, but I think this site is cool so here it goes.

Livemocha is a language learning site. Higher course levels cost money, but basic levels are free. The courses are like worse versions of Rosetta Stone. However the best part of the site is that there are exercises that have to be rated and graded by native speakers of the language, and as long as you are helpful you are matched with other helpful graders. This is absolutely free of charge. 

On top of that you can find native speakers who speak the language you want to learn. Because they are on a language learning site, they are more inclined to work with someone who does not speak well!

Check out the site, if you sign up cite rividzATgmailDOTcom as a referral if you can.
Website: https://www.livemocha.com/
My profile: http://www.livemocha.com/profiles/view/4388194