More on why we talk

« previous post | next post »

Thanks to Andrew Freer for pointing out to me that the BBC has published an article in connection with its Horizon documentary about "unlocking the mysteries of speech" (they have the usual tendency to confuse talk about language and talk about speech). Simon Kirby remarked to me this morning about the documentary (which I have not seen: Barbara and I do not have TV set):

From the point of view of an insider, it was quite bizarre in some respects. The editors pulled off the frankly extraordinary feat of making it seem that everyone in the field of language evolution basically agrees. That's quite an astonishing achievement. The way they managed to do this in part was by not including any explanation of why our experiment behaves the way it does. All I appear to do is describe what happens and marvel at the wonder of it all.

I promise you that I didn't forget to explain carefully exactly why it happens, and the implications of this for our understanding of language. I guess this got cut because it meant telling a more complex story where we don't all agree. I can appreciate the decision to produce a different kind of narrative, and perhaps they are right to do so. Better a clear story that isn't as rich as the full picture, than a confused audience, they probably thought.

We know, here at Language Log, that if ever you were exposed to a disagreement in linguistic science you would immediately become so confused you would start bumping into the furniture, so we try to shelter you from any hint of discord. Not.

Would any UK Language Log readers like to comment on the program? Comments are open.


  1. Ray Girvan said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    Unfortunately I missed it, but here's the BBC iPlayer link.

  2. Ginger Yellow said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

    I'll repost what I said on another forum. In summary, I was very disappointed with the programme, mainly because their overzealous efforts to simplify a very complex subject actually made things more obscure.

    "Well, that was extremely frustrating. It tried to cover far, far too much ground in an hour, and ended up obscuring more than it revealed. It didn't seem to know whether it was trying to elucidate language acquisition (apparently the main thrust of the programme), language evolution or something else. It had a really, really annoying tendency to illustrate an argument with a single point of evidence (as in my previous post) without even a hint at the other evidence addressing the same question. For instance, discussing what feral children can teach us with reference to Oxana Malaya, but not a word about Genie or any other case. One illustration of aphasia, with no hint that it takes many forms, some syntactical and some lexical. On the other hand, there was some really interesting stuff. Kirby's contribution was definitely worthwhile, but would have benefited from a discussion of Nicaraguan Sign Language."

  3. Gregory Marton said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

    Is it possible for US-based audiences to view the program?

  4. Ginger Yellow said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

    Not legally, but it's available in the usual places. As a licence fee payer, I won't mind.

  5. Simon Kirby said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

    Perhaps surprisingly, I am actually quite happy with the programme overall. Although it would have been nice to have the explanation of our results included (which would have, in turn, shown how much more complex the current debates are surrounding innateness, adaptation, and evolution), I really appreciate the attempt to demonstrate the breadth of modern approaches to language evolution. Of course, I encouraged the producers to include Nicaraguan Sign Language and Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, and as one of my colleagues remarked, it would have been great to include some typological evidence too. But there was already an enormous amount of content in there – way more than in a typical Horizon episode it seems to me.

    Of course, it is absolutely right that the readers of Language Log should want more detail (how could you not?), but I would hope that for a significant proportion of the audience it opened the door a crack to a field they may never have realised existed. Perhaps some will follow-up by looking at our website giving more details of the experiment. Perhaps some will even think of doing further study in linguistics…


  6. axl said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

    Anyone in the UK can view this programme on BBC IPlayer, here:

  7. Philip TAYLOR said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

    My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the programme. I felt the visual effects were unnecessary, and I think I shouted at the television at least once, but overall it fulfilled the BBC's brief to educate and entertain without overdoing the latter at the expense of the former. As I think more about it, I do recall that there were several places at which I felt that the outcome was predictable (and therefore not quite as miraculous as the programme would have us believe), but on balance well conceived, well produced and well worth the licence payers' money. And bearing in mind the current emphasis on programmes in which one or more participants are evicted during, or at the end of, each episode, how nice to see that all the researchers still had their jobs at the end of the programme !

  8. Ginger Yellow said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 2:33 pm

    "But there was already an enormous amount of content in there – way more than in a typical Horizon episode it seems to me. "

    True enough. It seemed to be a halfway house between what I consider the top notch Horizons – the ones presented by telegenic scientists explaining their own research, or at least their field – and the awful sensationalist ones that verge on being reality shows or Channel 4 shockumentaries.

