Date: Tue, 03 Oct 1995 15:08:54 PDT
From: LANGENDOEN[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]Linguistics.arizona.edu (Terry Langendoen)
Subject: from Gene Searchinger, re PBS series on linguistics
This is from Gene Searchinger, producer of THE HUMAN LANGUAGE SERIES
that appeared on PBS this year. He'd like to make an announcement, and
answer some of the letters that have appeared here. He says:
The 3-part film series is now available to universities on video
cassette. We have just sent out a mailing about it. Call 800-343-5540
if you didn't get it. Now, comments.
Thanks to all of you who have said such kind things. Thanks to all the
participants (about 50 linguists and "others"), and thanks especially to
the hundreds of you whom we interviewed but couldn't get into the
programs. Because three one-hour shows is too short, many wonderful
people had to be left out and fascinating topics had to be dropped for
time. Understandably, a few people wrote that "you didn't say enough
about our side." They're right and, of course, there are many sides.
So choices had to be made. George Miller got us started with four
outstanding consultants (Terry Langendoen, Ivan Sag, Judy Kegl, and Dan
Slobin). But the final selection of participants was made by us and by
fate. Geo is in no way guilty of our failings.
Dan Slobin reacted to all this with kind understanding, and Lise Menn
picked up on a supremely important part of the problem: funding the
series. There is an interesting linkage here, between funding problems
and the choices we made about subject matter.
The linkage factor is the massive lack of awareness about language on
the part of the general public on the one hand, and the potential
funders on the same hand. Did you know that not a single foundation
(not one among the thousands) has "language" or "linguistics" on its
approved list of fundable subjects? This is a non topic to them. (And
no private corporation showed the slightest knowledge or interest.)
Why is language so little understood? Why is THE HUMAN LANGUAGE SERIES
the only resource like this available to teachers in psychology,
linguistics, and all the language arts? And, given the problem, how did
we ever get the project off the ground in the first place?
Answer: because two, and now three federal government agencies do have
linguistics on their list of fundable topics, and none of them had
succeeded in finding a TV project worthy of their attention, they said,
until we came along. (The agencies are the NEH, the NSF, and - now -
the NIMH.) They were pleased that, at last, they could do something to
enlighten people about linguistics. Hurray for government funding!
Down with the Congress that wants to kill it off.
Because of the mass ignorance we found in the general audience,
spreading the word is important. How ignorant are they out there? My
estimate is that 98% of our audience and our potential funders believes
some or all of the following:
That there must be - oh - 300 languages in the world; that there are 32
words for snow in Eskimo; that Natives in Darkest Africa speak in
grunts; that sign language is the same thing worldwide, so why don't we
all learn it?; that Ozark is leftover Elizabethian English; that a
linguist is someone who knows a lot of languages; that people in the
inner cities - meaning blacks - speak a debased English with
impoverished vocabulary and a vast ignorance of grammar; that everyone
learns language from their parents (they all believe this). And
Chomsky? Isn't he that guy who - uh - something political...
The general public's knowledge about language is so primitive (as mine
was when I started), that we view important arguments between
"functionalists" and "nativist," for example, as too special for the
immediate task. Our job, we believe, is to deliver the shocking news
that: Many leading linguists believe there are aspects of langusge that
we do not need to learn in the usual way; that chimpanzees and dolphins
cannot learn human syntax, NOVA to the contary notwithstanding; that the
languages of the world have basic things in common; that children have a
grasp of grammar before they know how to tie their shoes; that facial
expressions in Papua New Guinea are largely the same as they are on 72nd
Street and Broadway; that important things happened in evolution when
our larynx "fell"; that words are indefinable constructions that must be
learned but that sentences are created new each time; and so on and so
on. Those were the kinds of things we made the show about, because
people don't know them. The subtleties of "learning," to pick an issue
singled out by Liz Bates, must be left to you to explain in the
To help me make the point, here is part of a letter we just received
from the Vice-Rector of Minsk State Linguistics University, Professor
Arnold E. Michnevich:
Your [series] is beyond doubt a unique achievement ...To many of our
researchers the films have become a stimulus to better understanding complex
linguistic phenomena and their non-traditional interpretations. One cannot but
be but impressed by the highest possible level of scientific research attained
and its superb presentation.
To all you wonderful linguists: Keep up the good fight - among
yourselves, if you must - but mostly to educate the rest of us.
Thanks. Gene Searchinger
Terry Langendoen, Dept Linguistics, U Arizona, Tucson AZ 85721 USA
Phone: +1 520 621-4790 Fax: +1 520 621-9424
Email: langendt[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]Arizona.EDU OR langendoen[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]linguistics.Arizona.EDU
WWW homepage: url=http://aruba.ccit.arizona.edu/~langendt
I'm currently on sabbatial and only checking email irregularly.