A central theme of the study of the mind is the biological basis of language.

31 10 2013

The research concerning the brain mechanisms by which one acquires,  understands and produces languages is a central subject of the study of the mind. It implies the ability to think, speak, feel and interact with the world. In the last century philosophers, mathematicians and linguists put much effort in building formal models to describe and explain the complexity of language and the meaning of words. Concepts such as truth value, compositionality, recursion, predication and logical entailment have become well known in the linguistic field of formal semantics. In the last decades, on the other hand, neuropsychologists, physicians and cognitive scientists started developing methodologies to investigate how different kinds of information are processed in real time by the brain. Electroencephalography (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) allow us to inspect how and where many kinds of stimuli, including words and sentences, commit neuronal populations to work.

Like all cognitive processes language involves the entire cerebral cortex and several subcortical areas. The complexity of the rational and emotional aspects of language implies that its neural mechanisms should be sought not only in the operation of specific brain areas in the frontal lobe and the temporal lobes of the dominant hemisphere, but in the neural mechanisms of consciousness. Studying language as an object of the biological world requires the resolution of the mind-brain problem. While contemporary theoretical linguistics have addressed the problem adopting a dualistic approach (in which the representational and algorithmic nature of linguistic knowledge can be investigated independently by brain activity), cognitive neuroscience has privileged an anti-dualistic perspective (in which the direct observation of the brain can reveal the higher-level cognitive properties of the language faculty). These different epistemological views generated incommensurable ontologies that at the moment prevent the fertile integration of linguistics and cognitive neuroscience.

The cortical areas of language, dominant cerebral hemisphere (usually the left hemisphere) perform extraordinary tasks. They use arbitrary symbols and words and create language as a tool to shape the contents of consciousness: thoughts, emotions, fantasies and dreams.

All this is transformed and processed by the areas of the language of those who hear and read that, in turn, can translate the optical and acoustic stimulation in linguistic contents of consciousness.

The language centers are connected to the centers of emotion (partly in the right hemisphere), memory (distributed in the brain with access point in the hippocampus), the sense of space and time and those of the movement. The language is studied by linguists as a psychological event. On the other hand, in neuroscience language is a sequence of events of the electrochemical cognitive areas of the brain, which is one of the most complex aspects. The events studied in linguistics i.e. interface between syntax and semantics, the hierarchy of syntactic structures, phonetic processes, perceptions of language etc. should be related in the sense of the neural correlate of consciousness, to nervous events.

The techniques of neuroscientific model i.e Neuroimaging,  Electroencephalography (EEG) correlate phases, phonemes, syntax with synchronized areas at the time of the event.  Anyway, it remains a mystery how the  electrochemical synchronization of active areas become the content of consciousness.

The cognitive neuroscience of language is an exciting interdisciplinary perspective that suffers from unresolved epistemological and methodological issues. Despite the impressive amount of neural evidence accumulated until now, the field of research results fragmented and it is quite difficult to reach a unit of analysis and consensus on the object of study. This frustrating state of the art results in a detrimental reductionism consisting in the practice of associating linguistic computation hypothesized at theoretical level with neurobiological computation. However, these two entities are at the moment ontologically incommensurable. The problem lies in the fact that a theory of language consistent with a range of neurophysiological and neuroimaging techniques of investigation and verifiable through neural data is still lacking. The different epistemological views generated incommensurable ontologies that at the moment prevent the  integration of linguistics and cognitive neuroscience. As linguistic theories become more refined, and as the scientific study of language evolution advances, so interpenetration of knowledge has increased, encouraging some linguists to attempt to bridge the gap between the two fields.


Alexandre Duchêne and Monica Heller (eds): Language in Late Capitalism: Pride and Profit – Springer

29 10 2013

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An EU with only one language would be a catastrophe

28 10 2013

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Saving Europe’s endangered languages

24 10 2013


Dozens of languages in Europe are not much lost for words as short of speakers with some 120 believed to be dying out. The European Parliament’s culture committee discussed the problem with a group of experts . However, MEP François Alfonsi believes the final word on these languages has yet to be said. The French member of the Green group is drafting a report on what can be done to support them. Is there still time to save languages such as Lombard, Polesian, Saterlandic, Neapolitan ? ( For example in 2008 the Region of Campania stated that the Neapolitan language was to be protected. It has been recognized by UNESCO as a language and a heritage. Neapolitan has had a significant influence on the intonation of Rioplatense Spanish, of the Buenos Aires region of Argentina). The European Parliament has to play a key role in protecting and promoting endangered languages. Linguistic diversity is the soul of the European construction. There are hundreds of languages in the European Union and each is a part of the European identity.

 Examples of best practice include Finland, where there are seven endangered languages. Communities that want to implement best practices should be supported. Without concrete support at European, national and local level, we will see a further decline in linguistic diversity over the next decades. This will leave all of us culturally, socially and economically impoverished.

 Dr Christopher Moseley, an UNESCO expert on languages told the culture committee  that a language becomes endangered when children no longer learn it and its speakers stop using it. Worldwide one language dies every few weeks.




Europeans and their languages

22 10 2013

Periodic surveys on “Europeans and their languages” are carried out by the Public Opinion Analysis sector of the European Commission. They provide a picture of language knowledge, language learning, and attitudes to language and translation in the EU. So far, 3 surveys have been conducted – in 2001, 2006 and 2012.

The survey  that was carried out in spring 2012 on almost 27 000 people from all 27 EU countries and from different social and age groups contains data on the EU as a whole and broken down by country. Comparisons are drawn with previous surveys. For the first time the survey covers attitudes towards translation. The analysis presents social-demographic and behavioural variables based on the activities of the people interviewed as far as language learning is concerned.