  9. Paul said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

    At least we didn't get the standard visual depiction of scientists we got in the previous week's episode on black holes. I learnt that physicists only have a single desk lamp in their offices, which illuminates approximately half their face, the rest left in darkness. I learn this week that Linguists and others studying language get proper lighting where they work. I won't complain again about how much money gets thrown at "pure science" when it's physics while the rest of us have to rabbit on about applications/impact etc – the poor dears obviously can't afford proper lights. Or maybe their light is already disappearing over the event horizon.

    As others have commented, I was left wanting more (e.g. a decent phonetic analysis of the emergent words in the speech of the poor toddler living in his own Big Brother house, and a description of how the researchers decided what was a word and what wasn't, and which word it was; I also wondered what effect participants' language background would have on their emergent "alien" language, which seemed to be presented to them in roman script and with English or at least English-compatible sound structure) but I would think the programme gave the impression of an amount of interesting work going on in language study. The BBC gets a lot of bashing here and elsewhere but, on balance, I think this was a decent job. Though the least interesting bit of the programme was the interview with Chomsky, so I'm not sure the discipline of Linguistics (as opposed to, say cognitive neuroscience) came out looking terribly exciting.

  10. Forrest said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

    I think if I were shown a disagreement among scientists, I would be so confused as to immediately start mixing up verbs and nouns, beginning sentences with conjunctions, and possibly even splitting infinitives. It's a good thing BBC saved me from this horror – we all know these errors lead to madness and the inability to think at all.

    Living in the States, I haven't seen the program yet, but I'm hoping one of the links that a reader posted will work for me later on today.

  11. Bob Moore said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 7:54 pm

    Horizon prgrams often end up being shown on PBS's Nova in the US, so we will probably get to see it over here, eventually.

  12. Alex said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 10:38 pm

    I don't think Horizon has been that top notch for a while now. In fact, I'm finding it hard to remember the last time I saw a great science documentary.

  13. Picky said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 4:58 am

    I think Alex is right: the programme seems to me much less challenging to a non-scientist than it used to be. Last week's documentary on black holes actually told me nothing I didn't already know (and I'm dead ignorant). Nonetheless, small mercies and all that. Horizon is still often an honest attempt to tell a coherent story about what's happening in science; let's not knock it too hard. What else is there for British viewers other than Horizon and David Attenborough?

  14. Glynis said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 6:57 am

    I was hoping for more substance, but the programme wasn't bad for a general audience. After all, there aren't many programmes about language, and this gave a good sampling of some current research. They covered many topics just enough to whet the appetite, but every topic could take up a programme of its own! When they moved on to a new topic, I was still wanting more information on the previous one: what is the evidence, how do linguists interpret it, do they all agree? For instance, the man who speaks numerous languages. We were told he has this ability, and saw him learning words from a language that was new to him, but there was no discussion of what was going on in his brain or how this relates to children's ability to learn language, other than that he seems to do it effortlessly. Still, there was a lot of interesting information in the programme, and I will certainly be following it up.

  15. Jon said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 8:03 am

    I watched a recording of it at midnight after getting back from the pub, which may have influenced my take on it. Like Philip, I shouted at the telly over the visual effects, and why were they interviewing scientists in derelict buildings? But overall I thought that it gave me some new and interesting information, and was much better than Horizon is usually these days. I have virtually given up watching it in recent years, as the science content has dropped to about 10 minutes per 50 minute programme, the rest being waffle, visual effects and touchy-feely stuff. My theory is that it has been taken over by arts graduates who are frightened of putting over anything a Sun reader won't follow.

  16. Ginger Yellow said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 8:51 am

    "What else is there for British viewers other than Horizon and David Attenborough?"

    On a regular basis, not a lot. But there have been a few good one-offs recently. Jim Al-Kalili's Atom and Marcus DeSautoy's The Story of Maths spring to mind. BBC 4 has been a godsend for documentaries.

  17. Fresh Sawdust said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 10:19 am

    Something light-hearted (but I hope not too uninterested and disrespectful-sounding):

    The documentary seemed somewhat padded, and little more than a series of jump-around snapshots, but maybe that's the nature now of documentaries (or indeed of much linguistics).

