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Speech Prof. Monika Smid, Professor of English language / Rosalind Franklin Fellow

Opening of the Academic Year 2012/2013

In his fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry Potter gets a new teacher of Divination: His name is Firenze, he is a centaur, and he proceeds to instruct the pupils in the art of predicting the future. This proves to be a strange experience:

“It was the most unusual lesson Harry had ever attended. (Firenze) was nothing like any human teacher Harry had ever had [...]. [He explained] that it took centaurs years and years to become competent, and finished by telling them that it was foolish to put too much faith in such things, anyway, because even centaurs sometimes read them wrongly. His priority did not seem to be to teach them what he knew, but rather to impress upon them that nothing, not even centaurs’ knowledge, was foolproof.”

Many of the students who are beginning their university education today in Groningen or elsewhere will be able to relate to this experience. It is, I think, one of the best descriptors of academic education and what researchers do. The Hogwarts students are rather put off, in particular Harry's classmate Parvati Patil who tries to tell Firenze about the knowledge that they already possess about things such as astrology. Their previous teacher, Sibyl Trelawney, had imparted important facts such as

·           Mars causes accidents and burns;

·           when it makes an angle to Saturn people need to be extra careful when handling hot things

To Parvati's dismay, Firenze summarily dismisses these insights as 'human nonsense'. He explains that

human trivialities are of no more significance than the scurrying of ants to the wide universe; they are unaffected by planetary movements.

Obviously, the centaurs do not expend their wisdom on such bagatelles. Instead, they are concerned with unvravelling the mysteries of the stars' progress. Over the course of many centuries, they have come to understand that the future may be glimpsed from these, and in particular, that they show the great tides of evil and change which unfold over decades.

Understandably, these explanations appear somewhat unsatisfactory to the students. Harry's friend Ron complains that

Ron: “He’s not very definite on anything, is he? I mean, I could do with a few more details about this war we’re about to have”

and Hagrid very sensibly sums it up

Hagrid: “Never try an’ get a straight anwer out of a centaur. Ruddy stargazers. Not interested in anythin’ closer’n the moon.”

Furthermore, of course, to the Ministry of Magic, that centre of administrative good sense and political reason, centaurs are dangerous half-breed and part humans, who should be rigorously controlled and not allowed to get above themselves.

I don't know about you, but I do to some extent recognise myself in these descriptions. Of course, I rarely rely on stargazing for my data collections, and burning sage does not usually figure in my experimental designs. However, I am well aware that my area of research - linguistics, but really the humanities in general - is, I think, perceived to be almost as esoteric, generally useless and potentially dangerous as Divination. In a way, we do try to understand things like the 'great tides of evil and change that unfold over centuries'. More specifically, we focus on those things that make us human.

As a linguist, I am concerned with the one thing that, above everything else, is characteristic of humans and absent in all other species: language. I never cease to be fascinated by this skill, which is abstract, highly complex,

Imagine a Dutch toddler - let's call her Saskia - who is three years old, and has an English cousin of the same age, whom we might call Timmy. Saskia and Timmy have yet to become comfortable with bipedal equilibrium and are entirely unable to compute a simple sum such as two plus two.They are able to recognise a limited number of words, and produce a still more limited one. However, already they are highly specialized experts on a vast system of specific sounds and grammatical relationships. For example, Saskia will already have a basic knowledge of the fact that a horse will receive the definite article 'het', while a dog is 'de'. Timmy, on the other hand, although he has never heard the same word pronounced twice in exactly the same manner, will know that pat and pet are two different words.

Once Saskia and Timmy reach puperty, if they try to learn each other's native language, they will struggle immensely with these and other features. However, if we assume that Timmy has a Dutch parent who consistently speaks Dutch with him, he will not only be able to learn that pat and pet are not distinct words in Dutch and correctly talk about het paard and de hond. He will also be able to switch his attention to new tasks and adapt to their demands more quickly and easily than Saskia - in scientific terms, he will have better executive control than his cousin. And by the time they are both many decades older, provided that Timmy has kept up both his Dutch and his English, if they are both unlucky enough to develop dementia or Alzheimer's, Timmy has a fairly good chance of getting the first symptoms of the desease up to five years later than Saskia.

