Unraveling language puzzles

Aug. 27, 2009 noon
at the chalkboard in the linguistics club

Photos: Brian Wilson

From the June 1, 2009, Princeton Weekly Bulletin

At 4:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, students majoring in psychology, mathematics and classics came together in a classroom at Frist Campus Center. They spent an hour working on fractions written in Egyptian Arabic, translating sentences from the Agta language of the Philippines into Central Cagayan Agta and considering how the Proto-Indo-European "dh" sound vanished from certain English words.

The problems were not part of a course curriculum. Rather, they were a series of linguistic puzzles presented at a meeting of the Linguistics Club. As the students enthusiastically jumped into solving the problems — exclamations of "This is fun!" could be heard from the group — they demonstrated how Princeton's Program in Linguistics has blossomed.

The linguistics program is small, but these days it is home to a growing cohort of students drawn from departments all over campus who are inspired by examining human language -- in particular the properties all languages share and the ways that individual languages can differ.

"This group of students is the most linguistically committed bunch of undergraduates I've seen in my 11 years here," said Joshua Katz, director of the Program in Linguistics and a professor of classics. The field appeals to a broad range of students, especially those who like unraveling puzzles, he said.

"Linguistics is like the Rubik's Cube for your brain," said Katz. "Anyone can be good at it — the mathematically gifted certainly, but also those with entirely different skills."

More students are discovering that uncovering the delights of language appeals to them. The number of students enrolled in the program's introductory course has increased more than sixfold since 2000, and the total number of undergraduates taking linguistics courses has increased by almost 70 percent in the same period. The program is attracting some of the best high school linguists – a small group, as most high schools don't offer classes in the field – as well as engaging students who knew little about linguistics before coming to Princeton.

Senior Erica Wojcik is one such student. She didn't know much about linguistics before signing up for "Introduction to Language and Linguistics" in the fall of her sophomore year. By her junior year, Wojcik was so excited about the field that she set about reviving the dormant Linguistics Club, which now has 75 students signed up to receive notices about its activities. In May she was awarded Princeton's first Senior Linguistics Prize, which recognizes the student who has done the most to advance the cause of linguistics.

text of puzzle on chalkboard

One way that students expand their understanding of linguistics is by solving language puzzles.

Wojcik, who is majoring in psychology and completing a certificate in linguistics, will continue her study of linguistics next year in a Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin. There she will study with Jenny Saffran, who is considered the leading expert in statistical word learning, according to Adele Goldberg, a professor of linguistics in the Council of the Humanities and Wojcik's senior thesis adviser.

Attracting top students

Among the top high school linguists who chose to attend Princeton are: sophomore Adam Hesterberg, who won the 2007 International Linguistics Olympiad with the highest score in individual competition; freshman Anna Tchetchetkine, who won the top prize in that Olympiad's team competition; and freshman Jae Kyu Lee, who was on the team that captured a gold at the Olympiad the following year. Now the three are ambassadors of sorts for linguistics on the Princeton campus.

Lila Gleitman, a psychology professor emerita at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in language acquisition, last year visited Princeton's campus to participate in an assessment of the linguistics program along with scholars from other institutions. She noted the program's "outstanding faculty (has) several important research and scholarly agendas. I could see that the on-campus educational program was thriving with wonderful undergraduates being turned on to linguistic studies — and this includes not only majors with professional aspirations in this field, but also those who 'just' drop in for a semester to find out about how the language they use every day really works."

Professor Katz with the linguistics group

Program director Joshua Katz (right), a professor of classics, talks with linguistics students Nabil Abdurehman (center), a sophomore, and Erica Wojcik, a senior. "This group of students is the most linguistically committed bunch of undergraduates I've seen in my 11 years here," Katz said.

Faculty on the program's executive committee include linguistics specialists from the Council of the Humanities as well as language departments, philosophy and psychology.

There is an inherent appeal to linguistics because it involves the study of a skill that everyone employs, said Christiane Fellbaum, a senior research scientist in the Department of Computer Science who teaches linguistics courses.

"Everyone is equipped to use language — it's a marvelously complex and wonderful activity," said Fellbaum, who has been awarded several National Science Foundation grants to study how linguistic theories can be modeled and tested computationally. "It's awesome to contemplate what we are doing with such ease. It gives you a lot of respect for the human mind."

Interest in linguistics courses at Princeton has surged in the last several years. The introductory course, "Introduction to Language and Linguistics," had 22 students in the fall semester of 2000, when it was offered once a year. This year the course, which is now offered in the fall and spring semesters, had a total of 146 students. The number of undergraduates in linguistics courses has gone from 158 in the 2000-01 academic year to 265 this year. There currently are 19 students pursuing a certificate in linguistics, up from 10 in 2000-01.

And the program's breadth is increasing. Three new linguistics courses are being introduced next year in advanced semantics, bilingualism and "African American English and Syntactic Variation." The bilingualism course already is fully enrolled with a waiting list.

Bringing different disciplines together

The broad appeal of linguistics draws students from many departments, both from scientific disciplines — such as mathematics, computer science and psychology — and the humanities, such as classics. It also connects many of those fields, making it highly interdisciplinary.
"Language serves as a link between humanities, social sciences and the hard sciences," Goldberg said. "And the field itself is at an exciting moment, as there have been important empirical breakthroughs in the past two decades that have changed much about our understanding of the nature of language, how it is learned and how languages change over time."

Linguistics club members in East Pyne

From left, sophomore Nabil Abdurehman, freshman Erik Zyman, senior Erica Wojcik and freshman Jae Kyu Lee work on a practice question.

The surge of interest in linguistics at Princeton has been "partly a lucky accident and partly a snowball effect," Katz said. Outstanding students in the field, such as Hesterberg, draw in others, Katz said. And many students who study linguistics enjoy getting other students interested. "The students who are here believe in linguistics and think it's fun, and they want to bring more people to Princeton who are good at it," Katz said.
Junior Kevin Moch, a classics major who is pursuing a certificate in linguistics, likes to promote the Linguistics Club at Princeton's Student Activities Fair. He wants other students to know that "you can really have fun with linguistics," said Moch, whose interest in language was sparked by his participation in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, in which he placed third at the age of 13. The members of the Linguistics Club "all have a love of language and a passion for exploring and explaining it," he said. "It's so cool to have that shared enthusiasm."
Hesterberg, who recently won a Goldwater Scholarship for his achievements in mathematics, believes linguistics, though it can seem daunting to the uninitiated, is a very accessible field if students are introduced to it.
"A logic puzzle will be fun for almost anyone," said Hesterberg.
Having a growing number of students interested in linguistics has allowed for an intellectual salon of sorts to develop. Students in the Linguistics Club teach each other about the different fields within linguistics in which they specialize. Moch, who is interested in historical linguistics, recently gave a presentation on the subject to the group. Wojcik studies psycholinguistics — exploring psychological factors that enable humans to acquire and use language — and said talking to Hesterberg about his interest in phonology — studying the sound patterns of language — has enriched her understanding of the discipline.  
"There are so many things you can do with linguistics," Wojcik said. "I wouldn't necessarily have known about them if I hadn't gotten to know these students."