Psycholinguistic Secrets: The Mysterious Workings of Words and the Mind

What happens to your heart when it undergoes too much stress? Is it possible to exercise too much? And why might a fit, healthy young athlete suffer a heart attack mid-match? Discover the answers to all of these questions and more in episode 9, with Yasmin Dickinson, PhD in cardiovascular medicine. Plus, we address the issue of unstable research contracts, and ask ‘how do you find a balance between real life and academia?’
Hilary Wynne

Full transcription of the interview


Jordan: [00:00:00] Every week, every day, there are discoveries that will shape our future. The Research Beat, brought to you by Audemic, speaks to the unsung heroes of groundbreaking research and those laying the foundations for the advances of tomorrow. Why? Because we believe The more we discover, the more we connect the dots, the more we push our understanding of the world forward…

Today’s guest is Dr. Hilary Wynne, post-doctoral researcher in Psycholinguistics at the University of Oxford.

Hello, curious minds and welcome to the research beat with me, Jordan Kruszynski. Today’s guest is Hilary Wynne, [00:01:00] senior postdoctoral researcher in Psycholinguistics at the University of Oxford, where she’s carrying out an array of fascinating experiments on all kinds of language features. So Hilary, welcome to the show.

Hilary: Thank you, Jordan. It’s great to be here. 

Jordan: Lovely to have you. So Hilary, let’s go straight into this and can you tell me:


What exactly is psycholinguistics? 


Hilary: Yeah. So psycholinguistics is a sort of part of linguistics where we focus on the psychology of language, uh, the psychological processes that make it possible for humans to understand language, to master language, to use language.

Uh, so we focus on comprehension, so understanding and listening and hearing. Production speaking like we’re doing right now, and first and second language acquisition. So when children learn languages as infants and likewise, uh, when adults learn languages too.

Jordan: So the mind is not something that we can see, no. We can hear language, but [00:02:00] we cannot see the mind. So:


How exactly do you study the connection between the mind and language?


Hilary: Sure. So we actually use a lot of, uh, psychology based techniques. So the best sort of description I can give you of that is the first five minutes of Ghostbusters . They’re using some psychology experiments where he’s showing cards to people and the person has to guess the numbers on the cards.

And that’s a very sort of, you know, easy way to describe what we. But we, we use a variety of methodologies to look at this. We use behavioral tasks where people, you know, will either see a picture or a word and they’ll have to, you know, respond with what they see or what they’ve heard. We can. See how different processes work in terms of interaction between semantic meaning, um, so if things are related to one another through meaning, um, an example would be dog and cat, or dog and hound, dog and puppy.

And we can [00:03:00] also look if there’s sort of effects of how words are made up of sounds. So you can use dog and dot and see if that that helps people respond faster or slower. We also use brain imaging techniques and the main ones we use are E-E-G, which is uh, electro ence. Um, and I’ll talk a little bit more about that later when I talk about one of the studies that we’re running.

But that’s basically looking at electrical signals that are coming off the brain. We use m r I, so functional, m r i, when we can get time in the machines, it’s hard to get time , um, in those machines cuz obviously they’re also, uh, based up at the hospitals here in Oxford. And we do eye tracking. So we, we follow people’s vision and.

Focus when they read a sentence or when they look at pictures that might be related when they produce language. So yeah, we do all sorts of things involving speaking, listening, thinking. Yeah. [00:04:00] 

Jordan: Fascinating. And it must be fairly funny when the linguists turn up at the hospital.

Hilary: It’s pretty funny because they’re always curious about what, what are we studying?

What are you guys doing? Like why do you have them Just listening to noise and sounds and uh, yeah. So our other joke is that if you just walk around. Linguistics department. The linguistics faculty, particularly in our lab, you just hear people making noises at their desks, because we’re just trying out all the different stimuli we’re using or we’re, you know, making words up.

So you just hear people just going blip all the time.

Jordan: Wow. It sounds like one of the most interesting departments in the whole university, to be honest. And in these simple kind of tests that you described. So you, you might be giving people images or particular sounds. So from their perspective, it’s a very simple operation, but behind the scenes you are gonna be having all kinds of thoughts, taking all kinds of measurements and notes and, and making elaboration from this, right.

Hilary: Right. [00:05:00] And um, often we have people come in to do these tasks and they’re very curious what they are, but we can’t tell them too much about them beforehand, otherwise they’ll guess what they’re doing. So it’s, it’s a bit of a puzzle or a bit of a, a game sometimes for them to, you know, respond. You know, they could be doing a task where they have to.

Read a word on the screen and say whether or not it’s a word in English. So you get, you know, very simple words or very sort of advanced words, very complicated words, or just complete nonsense words. And we use those tasks to look at how words are related to one another in terms of storage in the brain.

Jordan: So are you ever, ever able to take any of the kind of understanding that you gain in the, in the lab or in the, the testing rooms and apply it to real life? Are you able to understand some things about people just by listening to them? 

