The Floating University

Video Quiz

Take this quiz to test your knowledge of Professor Pinker's linguistics lecture. Find the answer key at the bottom, as well as an additional quiz on the assigned reading!

(1.) Which of the following statement most correctly states what language is?

  • (A.) Language is thought; all cognition is composed of language, and is expressed as speech or writing when used collaboratively.
  • (B.) Language is composed of writing, and on a more granular level language is composed of an alphabet where symbols stand in for vowels and consonants.
  • (C.) Language is grammar, be it descriptive grammar, that describes how people speak, or prescriptive grammar, which describes how people should speak.
  • (D.) Language is the collaborative exchange of information between two or more parties.

(2.) All of the following are evidence that language is not the same thing as thought EXCEPT:

  • (A.) When people listen to language, they don’t remember the words, they remember the “gist” of the statements; the meaning transmitted is thus distinct from language.
  • (B.) Much of thinking works on a visual level that bypasses language, such as pattern recognition, and three-dimensional spatial comprehension.
  • (C.) Babies exhibit the ability to cognitively process cause and effect, and to interpret emotional states, long before they know a single word.
  • (D.) Many people who learn a second language still “think” in their native tongue.

(3.) Which statement best describes the linguistic concept of words?

  • (A.) Words are inherent units of meaning that every child is born with, and learns to attach specific sounds to specific words.
  • (B.) Words are sounds that we only attach meaning to through the context of syntax, and are by themselves devoid of useful information.
  • (C.) Words are written pieces of language that are defined via long-term cultural consensus, and recorded in dictionaries to maintain uniformity of expression, without which words would be arbitrary and meaningless.
  • (D.) Words are arbitrary sounds that are memorized through brute force, and are associated in the mental lexicon with the word itself, its sound, and its meaning.

(4.) All of the following are contributions of Chomsky to the study of linguistics EXCEPT:

  • (A.) The emphasis on the importance of productivity in language acquisition; children don’t just regurgitate memorized phrases, they create unique combinations.
  • (B.) Grammar operates somewhat independently of meaning; it is possible to construct sentences that are grammatically correct on the face but contain no meaning.
  • (C.) Syntax does not depend on linear associations; the progression of a sentence and its logical “correctness” does not depend entirely on word-by-word stimulus and response.
  • (D.) Language is not thought, but language influences thought; our perceptions and cognition and deeply influenced by our apprehension of language and the structure of language.

(5.) Phase structure rules allow for all of the following component of language EXCEPT:

  • (A.) The expression of unfamiliar meaning: part of the magic and mystery of language is the ability to using phase structure to assemble a unique, or “new,” meaning that is nonetheless comprehensible to all speakers of the language.
  • (B.) Open-ended creativity: human language allows for a functionality limitless supply of meaning.
  • (C.) Understanding who did what to whom: the geometry of phase structure rules allows us to comprehend causal relationships between the objects of phrases.
  • (D.) The ability to transcribe language into writing: Without phase structure, there would be no way to assemble spoken language and cognition into intelligible, codified language.

(6.) How does the “Wug Test” demonstrate that children don’t simply acquire language by copying phrases spoken by adults?

  • (A.) Children are presented with an invented term they could not have heard prior to the test, and are guided by researchers to understand the meaning of the word, which allows them to add the word to their mental lexicons.
  • (B.) Children are presented with an invented term they could not have heard prior to the test, and apply a rule to pluralize the invented term.
  • (C.) Children are taught a new word and allowed to use it for a week, during which time they are corrected by feedback to gradually form the correct pluralization.
  • (D.) Children are shown a picture of a bird, or other object, and prompted to invent a word to describe the object. Often children will invent a word that they have not previously heard spoken.

(7.) How do accents demonstrate the concept of phonology?

  • (A.) Native speakers learn how to speak their language on a word by word basis, and when learning a new language some words sound similar to native words, but others do not, creating an accent.
  • (B.) Native speakers develop contextual sound pronunciations that are unique to their language. When learning a new language, people prefer to use their old phonetic devices when making similar sounds in the new language, creating an accent.
  • (C.) Native speakers develop contextual sound pronunciations that are unique to their language. When speaking a different language, these deeply ingrained phonetic devices are applied to the new language, creating an accent.
  • (D.) Native speakers learn how to speak their language by memorizing the contextual pronunciations associated with the same written suffix, and when they read a new language they retain the contextual pronunciations of their native tongue.

(8.) Why does it make evolutionary sense to have a mouth and throat capable of speech, but vulnerable to choking on food?

  • (A.) The recessed tongue and larynx in humans allows for a greater range of speech sounds, and thus greater language efficiency, which must have provided a greater survival advantage than was sacrificed by the choking risk.
  • (B.) The recessed tongue and larynx in humans allows for a greater range of speech sounds, and thus greater language efficiency, which must have improved humans’ ability to court mates, and thus made up for the greater incident of choking death with an increased birthrate.
  • (C.) Early human ancestors needed to communicate to hunt effectively, and also needed large mouths and throats to chew and swallow raw meat, thus making it advantageous to combine language interfaces in the mouth and throat with masticatory and digestive functions, despite the choking drawback.
  • (D.) The development of language interfaces in human ancestors enlarged the mouth, tongue, throat, and larynx, which coincidentally allowed them to eat different kinds of food, such as raw animal meat and tough roots and nuts; these new food sources provided a greater survival advantage than was lost to the additional choking hazard.

