Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Grand Challenges of Current Linguistics: what would you list?

At the SLE conference (Societas Linguistica Europaea) in Poznań 2014 there was a round table discussion on where current linguistics is heading and what the most important problems are that we as a file need to tackle. It was called "Quo vadis linguistics in the 21st century" and the participants were very interesting and experienced researchers.  I'd like to share some of my own thoughts and invite you to share yours with us.

The brilliant blog Diversity Linguistics Comment made a longer post where you can read what the all participants presented, what they see as the most important issues right now. It is a very good read, and not that long. Anyone interested in linguistics should read and really take in what these people are saying.

One of the participants didn't contribute a text to that compilation blog post, instead he contributed with a video. This is the excellent linguist Martin Hilpert of  University of Neuchâtel. He makes videos regularly on his channel. I really, really recommend watching them. Here is his video for that discussion, watch it. I don't know how I can stress this enough. 

I've been asked to give advice to new students before on things to read etc and I often find that task overwhelming, there is so much to recommend! I think I'll start a new tag of posts here,  tips_for_people_interested_in_linguistics. Out of all the things I'd like to recommend, his videos are some of the best and you should totally go check them out.

Now, back to the topic of the video and this discussions that they had down in the European summer in Poland of '14. Discussions like this, about what is important in our field are crucial to the advancement and health of a scientific field. We need to have them and always keep them in the back of our minds. What kind of questions are we trying to answer? Why are those questions interesting? Are there better ways of answering them? What are the achievements that I consider important in my field? Where do those guide me?

I personally think a lot about this, in fact I've had several dips in my academic life where I've been pondering these things almost to the point where I couldn't do anything else. That's when I try and talk to others and ask them how they motivate research, which is a sometimes rewarding and sometimes not rewarding exercise. I really appreciate when non-linguists talk about this with me, or when senior linguists ask me hard questions where I have to motivate why what I'm doing is interesting. It's scary, but it's good. If this is what I am going to be doing then I need to be clear on why. I must say, I am very happy to read about this round table discussions and the points people are bringing up, I sometimes feel a bit alone in my existential moments of critique and problem finding. This is gives me hope and makes me interested in continuing.

Studying and doing research in fields of basic research is to a certain extent a luxury. We're adding to the knowledge of humankind for the sake of doing just that, extending what we know about the world and ourselves without necessarily considering if what we do have practical implications on the world and society around us. This is by no means unique to the social sciences, there is plenty of basic research in physics, biology and elsewhere. Sometimes it grieves me that it is more common to ask representatives of the social sciences to justify basic research than it is to ask the same of representatives of the natural sciences, but I try to not let that bother me too much and instead engage in a as meaningful discussions as the context allows.

I am going to try and have a long hard think about these two questions that Hilpert have posed and return with my thoughts to you, and I invite you to do the same. Tell us your thoughts, they need not be long (don't worry) and if you'd like you can be anonymous.

What are the great achievements of your field of research, in your opinion?

What are the current big challenges of our field?

EDIT: See also this post about illustrating Grand Challenges in linguistics


  1. Pending scientific breakthroughs where linguistics have a central role, in the opinion of a cognitive neuroscientist.

    1. Pattern processing
    -Automatic recognition, classification, decoding, of patterns in light, sound, text, movement, stuff
    Language is the most interesting pattern
    Text and computational linguistics are at the front of pattern recognition advancenment

    2. Understanding mass interaction
    -Understanding networks and network dynamics, structural dynamics in society, culture and biological systems, game theory, economy etc
    Linguistic communication is central
    Language change is central

    3. Artificial Intelligence
    -Making machines solve problems independently and flexibly, like us but with more muscle power.
    Language competence is central to AI:
    For communication
    For cognition in terms of logical operations on categories

    4. Understanding ourselves neurally
    -Understanding the precise mechanisms of how we work: processing of perceptual input and motor output, memory, motivation etc
    Language processing is one of the most, maybe the most, interesting function of the brain
    Decoding, learning, organizing linguistic knowledge and connecting this to motivated behavior

  2. I think what gives linguistics it's central role is that language is this high level cognitive tool that is both inside us and outside as an artefact connecting us.