Beijing Bound: Professor and Student Travel to Linguistics Conference

Trang Le '15

Staff Writer

This fall, Professor Jill de Villiers and Tarra Murphy ’15 attended the sixth International Conference on Formal Linguistics at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. They told The Sophian about their work developing a new language assessment test for Mandarin and their research on optimizing methods of detecting language disorders and devising treatments based on the generative linguistics theory.

Trang Le: I heard you have been working on generative language acquisition. What exactly is the concept of generative linguistics?

Jill de Villiers: That’s the modern linguistics [that was] invented by Noam Chomsky. He’s the most famous linguist of the last century. In his early days he began asking questions of language in a different way. In particular, what’s unique about language that allowed us to be so productive and creative. His theory has undergone changes but in format he’s got the same basic idea that the only explanation for us being able to do language the way we do is that we have an innate faculty for language organized in the same way across groups.

TL: What was your address at the conference?

JV: It was a generative linguistic conference, so it was a paradigm on which everybody works. We have a shared understanding on this bizarre set of common beliefs. So, what I had the chance to do was to talk about the relationship between the law of linguistics, workshops of language and language acquisitions and give examples from my research. I also discussed how in the past 20 years or so it’s become of interest to people to consider language disorders. Previously, that field was not at all connected to generative linguistics and language acquisition… what I try to do is to bring the fields together so that each [can] learn from the other…This is [connected to] the test that I’ve been helping to develop of Mandarin in China.

TL: Is there a specific reason you study Mandarin`?

JV: Yes, because Mandarin is spoken by millions of people and there’s no assessment test for children in Mandarin. In the United States there are four or five tests of language development; in China, there’s nothing. There’s a test imported from Taiwan, but Taiwanese Mandarin is very different from Mandarin spoken on the mainland, and it wasn’t a very contemporary test, so it wasn’t linking with linguistic theory. What we’re trying to do is make the best of linguistic theory and the best of language acquisition research to bring together a new test to assess children in Mandarin that’s based on the science of the last 20 [to] 25 years and pick out…children who may need special services.

TL: What are some problems the test is trying to address with the children?

JV: It [picks] out students who have specific difficulties with language development. They might be intellectually okay and pass an IQ test well, but when it comes to understanding complex sentences or having a rich vocabulary, they might not be on par with their peers. And it does seem to be between five to ten percent of the population [of] the world that seems to have problems in language acquisition. So, language pathology study is trying to improve the children’s hold of language so they can enter school and understand instructions from the teachers.

TL: Was this your first conference?

Tarra Murphy: I’ve been to a few language conferences. There is a regular linguistic conference that happens between Smith and Wellesley and Wesleyan and a few other liberal arts colleges. Those are a little lower key.

TL: How was it like attending the conference? Was it exciting, overwhelming…?

TM: It was so exciting, as in addition to being a linguistic major, I almost completed an East Asian Studies major. The conference was in China, so it was [a] combination of everything I’ve been working on. And Tsinghua [is] a very good university in China so it was amazing to be there.

TL: How does being a part of this research contribute to your academic life at Smith?

TM: It has helped me a lot. It makes me feel like I’m doing something important.