This week: Julia Hirschberg and Trace Foundation lectures

This week is just packed with linguistics goodness: Julia Hirschberg will be speaking this Friday, 3/26, and there is a series of lectures at the Trace Foundation downtown, starting on Friday and continuing on Saturday.

First, Professor Hirschberg’s lecture:

Friday, 3/26
Hamilton 709

Knowing When to Speak: Turn Management in Spoken Dialogue Systems

Julia Hirschberg
Department of Computer Science
Columbia University

Listeners have many options in dialogue: They may interrupt the current speaker, take the turn after the speaker has finished, remain silent and wait for the speaker to continue, or backchannel, to indicate that they are still listening, while not taking the turn. Previous studies have proposed a number of possible cues that may signal to listeners that a speaker is ready to relinquish the turn or, conversely, that a speaker intends to continue to hold the floor. I will describe results of empirical studies testing some of these proposals and investigating other correlates of turn-taking behaviors, in the context of a larger study of human-human turn-taking behavior in the Columbia Games Corpus. Our goal is to discover what types of human turn-taking behavior can most usefully be modeled in Spoken Dialogue Systems, both from the perspective of recognizing the import of users’ behavior and of generating appropriate system behavior. This is joint work with Agustín Gravano (University of Buenos Aires). We also thank our collaborators, Stefan Benus, Gregory Ward, Elisa Sneed, Hector Chavez, and Michael Mulley for their help in collecting and annotating the CGC and for useful discussions.

The Trace Foundation lectures will also start that Friday (in the evening – you can make it to both!) and continue all day Saturday:

Friday, 3/26 and Saturday 3/27
2 Perry Street, Suite 2B, New York, 10014 (map)

Minority Language in Today’s Global Society: Perspectives on Language Standardization

Language standardization is often looked to by language communities as a means for language maintenance and strengthening cultural integrity, yet it may also contribute to varying degrees of linguistic discrimination and social conflict. In the case of Tibetan language, which has a diversity of spoken dialects as well as a standard written language, new challenges and opportunities presented by urbanization, economic development, resettlement, and other factors present strong incentives to switch to other dominant languages in everyday usage. Thus many Tibetans support the idea of promoting a standardized Tibetan, but disagree as to what should be the basis for the standard.

In this lecture event, we will bring together scholars who have worked extensively on language standardization issues for Kurdish, Hungarian, Tibeto-Burman languages, and the three major dialects of Tibetan to examine questions such as: What should be the role of a standard language? What are its pros and cons? What are the experiences of other language communities in implementing standardization? We hope to understand these topics for minority languages in the world in general, the Tibetan language in China in particular, and what practical steps can be taken.

IMPORTANT: Please register for this event by downloading and completing the registration form and email to or print the completed form and fax to +1 212-367-7380.



5:30 – 6:00 pm: Check in & Registration
6:00 – 7:00 pm: Opening Keynote Lecture, Q&A
7:00 – 8:00 pm: Reception


9:30 pm – 10:00 am: Check-in & Breakfast Reception
10:00 am – 12:00 pm: Morning Session
12:00 pm – 1:00 pm: Lunch Break
1:00 pm – 5:00 pm: Afternoon Session & Closing Keynote Lecture

For more information, including speaker biographies, visit the Trace Foundation website’s event page here.



Dear linguists,

Here’s wishing you a delightful spring break, wherever you’re going (or staying)! For your reading pleasure, here’s an overview of upcoming events:

  • March 26-27: The Trace Foundation: “Minority Languages in Today’s Global Society: Perspectives on Language Standardization.” The lecture will focus on Tibetan, Kurdish, and Hungarian.
  • March 26: Professor Julia Hirschberg, Computer Science at Columbia: “Knowing When to Speak: Turn Management in Spoken Dialogue Systems”
  • March 31: Professor Ann Seghas on Nicaraguan sign language:  “Social Scaffolding for Language Genesis: Why Nicaraguan Sign Language Emerged When, Where and How it Did”
  • April 1: Professor Robert Remez on voice recognition: “I would know that voice anywhere! The role of phonetic sensitivity in the perceptual identification of talkers.”
  • April 30: “Workshops on Meaning: Language and Socio-cultural Processes”, co-sponsored by the Columbia Linguistics Society, presents Dr. William Labov.

