Category Archives: Bilingual brain

Bilingual brain – we discuss issues like bilingual memory, language representation in the brain, speech producti

How to create a speaking robot

Who hasn’t read those science fiction novels where humans live next to speaking robots that can think and feel, so that they basically become better than us, because they don’t tire and they don’t die and it marks the ending era of humans who become organic batteries or slaves, or flee to other planets, or withdraw to underground cities where they plan their grand revolt…

Ok, let’s take it easy for a while. So, how do you teach a robot to speak?

Language Acquisition Device

So far humans are the only beings that have learned to communicate in language. According to Noam Chomsky (Rules and representations, 1980), humans are equipped with a built-in language processing mechanism that he named Language Acquisition Device. LAD is universal for any natural language, and genetically attached to all the human brains. It is the innate hardware, which means that we instinctively know how to process the linguistic input in order to construct rules, to understand linguistic behavior of others and to generate appropriate linguistic performance.

Universal Grammar

For LAD to be applicable to any language in the world there must be some universal rules to each language. Chomsky called it the Universal Grammar, a set of principles, some relevant, some irrelevant to a given language. Children are naturally endowed with an evaluation metric that allows them to pick the relevant parameters for their native language. For instance, there is the Pro-Drop Parameter, which determines whether a language can drop the subject pronoun, as Polish does, e.g.: Znam dobrze tego pana (I know that man well). There is no need to use “I”. In: Ja znam dobrze tego pana, “Ja” is redundant as the verb already carries information about the subject.

Language selects from a fixed set of parameters, which means that learning a new language is nothing more than changing the plus and minus values of parameters of Universal Grammar, from those of one language to those of the other. Now, a Polish student of English has to start using the Pro-Drop Parameter, to ‘switch it on’ in order to communicate well in English. And a student of German needs to activate a filter that will control the end of phrase position of a verb. And a robot would probably feel most comfortable with something like that:

“A formal grammar G = (N, Σ, P, S) is context-sensitive if all rules in P are of the form

αAβ → αγβ

where A ∈ N (i.e., A is a single nonterminal), α,β ∈ (N U Σ;)* (i.e., α and β are strings of nonterminals and terminals) and γ ∈ (N U Σ;)+ (i.e., γ is a nonempty string of nonterminals and terminals).”


And who would say that linguistics belongs to humanistic studies!

Follow up:

Where did my German go? – Language forgetting

Born native speaker of Polish, she started to learn English in elementary school. German followed in high school and she successfully passed her A-level exams in Polish, English and German. It seemed that her path was set for life, when she decided to continue her education at the faculty of Applied Linguistics, with specialization in foreign language teaching and translation studies of English and German. One could expect that after graduation she would end up either in rainy London or in the city hosting Oktober Fest, but alas! she marched south, getting herself a job in the capital of the ancient world – Rome. Continue reading Where did my German go? – Language forgetting

Thinking for speaking

You can probably remember George Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The society described by Orwell uses a language called Newspeak, which serves as one of the tools of repression. The theory behind Newspeak is based on a belief that if humans cannot form the words to express the ideas underlying a revolution, then they cannot revolt. Newspeak is aimed at eliminating such words like ‘freedom’ or ‘revolution’, so that “a heretical thought … should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.”

Continue reading Thinking for speaking

Memories… in bilingual speakers

My past has raised its head and it is panting into my neck. Memories come in packs and surround me wherever I go, howling in the moonlight. Remember me? Remember how we laughed and quarreled and sat silently? Wait, what did you say then? Oh, yes. Hai detto che ami parlare con me. Ed io ho risposto, smiling, che certo che lo ami, perché sei sempre tu a parlare.

Continue reading Memories… in bilingual speakers