Over-reliance on English hinders cognitive science

Been reading this paper by @blasi_lang @JoHenrich @EvangeliaAdamou Kemmerer & @asifa_majid and can recommend it — Figure 1 is likely to end up in many lecture slides http://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2022.09.015

Naturally I was interested in what the paper says about conversation. The claim about indirectness in Yoruba and other languages is sourced to a very nice piece by Felix Ameka and Marina Terkourafi.

The paper also devotes some attention to the importance of linguistic diversity in computer science and NLP — a key theme in the new language diversity track at #acl2022nlp, where another paper by Blasi and colleagues stood out. (The relevance of cross-linguistically diverse corpora for NLP was also a focus in this ACL paper of ours, where we argue such data is crucial for diversity-aware modelling of dialogue and conversational AI.

I do have a nitpick about Blasi &al’s backchannel claim. They note many languages have minimal forms (citing a study of ours that provides evidence on this for 32 languages) and add, “However, listeners of Ruruuli … repeat whole words said by the speaker” — seeming to imply they rarely produce such minimal forms and (tend to) repeat words instead. Or at least I’m guessing that would be most people’s reading of this claim.

The source given for this idea is Zellers 2021. However, this actually paints a very different picture: in fact, ~87% of relevant utterances (1325 out of 1517) do consist of minimal forms like the ‘nonlexical’ hmm and the ‘short lexical’ eeh ‘yes’, against <9% featuring repetition, as seen in this table from Zellers:

I don’t think anyone has done the relevant comparison for other languages yet, but it seems safe to say that Ruruuli/Lunyala does in fact mostly use “the minimal mm-hmm”, and that repetition, while certainly worthwhile of more research, is one of the minority strategies for backchanneling in the language.

Despite this shortcoming, the relevance of cross-linguistic diversity in this domain can be supported by a different observation: the relative frequency and points of occurrence of ‘backchannels’ do seem to differ across languages — as shown in our ACL paper for English versus Korean. And the work on repetition is fascinating in itself — it is certainly possible that repetition is used in a wider range of interactional practices in some languages, with possible effects on transmission & lg structure as suggested in work by Sonja Gipper.

Originally tweeted by @dingemansemark@scholar.social (@DingemanseMark) on October 17, 2022.

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