EDGE OF DISCOVERY
Fifth in a series of articles on cutting-edge research at Harvard.
Dorothy Ahn stood behind a video camera, recording a fellow researcher reading simple sentences — “One girl is my friend. That girl plays soccer”— while pointing for emphasis.
The filming was part of a research experiment comparing speech gestures in English and Korean, among half a dozen studies in Kathryn Davidson’s young Meaning and Modality Linguistics lab — which, as one of the few such facilities in the humanities, is something of an experiment in itself.
“Experimental study is crucial to my work. Becoming part of this lab has allowed me to develop this aspect fully,” said Ahn, a fifth-year graduate student in semantics and psycholinguistics. “Before joining this lab, I did some of my experimental work [elsewhere], but most of my current experiments would have had to find some other department to house them.”
Created two years ago when Davidson joined the linguistics faculty, the Meaning and Modality facility, known to its users as the M&M lab, studies meaning across natural languages, both spoken and sign.
Much of its work involves behavioral experiments on questions in semantics, which models linguistic meaning using tools from formal logic. Bilingualism and gesture prosody (the patterns of intonation and stress) are also areas of study. The lab has run experiments in Korean, French, Romanian, Malayalam, Italian, Japanese, and Chinese, along with American, Nicaraguan, and Brazilian sign languages.
The lab functions as a controlled environment in which to find linguistic touchstones in languages, as well as to learn some of the similarities and differences contained in them, to understand better how human communication operates.
The lab, Davidson said, formalizes and encourages “shared knowledge. It’s helpful to be in the same space, especially in academia, because we’re trying to figure out things we don’t know about yet. In a company, it might also be important to work together in a shared space, but it might already have institutionalized manuals for important procedures. Here, we’re trying to generate new knowledge, and working to come up with new manuals for how to do what we need to do.
“The knowledge isn’t just sitting on a shelf, ready for us to pull it out. We need to work together to solve problems that arise in language data collection and analysis.”