(9.) All of the following are reasons computers have a difficult time processing language EXCEPT:

  • (A.) Although written language is separated by spaces to delineate different words, speech has no such pauses for the most part, and thus computers struggle to discern where one word begins and another ends.
  • (B.) The principle of coarticulation demonstrates that what humans perceive as the same sounds can actually be quite different depending on which vowels follow which consonants in a given context.
  • (C.) Figurative or metaphorical content, or contextual knowledge about human behavior, is nearly impossible for computers to comprehend, as the basic rules and structure of language are used very flexibly in normal speech to make different points and effects.
  • (D.) The processing power of the human brain has not yet been matched by a dedicated language processing computer, and until such a unit is created a computer will not be able to effectively understand language on the fly.

(10.) Which of the following sentences would a computer be most likely to understand given the nature of language pragmatics?

  • (A.) “Have someone proofread this report for me, but make sure that the person you choose doesn’t adhere to the wrong style book.”
  • (B.) “Please bring me two of the biggest menu items you’ve got, because I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”
  • (C.) “Please take me to the 14th floor and inform Mr. Carmichael that I have arrived for our appointment.”
  • (D.) “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”

Answer Key: (1.) D, (2.) C, (3.) D, (4.) A, (5.) B, (6.) B, (7.) C, (8.) A, (9.) B, (10.) C

Reading Quiz

This quiz is based on:

Course Pack: Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: HarperCollins.1994/2007. (Chapters 1, 2 & 4)

(1.) Which of the following statements would Steven Pinker most likely agree with?

  • (A.) Human language is best understood as a cognitive component of human psychology.
  • (B.) Human language is a cultural object that exists solely in the learned usage of living societies.
  • (C.) Human language is an innate proclivity similar to the instinct dogs have to bury bones.
  • (D.) Human language has degraded over the last fifty years as educational standards have declined and popular culture has encouraged poor usage.

(2.) How does the example of deaf children who learn fluid sign language from pidgin-signing parents inform the debate about universal grammar?

  • (A.) Pidgin sign language lacks the complexity and consistency of a genuine language, but deaf children are able to transform this into rich language with no other inputs.
  • (B.) The nature of sign language is fundamentally different from spoken languages, so individual cases such as children who modify “pidgin” sign language do not ultimately provide evidence of universal grammar one way or the other.
  • (C.) Many deaf people do not learn sign language until adolescence or later, and are rarely able to become fluent. The children of such parents learn the pidgin form of the language, indicating that grammar itself is not innate if not learned as a child from a competent source.
  • (D.) Deaf children of deaf parents who only speak pidgin sign language are able to independently reconstruct the full language, and then teach it back to the parents, indicating that children have a universal grammar that can rub off on older pidgin speakers.

(3.) Victims of brain damage and genetic disorders shed light on the nature of language in all of the following ways EXCEPT:

  • (A.) Children with certain forms of mental retardation are able to develop expansive grammatical abilities and impressive vocabularies despite having IQs in the 50s and not being able to perform any other tasks.
  • (B.) Stroke victims who experience aphasia (loss of language) do not demonstrate any other drops in cognitive ability.
  • (C.) People who suffer from Specific Language Impairment are able to live normal lives and demonstrate normal intelligence in non-linguistic tasks, and the high incident of heritability suggests the disorder is genetic.
  • (D.) People who suffer from oxygen deprivation receive fairly evenly dispersed brain damage, and demonstrate lowered functionality in both linguistic and general cognitive tasks.

(4.) Word-chain devices fail to provide an adequate model of language for all of the following reasons EXCEPT:

  • (A.) Word-chain devices are only as good as the constituent lists are up-to-date; devices quickly become outmoded as new words enter the language and usage changes
  • (B.) Word-chain devices do not have a structure-dependent “memory” that allows them to fit early sentence construction in with later word lists.
  • (C.) Word-chain devices often produce syntactically correct, natural-sounding sentences that are completely meaningless.
  • (D.). Long-distance dependencies common in spoken language would require word-chain devices of sufficient complexity to be impossible for a human to process.

(5.) What is the difference between deep-structure and surface-structure in grammar and syntax?

  • (A.) Deep-structure consists of rules governed by verbs, which dictate which nouns are to be used in a sentence, while surface-structure sets the word order and case markers to optimize contextual meaning.
  • (B.) Deep-structure consists of verbs and prepositions, which rigidly control how a sentence is structured, while surface-structure counteracts this rigidity by assigning new content words to expand the sentence.
  • (C.) Deep-structure consists of content words and the prepositions that assign case markers, while surface-structure translates these objects into intelligible speech by assigning the correct verbs.
  • (D.) Deep-structure is the element of language that children are born with, and controls universal grammar, while surface-structure is the mental lexicon children learn from experience, which allows the deep-structure to form sentences.

Answer Key: (1.) C, (2.) A, (3.) B, (4.) D, (5.) A