Sunday, May 10, 2015

Alice Studies: The Miracles of Human Language

It's a wrap! This weekend is my final weekend in geeking it out for the Coursera course on Miracles of Human Language by Leiden University! The course deadline for all quizzes and final exam is May 11. All good things must come to an end and I must say I LOVED THIS MOOC!

This MOOC (massive open online course) is perfect for me in that it has one final deadline (great for busy working adults), and you don't have to worry about being penalized for not meeting a deadline. It contains digestible short videos, really useful reading materials, and quizzes that make you think. They're hard!

Now, about the Professor. For the curious ones who would like to get a taste of the Happy Dutch Guy, Marc van Oostendorp, here's a glimpse of how our dear professor sounds and looks like in his mini lectures and sessions. He's a real joy to listen to and watch. More about him at the end of this post.

One of the funny moments:
Passion fruit is not about feeling passion while eating a fruit. Got me laughing there. We were on the topic of morphology. The passion fruit example is about the three criteria for a sentence, which is a string of words. The three criteria are spaces, meaning, and pronunciation. So back to the passion fruit: It's one thing, a passion fruit. It's one concept (see the criterion on "meaning").

What I particularly liked about this MOOC:
  • The active involvement of the professor's students, Marten and Inge. They're in the weekly discussions asking questions and conducting interviews, as you can see from the snapshots with Prof. Chomsky below and with other interviewees too. 
  • The downloadable transcript of each week. (This is SO handy!)

Some of the points I picked up along the way:
  • In the beginning, you just hear people speak and you have no idea where the word boundaries are. You learn this only by experience, by being exposed to it enough. (Learners of foreign languages such as Yours Truly can definitely relate to this...)
  • It is interesting to note that when a person is asked to gesture "the girl is catching a fish" (like when you play a guessing game), people tend to gesture the girl (S), followed by the fish (O), lastly, the action of catching (V). The word orders then is SOV (subject-object-verb). This seems to be the natural order that we humans like. (So... the next time you play the game, try to observe what's being done!)
  • It is important to distinguish the pragmatic layer of meaning next to the semantic layer of meaning.
  • Pragmatic is always there; always different. Every sentence we say has a pragmatic meaning. We change the world by saying the things we do. (Let us all say positive things and think positive thoughts! Change the world in a positive way while we're at it.)
  • Sometimes it (pragmatic) is not so explicit but it's still there. Even when we don't say something, that can have a meaning. By not saying something (or the right things about something) the other person is going to infer that we mean something else than what we are actually saying. (Sounds like a dangerous ground to thread on. Don't assume...)
  • If you want to know how language works in the mind, we simply can't avoid meaning.
  • Language is not just there to convey semantic and pragmatic meaning. It also reveals many things about us. Language varies and changes. I liked the prof's demonstration using his attire and the red tie. He looked really dashing there, by the way.

I really enjoyed the interview with Prof. Chomsky. I'm looking forward to receiving his book, The Architecture of Language, from Book Depository! I placed an order last month and I'm so glad I did because now I get to read his words after listening to him.

Meet the Happy Dutch Professor's sidekicks, Inge and Marten. In this snapshot, they're interviewing Prof. Chomsky on Skype (if I'm not mistaken).

I have particularly enjoyed Roberta's videos as one of the informants in the course. She gives us everything Abruzzese and because I understand Italian, I kind of get this Neapolitan language from the Abruzzo region. Her video demonstrating politeness in the final week's (Week 5) video was hilarious and so true! Italians could go on and on about something...

I've learned so much in this five-week introductory linguistics course. It is the perfect launchpad for my further exploration with language and linguistics. My first language-related Coursera course is The Bilingual Brain by the University of Houston System (check out my posts here). I can't get enough of language and linguistics, and can't wait to dig deeper! Who knows, one day I may end up in Leiden University to pursue a linguistics BA...

ABOUT THE COURSE: The Miracles of Human Language introduces you to the many-faceted study of languages, which has amazed humans since the beginning of history. Together with speakers of many other languages around the world, as well as with famous linguists such as Noam Chomsky and Adele Goldberg, you will learn to understand and analyse how your native tongue is at the same time similar and different from many other languages. You will learn the basic concepts of linguistics, get to know some of the key features of big and small languages and get insight into what linguists do.

This course gives an introduction into the study of languages, the field of linguistics. With the support of the basic linguistic terminology that is offered in the course, you will soon be able to comment both on variety between languages, as well as on a single language’s internal structure. Anyone who wishes to understand how languages work, and how they can give us insight into the human mind is very welcome to join.

The course is useful if you want to get a fairly quick introduction into linguistics, for instance because you are considering studying it further, or because you are interested in a neighbouring discipline such as psychology, computer science or anthropology. Furthermore, the course will help you develop analytical skills.

ABOUT THE PROFESSOR: Prof. Dr. Marc van Oostendorp was born in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 1967; he took an MA in Computational Linguistics at Tilburg University, 1991, and a PhD in dialectology at the same institution in 1995. He is currently employed at the Meertens Institute/Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (as a Senior Researcher; since 1999) and at Leiden University (currently as a Professor of Phonological Microvariation; since 2008).

Academic Prizes and Awards include the AVT/Anéla Dissertation Price for the best linguistics dissertation in the Netherlands (1996), and the LOT Oeuvre Prize for Popularisation of Linguistics (2007). He serves on the Editorial Boards of (among others) the journals Phonology (CUP) and Language Problems and Language Planning (Benjamins), and at the organizing board of the Old-World Conference in Phonology and the Manchester Phonology Meeting.

He has written books and articles on language variation, phonological theory, computational linguistics and language policy. Many of these can be found through his website:  Here are some recent key publications:

Key publications:
  1. M. van Oostendorp, C.J. Ewen, K. Rice, B. Hume (eds). (2011). "The Blackwell Companion to Phonology." Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell
  2. Oostendorp, M. van. (2014). Selective Lexicon Optimization. in "Lingua" 142:76-84.
  3. Oostendorp, M. van. (2014). Phonological and phonetic databases at the Meertens Institute. In: Durand, J. & G. Kristoffersen (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Corpus Phonology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 546-551
  4. Oostendorp, M. van. 2014. Introducing a scansion machine for Dutch poetry and prose. In: Loquens 1.1, e001. Doi:
  5. Oostendorp, M. van. (2014). Rhyme as phonological multidominance. In: Nasukawa, K. & H. van Riemsdijk (eds.): "Identity relations in grammar". Berlin, Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 39-58.