If you put ten linguists in a room and ask them about Saskia and Timmy, they will have at least twenty different opinions on these observations. Some of them will claim that the infants were born with some kind of basic grammar already hardwired into their brains, which is why they can learn abstract grammatical features, including those that are underdetermined in the input, with ease. Others will say that all learning is statistical and input-based. Some will be convinced that something in the children's brain changes around puberty, and that that is why they later have trouble learning other languages. Others will dismiss this view and argue in terms of entrenchment and general maturation processes. And so on. A few would be willing to die rather than renounce their positions, some would be willing to kill the others rather than concede their point of view and, I suspect, many would be happy to roast everone else over a slow fire, just for the fun of it.

These are the scientific questions and issues that I am working on. Like Firenze, I know full well that it will take many years to contribute even the smallest bit of the large mosaic of what human language is, how it works and why and how it evolved. I know that there is a good chance that I may read some of the signs wrong, and that it would therefore be foolish to put too much faith in what I say, and I do make this point to my students and in my articles - although I have to admit on sometimes suppressing it in my research proposals.

And on the subject of research proposals, let us once again return to Firenze and his students. It is easy, not only for a class of fifteen-year olds but for all of us present here, to understand that it is useful to figure out how to prevent burns. More to the point, it is probably also fairly easy to convince a review panel at NWO or in Brussels why this is a valid endeavour that should be funded to the tune of several hundred thousand Euros. But I can see Firenze struggling badly with the utilisation paragraph required for a research proposal that would allow him to look at the skies for a few decades, only to come up with, by his own admission, unreliable insights.

I deeply sympathize with Firenze. I, too, have had my problems figuring out who I might possibly involve from the commercial sector in a research project, or trying to squeeze a little bit of practical applicability for my proposals. What can I say when people ask me questions such as:

·           Will your research allow us to determine what the best age is to teach children languages at school? Weeeelll, possibly there might be some indications... ahem...

·           Will it help us develop better teaching methods? Erm, well, no, not really, sorry...

·           Will we be able to use it to prevent Alzheimer's? How many of us even manage to eat the amount of fruit and veg that we are supposed to in order to reduce our risk of cancer? How likely is it that there will be mass child bilingualism, on the chance that it might delay the onset of dementia?

·           Will I be able to write an app that we can download into our children's brains, or our own, that will install French, or Chinese?

The truth is that when we conduct fundamental research, we embark on projects that

- take a long time

- are fraught with red herrings, blind alleys, cul-de-sacs…

- are inspired by intellectual curiosity

are not guaranteed to produce definite results

So, the question: what is what you do really good for does come up, and I do admit that I find it difficult to provide a tangible, real, good and satisfactory answer. In a time of economical crisis, can we afford these luxuries? Can I justify spending time and money measuring someone's brain activity when they process sentences in their first or second language? Is the sensible view not that we should put fundamental research on the back burner, and focus on projects that promise to translate directly into improving the Dutch economy and position in the world (the word topsectoren comes to mind), let alone put the money into social benefits?

For myself, every time I come back to these questions, I end up with the same conclusion: it is particularly in times of economical crisis caused by greed, of melting ice-caps caused by unfettered consumption, of threats of world-wide famine while we use food for biofuel, of dwindling resources and increasingly bitter conflicts within and across countries caused by religious and quasi-religious fundamentalism, that we can not afford to abandon the luxury of trying to figure out what we are, what it is that makes us human, and how we respond to such threats. Understanding the great tides of evil and change that unfold over decades has never been more critical than right now. In the words of one of my heroes - next to Hagrid, of course - namely captain Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise, there is no better way to learn about the human condition than to study Shakespeare. Or, one might add, history. Or language.

Yes, we need fundamental research. Yes, we need the humanities. Otherwise, all we are left with are human trivialities of no more significance than the scurrying of ants to the wide universe. We will have apps, we will have topsectoren, we might even have a kenniseconomie, but we will not have a planet or a civilization left to run them on.

Thank you.
Last modified:15 September 2017 3.28 p.m.