    I suppose the most interesting bit was the mad Germanic scientist rearing male chicks (IIRC some sort of finch) in isolation, so that they never heard their fathers' song(s); the resulting generation had a very impoverished and seemingly ugly song (to the females then introduced), but the biological imperative to mate eventually got the better of the "desperate" females and a further generation was thus born. The "surprising" thing is that all these experimental male chicks were all still somehow able to chirp and cheep (albeit badly) even though they'd never heard a song, and even though there the wonky new dads' song(s?) to copy were comparatively bad, the birdsong slowly improved itself somehow until, in the space of just a few generations, it was apparently very similar if not identical to the beautiful song that was heard before the start of the somewhat deranged experiment.

    So because birds are wont to chirrup (and certainly didn't have their beaks and vocal apparatus completely removed), that means that the biological nature of human language (surely a far more complex thing than "invariable" birdsong) is incontrovertible. I suppose if you locked away some baby chimps, it would then be amazing if they were to scream, cry, "laugh", hoop or holler at all at any point in their life. (Not a peep from your vocal appartus because you've never seen let alone heard an adult use theirs! Well, alright, you can make some noise then, but only if you first have an innate linguistic ability installed almost by fiat to get your lips quivering at all).

    Oh but wait, there was some new advanced X-ray device that allowed scientists to see in continuous, fine detail the movement of the vocal apparatus as animals swallow and vocalize, and the unexpected manoverability of this apparatus means that it isn't physiological limitations that are holding other animals back from making the leap into language of a human level.

    Ah, and so before the birds there must've been that bit about feral kid (singular – some girl in the Ukraine, apparently raised by dogs but who it turned out had been reared by humans until the age of 3 or so). "Good" to hear about a newer/less well-known case, but there are surely "better" ones, and with more research done and attached.

    I can't remember the exact order of the bits of the doumentary, but it opened with a longitudinal "Big Brother"-style monitoring of a newborn's linguistic development over just over two years (an early developer it would seem!), some footage of a guy who'd had a stroke following a broken shoulder bike-riding (he could slowly name nouns in action pictures, but not the verbs, and thus was incapable of relating the arguments in any sentence-like/clausal level; his listening comprehension seemed fine/unaffected), a savant who could learn dozens of new words/"a complete new language" per session (with 1-to-1 instruction almost), fancy that! Chomsky of course (blink and you'll miss him; yawn and you won't hear what he had to repeat himself), and Simon Kirby at Edinburgh on "language evolution" ('Here's a load of invented fruits – pics and names – and you've got to somehow learn them all in the space of a half-hour or so, after which your recall will be tested. We'll then see if there are patterns emerging in the average approximations!'. I was waiting for the English speakers involved – basically everybody, I guess – to start calling the "qwertysfws", that is, the e.g. sickly yellowy-green spiky-looking things with red fronds at the top, "mutant punk pineapples" instead, but unfortunately they were too polite and "linguistically-savvy" to completely scupper the experiment that way!).

    And of course there were plenty of "amazing" (interminable bridging filling) close-ups of mouths working away with Arabic, Chinese, Xhosa or whatever else, right after they'd all been eating salted peanuts and spinach.

  18. Keith M Ellis said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 12:19 pm

    We know, here at Language Log, that if ever you were exposed to a disagreement in linguistic science you would immediately become so confused you would start bumping into the furniture, so we try to shelter you from any hint of discord. Not.

    I think that's a fair statement about Language Log, but it's not generally accurate, in my experience. A large portion of popularizing statements made by linguists to non-linguists in my experience have been near-dogmatic, near-absolutist assertions that, upon later investigation, I've discovered to be emphatically not dogmatic or absolutist theories in linguistics. For a very long time, this greatly confused me, especially when one linguist later directly and severely contradicted something a prior linguist had said to me (or others, in my presence) with equally great authority. In more recent years, I've made what is, in retrospect, a rather obvious discovery: that all those with linguistic training and speaking authoritatively on the topic are not equally authoritative. The divide, I think, largely occurs between those who have undergraduate linguistics degrees, but nothing beyond that, and actual, practicing researchers.

    Because there's several competing—deeply competing—schools of thought in linguistics (as there is in all the social sciences), any given particular undergraduate linguistics degree during any particular given period may greatly differ from another. But students with only undergraduate degrees and no further and deeper acquaintance with the field have little opportunity to discover those other schools of thought (or, over time, the accumulating and sometimes large changes in the science).

    I think this is strongly compounded by the almost singular problem that linguistics has among laypeople—its appropriation by them merely because they are speakers of language and therefore they assume at least a limited innate expertise that doesn't exist. Linguists are perpetually having to combat lay notions about language in a way that physicists haven't had to battle since 1650. This cumulatively creates a bit of combativeness in conjunction with a disinclination for nuance—because in ordinary conversation, you can't convince someone they're deeply confused about something if you admit anything less than clarity and certainty yourself.

