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Campus Now

New Year Issue (Jan. 2014)

A WASEDA Miscellany

MUEHLEISEN Victoria

A Summer of Linguistics

MUEHLEISEN Victoria
Associate Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education

In the spring semester of 2013, I had a six months sabbatical from teaching at Waseda University. I decided tospend one month of it in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to attend the Linguistic Society of America’s Summer Institutewhich being held there at the University of Michigan. Every other year, the Institute convenes at a differentAmerican university, and top scholars from many areas of linguistics gather to teach classes to students fromaround the world. The students include college undergraduates and graduate students taking classes forcredit, as well as university teachers and researchers like me, just auditing the classes for fun. Before I went,I was a little worried that I would feel out of place as a 49-year-old, I found that I was far from the youngeststudent there, and with the common bond of linguistics, I enjoyed conversations with all kinds of people.

In addition to the classes themselves, the Institute features weekend workshops and linguistic-related lecturesand movies. This year, one highlight was a lecture by the most famous living linguist, Noam Chomsky. Buteven more interesting to many of us was the visit of Dan Everett, who has done extensive fieldwork on thenative Brazilian language Piraha. We saw a movie about Dan’s life and work, followed by a question-and-answersession, and a few days later, a demonstration of field-work methods used to learn an entirely new languagefrom an informant with whom you have no common language. Everett’s work is somewhat sensational in thathe claims that Piraha language contradicts the principles of Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar. We heardrumors that it had required some very delicate arrangements on the part of the organizers to get both Chomskyand Everett as guests at the same Institute, but the controversy generated some very interesting after-classdiscussions among Institute participants.

My own areas of research are in semantics and applied linguistics, and at the Institute, I was able to catch upon very new research related to these while also learning about some topics almost entirely new to me. Themost interesting class, as well as the most difficult one, was “The Bilingual Brain”. This introduced researchinto the way language is processed by the brain, and whether and to what extent the brains of bilingual ormultilingual people are different from those of monolinguals. (The short answer is: while there do appear to besome differences in the ways that the brains of monolinguals and bilinguals deal with language, it is difficult toknow exactly what these differences mean.)

The Bilingual Brain class included a visit to a brain-imaging laboratory on campus to see a demonstration ofNIRS (Near-Infrared Spectroscopy) imaging. In NIRS, light is sent through the skull, where it travels throughbrain tissue and is then picked up by sensors attached to the head. This method can locate the areas ofincreased brain activity—active areas use more blood, and the hemoglobin in the blood blocks some of thelight. In the demonstration, we watched the equipment being partially hooked up to just one student volunteer,but few weeks later, I was lucky enough to be able to experience it myself as a test subject. I was a controlsubject for a with normal hearing in a study of people with cochlear implants (surgical devices which can helppeople to hear.) In the photo, you can see me with the sensors attached to my head.

There was one more thing I loved about the Institute—the chance to spend every day in the company of peoplewho love linguistics, in a beautiful physical environment. Together with many of the Institute students andfaculty, I stayed in the university graduate housing located out on the edge of Ann Arbor. There many two storybuildings surrounded by large open areas of grass and trees—a landscape entirely unlike my home in Tokyo. Just outside my door, I could see red-tailed hawks in the sky, squirrels in the trees, groundhogs and rabbitseating grass by the side of the road, and best of all, deer strolling slowly through the campus. As we rodethe free bus from the dorms to the classes and events in central Ann Arbor, we talked and talked about —youguessed it—linguistics!

From the cool, green summer in Ann Arbor, it was a bit of a shock to return to the hot August in Tokyo, but eventhe one short month at the Institute helped to refresh and invigorate me, leaving me ready for the fall semesterat Waseda. I am already looking forward to attending the Institute again, the next time I have a sabbatical.