More details to come…


_46672256_sub-afp226.jpgThis article from the BBC showcases a gadget that seems almost too good to be true: a pair of glasses that translates overheard speech and projects subtitles directly on to the viewer’s retina.

NEC said the Tele Scouter was intended to be a business tool that could aid sales staff who would have information about a client’s buying history beamed into their eye during a conversation.

But, it said, it could also be put to a more exotic use as a translation aid. In this scenario the microphone on the headset picks up the voices of both people in a conversation, pipes it through translation software and voice-to-text systems and then sends the translation back to the headset.

The article page also has an interview with translation technology Don DePalma, who comments that “they have a bit of the sense of the Borg from Star Trek”.


On a more down-to-earth note, the Wold Atlas of Language Structure is a very cool website:

WALS is a large database of structural (phonological, grammatical, lexical) properties of languages gathered from descriptive materials (such as reference grammars) by a team of more than 40 authors (many of them the leading authorities on the subject).

WALS consists of 141 maps with accompanying texts on diverse features (such as vowel inventory size, noun-genitive order, passive constructions, and “hand”/”arm” polysemy), each of which is the responsibility of a single author (or team of authors). Each map shows between 120 and 1370 languages, each language being represented by a symbol, and different symbols showing different values of the feature. Altogether 2,650 languages are shown on the maps, and more than 58,000 datapoints give information on features in particular languages.

WALS thus makes information on the structural diversity of the world’s languages available to a large audience, including interested nonlinguists as well as linguists who would not normally read grammars of exotic languages or specialized works by comparative linguists. Although endangered languages are not particularly emphasized, they are automatically foregrounded because of the large sample of languages represented on each map, where each language (independently of its number of speakers) is shown by a single symbol.


Finally, Ed Yong over at ScienceBlogs has a great new post about the FOXP2 gene and its role in the origins of language. Writing about the discovery of FOXP2 and its implications for the field, Ed says:

“It had long been suspected that language has some basis in genetics, but this was the first time that a specific gene had been implicated in a speech and language disorder. Overeager journalists quickly dubbed FOXP2 “the language gene” or the “grammar gene”. Noting that complex language is a characteristically human trait, some even speculated that FOXP2 might account for our unique position in the animal kingdom. Scientists were less gushing but equally excited – the discovery sparked a frenzy of research aiming to uncover the gene’s role.”

The real story, as you might expect, is significantly more complicated. Read more at Ed Yong’s blog.

The death of language?

BBC News reports on the state of endangered languages around the world: an estimated 7,000 languages are being spoken around the world. But that number is expected to shrink rapidly in the coming decades. What is lost when a language dies?

In 1992 a prominent US linguist stunned the academic world by predicting that by the year 2100, 90% of the world’s languages would have ceased to exist.

Far from inspiring the world to act, the issue is still on the margins, according to prominent French linguist Claude Hagege.

“Most people are not at all interested in the death of languages,” he says. “If we are not cautious about the way English is progressing it may eventually kill most other languages.”

According to Ethnologue, a US organisation that compiles a global database of languages, 473 languages are currently classified as endangered.

Article is here.

The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English

An article by Columbia professor John McWhorter appears in the Fall 2009 edition of the World Affairs Journal. “The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English” takes a broad view of the process of language death and the rise of English as a dominant global tongue.

From the article:

“…the going idea among linguists and anthropologists is that we must keep as many languages alive as possible, and that the death of each one is another step on a treadmill toward humankind’s cultural oblivion. This accounted for the melancholy tone, for example, of the obituaries for the Eyak language of southern Alaska last year when its last speaker died.That death did mean, to be sure, that no one will again use the word demexch, which refers to a soft spot in the ice where it is good to fish. Never again will we hear the word ‘ał for an evergreen branch, a word whose final sound is a whistling past the sides of the tongue that sounds like wind passing through just such a branch. And behind this small death is a larger context. Linguistic death is proceeding more rapidly even than species attrition. According to one estimate, a hundred years from now the 6,000 languages in use today will likely dwindle to 600. The question, though, is whether this is a problem.”