    Perhaps most similar to linguistics in this respect is economics. Those with a few econ classes are notoriously under-informed relative to their assumed competency. And within the profession, there is little regard for an undergraduate economics degree…such does not an "economist" rate.

    How much this is relevant to this particular television program, I don't know. As most of the other commenters have mentioned, it is a universal characteristic of science documentary television to dismiss the existence of all forms of uncertainty and controversy, presenting the sexiest prevailing theories as incontrovertible fact. The best are egregious in this respect, the worst entirely beyond the pale.

  19. Sili said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

    From the cries of "MOAR" upthread, I think it's about time some clever students went about doing some linguistics podcasts (+vidcasts?).

    There's a world of good stuff on astronomy and skepticism out there, and The Guardian's Science Weekly is very good all-round reporting, too, but I don't know of any dedicated linguistics 'casts.

    And if I'm just ignorant of their existence, someone should point them in the direction of Scotland and get them to interview prof Kirrby – for the sake of the LanguagLogophiles (just what are we called?).

  20. Graham Campbell said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 6:29 pm

    I just finished watching the show on iPlayer, having missed it as my new television had not yet been delivered (a mere coincidence I assure you – I hadn't bought it specially).

    Absolutely fascinating stuff to me as an interested scientist, and my girlfriend as a budding therapist.

    As to Prof. Kirby's comment:

    "Perhaps some will even think of doing further study in linguistics…"

    I have long resolved to return to academia in this field and will in fact be visiting Edinburgh University in December for the open day, hopefully to speak with some willing representative from the LEL school.

  21. Supergrunch said,

    November 14, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

    Well, as others have said this suffered from the usual Horizon problem at putting in loads of padding and going really slowly, but at least it was watchable and (somewhat) informative. I think the false academic consensus shown was a result of some attempt to show a collaborative uncovering of deep problems rather than a squabble between theorists (with the real world being somewhere these extremes), but it did end up being something of a misrepresentation. Perhaps the best thing about the program was the range of coverage, though I did feel linguistics was a little marginalised (being mostly limited to a somewhat silly-sounding comment about stilts by Chomsky). Still, I suppose that reaction is unsurprising given I'm a linguistics student, albeit one with interests in biology.

    What annoyed me most was a comment by one of the multilingual mouths, along the lines of "sign language is just one of 6000 languages." That's just plain wrong.

  22. Dominik Lukes said,

    November 14, 2009 @ 2:25 pm

    I simply cannot share the enthusiasm of some of the commenters for the programme. It is preposterously one-sided and filled with statements like "this can only mean one thing" or "the conclusion was inescapable". It is clear that they were after sensationalizing the issue rather than truly informing viewers about what language is all about. It presents everything as a new staggering discovery but fails to mention solid research that doesn't have a visual counterpart. Potential disagreements are alluded to via hedges like 'he thinks' or 'probably' but those are generally in the context of 'new amazing facts' and fail to convey the depth of the controversy.

    I've already had students misinterpret facts about early development as a result of the programme. This is an example of little knowledge being a dangerous thing.

    But perhaps most remarkably, it left me with a sense that it didn't say anything at all. Other than the cliched 'isn't it amazing what we now know about genes', it said nothing. I might be biased because I don't subscribe to any of the innatist theories but I don't think the programme did justice even to them.

    If we look at this as an piece of inconsequential nature documentary (on a par with beautiful shots of migrating birds), it is fine. But as an attempt of honest reporting on a field of scholarly inquiry, it fails spectacularly.

  23. Simon Cauchi said,

    November 15, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    What is Supergrunch objecting to in the sstatement that "sign language is just one of 6000 languages"? There are, of course, several different sign languages, not just one, but surely it's accepted that they are indeed natural languages? I don't know any myself, but I did once proofread a dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language and remember its interesting introduction, in which NZSL is called a "natural language" in the first sentence of the second paragraph.

  24. Supergrunch said,

    November 16, 2009 @ 8:34 am

    Yes, they're natural languages, but as you say, there are more than one of them, while that statement seemed to imply there was only one.

  25. MikeyC said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 6:31 am

    You can watch TV on your PC nowadays, Geoffrey.

  26. MikeyC said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 6:41 am

    And it's here:

RSS feed for comments on this post