Friday 25 May 2012

Language: A task analysis (kind of)

In the last post, I discussed the similarities and differences between language and other types of information. From the first person perspective, spoken language is just another type of auditory event. The main distinction between the word "dog" and the sound of a dog barking is that the auditory event of barking is about the thing that caused the sound - a barking dog - while the auditory event of the word "dog" is not about the thing that caused the sound - a human speaker. The word "dog" is (usually) about an animal that is related to the auditory event by convention. Thus, the sound of a barking dog conveys auditory information and the sound of the word "dog" conveys linguistic information.

In this post I want to lay out classes of tasks in which linguistic information is useful. As a starting point, I will identify situations where language appears to fill a gap, although at this point these are no more than general descriptions. In any specific task analyses that might eventually follow, the basic strategy will be to begin by asking what perceptual resources exist to carry out the task. If perceptual resources are unable to explain task performance and if linguistic resources are available, then these will be considered for their potential contribution. It might be helpful to think of linguistic and perceptual information as occupying different niches in a task space. Perceptual information helps me to walk and catch a fly ball and linguistic information helps me do the types of things described below.

Saturday 19 May 2012

Language isn't magical (but it is special)

One of the most common comments about ecological psychology is that it's hard to imagine how it could apply to things like language. The sense is that language is a completely different kind of beast than perception-action and that it requires a completely different theoretical account (cognitive psychology). Andrew and I disagree. In this post I outline the similarities and differences between language and other types of perceptual information. The main idea is that language is indeed the same type of thing as perception-action, but there are key differences between them in the relationship between the information and what it means. These differences permit language to be flexible according to context, culture, and goals; to be expandable according to changing needs; and to be portable, allowing us to access information about things that are not currently in the environment. These properties make language special, but not magical.

Friday 18 May 2012

An Ecological Approach to Language

Language is often held up as an example against the possibility of the radical (non-representational) psychology we advocate for. You might be able to explain perception-action without representations, people say, but we can't see how you'll ever be able to explain 'real cognition, like language' without them. It's finally time for us to begin chipping away at this criticism. In the next few posts I'll lay out a first draft of an embodied, ecological analysis of language use.

Psychologists usually assume that catching a fly ball and talking about catching fly balls are two different kinds of thing. I reject this assumption (it is just an assumption) and I am going to treat language use as the same kind of thing as other examples of embodied cognition. Treating language as just another instance of embodied cognition allows me to import the lessons learned from perception-action type tasks and apply these to language tasks. This will lead to very different questions about language use than are typical in the literature. The next post will describe what I mean by this in some detail.