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The School of Linguistics was founded in December 2014. Today, the School offers undergraduate and graduate programs in theoretical and computational linguistics. Linguistics as it is taught and researched at the School does not simply involve mastering foreign languages. Rather, it is the science of language and the methods of its modeling. Research groups in the School of Linguistics study typology, socio-linguistics and areal linguistics, corpus linguistics and lexicography, ancient languages and the history of languages. The School is also developing linguistic technologies and electronic resources: corpora, training simulators, dictionaries, thesauruses, and tools for digital storage and processing of written texts.
Edited by: P. Acquaviva, M. Daniel.
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What causes variation between languages, and what do they have in common? How is language embedded in our general cognitive system? These are some of the questions that Eric Reuland, Faculty Professor of Language and Cognition at the Utrecht Institute of Linguistics (OTS) (Utrecht University), will address in a lecture course entitled ‘Syntactic approaches to anaphora’ that will be held at HSE Moscow from September 12 till 22, 2016. Professor Reuland recently spoke with the HSE news service about his research interests, his upcoming visit to Moscow, and some books he recommends for those interested in gaining exposure to the field of linguistics.
— How did your cooperation with HSE begin? What are you looking for in the joint projects you are undertaking?
— In June 2015, I was invited to give a three-day course as part of a summer school on the syntax, semantics and processing of pronouns. The linguistics department at HSE makes Moscow a very lively centre for linguistic activities. There is enormous knowledge of the rich variety of languages spoken in the Russian Federation, with state-of-the art expertise in fieldwork, as well as other means of systematic data collection and corpus linguistics.
In summer 2011, I was invited to join a field trip to the village of Tegi on the shore of the Malaya Ob', which was tremendously fruitful in terms of results. I have two colleagues at HSE whose PhD projects I was fortunate enough to supervise. I hope that joint projects will help to make important information about the languages spoken in the Russian Federation available to the international linguistics community, as well as to help us better understand both the nature of cross-linguistic variation and the limits to it.
— In your research, you focus on the nature and the interaction of the cognitive systems underlying language and its use. What are your latest findings?
— Over the years I have been working on a particular 'puzzle', namely, why languages use special means to express reflexive predicates. What they do may be quite different, what they share is that they do use some special means. Sometimes what they do shows itself clearly, and sometimes only an in-depth study of a particular language reveals what it does. The task, then, is two-fold: first, to find an explanation of this property, and second, to test whether this explanation also holds for prima facie problematic cases. The idea behind the explanation is that the natural language system has trouble handling expressions that are fully identical in a local domain (a property that is not specific to language).
During the last couple of years my co-workers and I successfully analyzed a number of languages, such as Khanty, Mashan Zhuang, Fijian, and Jambi Malay, which were initially problematic. However, we were able to show that these languages also conform to the general picture. Recently I found an explicit way to derive this property, which also has interesting consequences for our understanding of the interpretation of pronouns.
A different area I am interested in is the relation between the grammatical system and the language processing system. While many psychologists hold that the language processing system favours the use of heuristics over the use of grammar-based algorithms in a recent article, Arnout Koornneef and I show that the opposite is the case.
— Have you been to Moscow before? If so, do you have any favourite places? Or are you planning to visit any certain places?
— I have been to Moscow before. A couple of times very briefly, as a stop-over to other destinations, but there have been two occasions when I spent a few days here. Of course, I have seen a few of the traditional sights – by far not all – but one of the places I will definitely visit again is the park at Patriarch’s Ponds, if only because of its role in the opening scene of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.
— What would be your message to students at the beginning of the 2016-2017 academic year?
— Pursue what fascinates you. Progress results from the struggle between the enthusiast and the sceptic in you: the sceptic fails to see the truth even when he trips over it, and the enthusiast fails to see the falsehood when it enchants him. Both are needed, but the enthusiast a bit more.
— Could you please recommend three books for young people who are looking for a better understanding of science in the modern world and that can encourage young researchers?
— There are many books I could have mentioned. For example, it is tempting to include some classic works by Noam Chomsky, such as Syntactic Structures (Mouton 1957), Lectures on Government and Binding (Foris, 1981), Knowledge of Language (Praeger 1986), Language and Problems of Knowledge: The Managua Lectures (MIT Press, 1988); they are in general, not easily accessible, however. A great book to read on language and thought is Jerry Fodor’s (1983) The Modularity of Mind (MIT Press). But science is not conducted in isolation from responsibility towards society in general, so I could also have suggested Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, or Heart of a Dog (but you probably have already read these). However, in the end, I decided on the following books, all currently available:
A classic on the philosophy of science
Imre Lakatos (1976): Proofs and Refutations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
An accessible introduction to the study of language
Steven Pinker (1994): The Language Instinct. New York: Harper Collins
A rich and diverse collection of articles exploring the evolution of brain, mind and language
Johan Bolhuis & Martin Everaert (eds.) (2013): Birdsong, Speech and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service