In accordance with the EU population, the most widely spoken mother tongue is German (16%), followed by Italian and English (13% each), French (12%), then Spanish and Polish (8% each).

 For the majority of Europeans their mother tongue is one of the official languages of the country in which they reside.

Just over half of Europeans (54%) are able to hold a conversation in at least one additional language, a quarter (25%) are able to speak at least two additional languages and one in ten (10%) are conversant in at least three.

Almost all respondents in Luxembourg (98%), Latvia (95%), the Netherlands (94%), Malta (93%), Slovenia and Lithuania (92% each), and Sweden (91%) say that they are able to speak at least one language in addition to their mother tongue.

 Countries showing the most notable increases in the proportion of respondents saying that they are able to speak at least one foreign language well enough to hold a conversation, compared to data from the previous edition of the Eurobarometer survey, are Austria (+16 percentage points to 78%), Finland (+6 points to 75%), and Ireland (+6 points to 40%).

 In contrast the proportion able to speak at least one foreign language has decreased notably in Slovakia (-17 percentage points to 80%), the Czech Republic (-12 points to 49%), Bulgaria (-11 points to 48%), Poland (-7 points to 50%), and Hungary (-7 points to 35%). In these countries there has been a downward shift since 2005 in the proportions able to speak foreign languages such as Russian and German.

 Few countries show a noticeable increase in the proportion of respondents able to speak at least two foreign languages, with the most marked being in Italy (+6 percentage points to 22%) and Ireland (+5 points to 18%).

However nine Member States show a significant drop of more than 5 percentage points: Belgium (-16 percentage points to 50%), Hungary (-14 points to 13%), Bulgaria (-12 points to 19%), Poland (-10 points to 22%), Portugal (-10 points to 13%), Malta (-9 points to 59%), Luxembourg (-8 points to 84%), Denmark (-8 points to 58%), and Estonia (-6 points to 52%).

Countries where respondents are least likely to be able to speak any foreign language are Hungary (65%), Italy (62%), the UK and Portugal (61% in each), and Ireland (60%).

The five most widely spoken foreign languages remain English (38%), French (12%), German (11%), Spanish (7%) and Russian (5%).

 At a national level English is the most widely spoken foreign language in 19 of the 25 Member States where it is not an official language (i.e. excluding the UK and Ireland).

 The majority of Europeans who speak English, German, Spanish and Russian as a foreign language believe that they have better than basic skills. Ratings of skill level are broadly similar to those seen in the 2005 survey.

 Just over two fifths (44%) of Europeans say that they are able to understand at least one foreign language well enough to be able to follow the news on radio or television. English is the most widely understood, with a quarter (25%) of Europeans able to follow radio or television news in the language. French and German are mentioned by 7% of respondents each, while Spanish (5%), Russian (3%) and Italian (2%).




Common European Framework for Languages in European Education Systems

3 10 2013
The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) was developed by a Council of Europe’s international working party set up by the Language Policy Division with a view to promoting transparency and coherence in the learning and teaching of modern languages in Europe. After a pilot scheme involving extensive field consultation, the Framework was officially published in 2001, the European Year of Languages, and has since been translated and published in almost 40 languages – in Europe and beyond.
The descriptive section of the CEFR is based on an action-oriented approach to language learning and use. It presents an analytic breakdown of what proficient language users have to do in order to achieve effective communication, together with the various kinds of knowledge and skills they have to call upon in order to do so. This study aims at analysing way the compulsory school system approaches foreign language learning. It analyses the use of the CEFR in examination, curriculum development, schoolbooks and teacher training. The study concludes that although links between exams and CEFR are often not supported, the general approach to language learning of the CEFR is implemented; curricula and schoolbooks take notice of contextual language use and the related ‘can-do’ statements; and teacher training includes referenced to the CEFR. However, the CEFR could use a renewed impetus to increase its effect.
The Recommendation Cm/Rec(2008)7 on the use of the CEFR by Member States, recommends governments of Member Statesto take their constitution, their education system, and the national, regional or local circumstances into account, for the implementation of the CEFR and the promotion of plurilingualism. the CEFR is adopted progressively in education policies within European Member States and other European countries (non-EU Member States). The CEFR is not mandatory for Member States to use or even to implement in policy documents. Using the CEFR properly requires the users to understand that the CEFR is meant tohelp organisations to describe and establish proficiency levels for languages to ensure that qualifications of Member States are comparable. Good practices of assessing language competences related to the CEFR could help to ensure that qualifications become more comparable, trusted, and recognised.
Unfortunately, it appears that there are Member States with well-organised assessment cultures, which are able to develop procedures to reflect good practices, training, control systems and ways to ensure the quality of tests, and Member States in which this kind of assessment culture is lacking. Therefore, the Council of Europe decided to assist Member States to validate the relationship between their examinations and the CEFR.the European Commission embraced the CEFR and initiated projects on the subject of multilingualism and measuring language proficiency levels. Within the Lifelong Learning Programme ‘languages’ was identified as one of the transversal themes, crossing all activities.Encouraging pupils to achieve better results and higher proficiency levels in modern foreign languages is a hot debate topic within the selected countries.
Frequently the problem is how best to approach this. Some governments have drafted objectives and others have devised measures to promote better modern foreign language results.The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) was developed by the Council of Europe to promote transparency and coherence in the learning and teaching of modern languages in Europe. The CEFR tries both to facilitate the comparability between countries (on the basis of a shared conceptual framework for language learning) and to respect national traditions and systems in language proficiency standards.