Language permeates just about every aspect of human existence, and as such the study of language offers a richly interdisciplinary approach to understanding the human condition. This course will give you an overview of some of the many different ways in which language can be studied, and will show what we learn about being human from this. Because language is involved in so many facets of human existence, the study of language affords excellent background for many other fields such as cognitive and social psychology, sociology, neuroscience, history, foreign languages, sociology, anthropology, etc. Some of the broad topics that we will discuss include the following:
(i) Cognitive aspects of language. What does it mean to say that you “know” some language? What aspects of this knowledge are acquired and how are they acquired? What aspects are genetically determined and do not need to be acquired? How can we best describe this knowledge?
(ii) Physiological aspects of language. Many different systems of your body are involved in the production and perception of language – the mouth, the visual system, auditory system, the brain, the hands (for signed languages), etc. What are the properties of these different systems? What do the properties of these systems tell us about language and about being human? Are there any parts of the human physiology that are uniquely specialized for language?
(iii) Social aspects of language. Language is a powerful tool of identity construction. We use language both to define our own identity, and to classify others. How do we use language to achieve this social identity formation? How is language used as a political tool for creating social cohesion and/or oppression?
(iv) Historical aspects of language. Language is constantly changing. American English, for instance, is pronounced very differently from British English. There are also many vocabulary differences between British and American English. What factors (including cognitive, physiological, and social) lead to change, and how can we trace the evolutionary path? How are new languages created and why are so many languages currently on the verge of extinction?