Assuming that we can keep 6,000 language alive, McWhorter writes, “is the rough equivalent of supposing that we can stop, say, ice from developing soft spots”: globalization will inevitably lead to the fading of distinct cultural and linguistic boundaries, and languages will be lost. But language loss does not amount to cultural death:

“…the oft-heard claim that the death of a language means the death of a culture puts the cart before the horse. When the culture dies, naturally the language dies along with it. The reverse, however, is not necessarily true. Groups do not find themselves in the bizarre circumstance of having all of their traditional cultural accoutrements in hand only to find themselves incapable of indigenous expression because they no longer speak the corresponding language.”

This projection of our linguistic future is complex and a little bit forboding. Are we facing a future in which society becomes completely homogeneous, where Hollywood produces culture, McDonalds provides sustenance, and English speakers, Borg-like, assimilate every language community they come across? How long will the last little enclaves hold out, and what happens  when the Borg finally arrives? Resistance is, after all, futile.

But, as McWhorter points out, the connection between culture and language is a slippery thing, and not necessarily subject to accurate prediction.  The interaction between the two as the whole thing unfolds will shape our linguistic future as a species. As English boldly goes where no language has gone before, where will we end up?

A strange new world, for sure.



SAIVUS is an online non-profit organization that teaches Native American languages currently spoken within the United States. Founded in 2008 by Mathias Bullerman, a student linguist at Rutgers University, it provides comprehensive grammar tutorials, word lists, practice exercises and other materials vital to modern language survival and health in order to help Native American people acquire and maintain speaking ability of their languages.

Mathias writes:

“I’ve always been very interested in American Indian and Polynesian languages, and unfortunately over half are expected to disappear within our lifetime. I really want to give something back to these languages that taught me so much, and one of the biggest factors contributing to their decline is a lack of quality educational materials.

For large languages like Navajo or Ojibwa there are plenty of workbooks
and dictionaries, and some other non-profit organizations and applied
linguists provide language materials to specific tribes. Rosetta Stone
offers internships in developing software for endangered languages, and
there is SSILA – Society for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the
– which aids linguistic research. Some universities offer classes
in indigenous languages, in fact if you want to learn Hawaiian you can
even enroll in an online course at the University of Hawaii.

Yet, whereas all of these options are very expensive, online tutorials
don’t cost a cent. Most people interested in learning indigenous languages
are native peoples who grew up speaking English and I feel like no one
should have to pay to learn their own language, especially since they are
the poorest ethnic group in America. Many sites direct you can go to where
you can go to learn indigenous languages, but aims to provide
actual tutorials. The web format is superior since it has no page limit,
wastes no paper, can be updated immediately, and best of all it can
support sound files and flash animations.

While SAIVUS’ tutorials are pedagogically oriented, they are of utmost
interest to theoretical linguists since they contain ample information on
phonology and bibliographies that list previous research. Within a year,
we hope to develop grammar lessons as well. The first S of SAIVUS stands
for Society, so if there are any other linguists out there who would be
interesting in helping the effort please contact me at Right now we’re concentrating on Hawaiian, Lakota,
Cherokee and Plains Indian Sign Language, which have the greatest
potential since they are popular and widely spoken, but eventually I hope
there will be language lessons for at least one language of every region
in the United States.


If anyone has written papers on these languages, I will publish them on
the site for free. You can put this on your CV – grad schools and
employers love to see publications and plus you’ll be getting your name
out there. It’s also a good way to make native speaker contacts if you’re
interested in doing fieldwork, or meet professors who have worked on these
languages; it gives you a reason to introduce yourself. There is also a
humanitarian component; ever since I posted a small Hawaiian pronunciation
lesson I’ve received several heartfelt emails from Hawaiians telling me
how much SAIVUS means to their people. That page alone got around 10,000
hits last month!”

For more information, news and FAQ about SAIVUS, visit their website.

Another update on The Linguists

As previously mentioned, this documentary is screening at Rutgers University this Saturday (April 25), and will be followed by a discussion with one of the linguists from the film. But, for those of you who can’t make the screening, the full film is also available to watch online (and free!) here.