Hilary: Yeah, absolutely. So a really good example of that is that, you know, when you’re in a crowded room, a bar or a coffee shop, and there’s [00:06:00] a lot of chatter behind you and there’s a lot of noise, a lot of talking.

We can’t always pick out everything that someone’s saying to us. If we’re speaking to someone, you know, you, you miss parts of words, you miss entire words, but you’re usually able to figure out what the person’s saying even if you can’t hear it all. And uh, we do that by just. Our knowledge, our inherent knowledge of what we’ve learned from our languages, we’re able to fill in those holes that we’re not able to hear just based on what we know to expect that’s coming next in the sentence, or you know, the context of what we’re talking about.

Our brains are very good at filling in these holes. That’s pretty cool. 

Jordan: That’s a really interesting point, and I know it myself, that when you have enough knowledge of a language, that tipping point where you’re just able to work out the meaning of the sentence. Mm-hmm. , but if you don’t have that level of knowledge yet, then maybe you’re in a foreign country or something like this, then.

Hilary: It’s challenging. Of course. Yeah, exactly. [00:07:00] And um, so we, we look at how does the brain know to do this mm-hmm. , like what are the cues that it picks up for this? So that’s just one of the things we look at . 

Jordan: It’s absolutely incredible how the mind works with language to build this picture. And actually that ties into our next question.

So we’d love to know:


What is the most interesting of the studies that you’ve carried out so far into language? 


Hilary: Sure. Yeah. So I mean, they’re all interesting in their own different ways, depending on , whether or not the technology is working or, you know, the computers are doing what we want them to do. But we’re actually running an experiment right now, and this is an e e G experiment.

And so we have people come into the lab and they sit in one of our, um, recording booths, and these booths are all sort of, you know, Nicely arranged so that there’s no sound interference and there’s no sort of electrical interference. And what we do is we put a cap on their head. So this is [00:08:00] that methodology I was talking about before, e e g Electroencephalograph, which, you know, try to say that three times really hard.

And, uh, this measures sort of electrical signals coming off the brain, and we can tell based on where on the scalp we’re getting the most signals into whether or not we’re tapping into that language. Faculty. So we have people come in for this experiment right now, and, uh, they sit down, we put the cap on their head, and, uh, they just sit there for about 45 minutes watching a nature film.

So a very sort of bland, straightforward, simple, relaxing nature film. And they’re listening at the same time in headphones to different. Words. But the thing is, all of these words are not real words in English. They’re they’re pseudo words or fake words, and within these words, we alter certain aspects of either the beginning of the word, the middle of the word, or the end of the word, to [00:09:00] see if the violation in terms of what makes the word and what makes a non-word or what makes it violating to see whether or not.

One type of construction will violate more than the other. So whenever we’ve run experiments, we, we have silly little names for them until we, we publish them. And this one, I, I tend to call the worse worser and worstest , um, in terms of, you know, what we’re hoping to find from that. But yeah, it’s really cool.

I think we’re gonna get some good results. 

Jordan: And in that particular experiment, the visual element, the nature documentary? Yeah. Is that playing any kind of part or is it just to relax the participants? 

Hilary: So when we run these experiments, it’s very important that the participants sit still because any sort of movement will.

Register on the, the scalp. You know, either even if you squish your face up, if you smile, if you chew any of those things, will will show sort of a, what’s called an [00:10:00] artifact. Just just a messy sort of response that we’re not getting the waves we want to get. So in order to. Help us , you know, get as clean data as possible.

Um, we ask them to sit very still and so that they don’t fall asleep. , we, we give them something to watch because otherwise they’re just sitting there listening to, to strange noises for 45 minutes without being able to move. And I can tell you, I have had people fall asleep before. 

Jordan: It sounds relaxing. I can see it happening.

Hilary: It’s really relaxing. Um, unless you choose one of the nature video discs with animals, you’re scared of . 

Jordan: Yep. Has that happened to somebody? 

Hilary: Yeah. Me, . So occasionally I go in and test them to make sure things are working. And I did one of the test experiments and I’m terrified of monkeys and one of the disks was like monkeys of the world.

And I was just like, Ugh. Monkeys. 

Jordan: Yeah. Terrifying [00:11:00] experience. Yeah. Indeed, indeed. So this is a really interesting experiment. You are seeing if these violations of language. Pick up something in the imaging. Mm-hmm. and it, this in itself is such a minute area of language. Language is incredibly vast. There’s so much to understand mm-hmm.

and to learn. When you, yourself and other linguists add together all of the work you do:


Are you in essence trying to understand how languages fundamentally work? 


Hilary: Yes. So in. You know, linguistics is very much theory driven. Mm-hmm. , there are a lot of theories and we’re talking like hard, sort of logical theories about how languages are built, how the structures behind them are built.

How sounds feed into shapes of words and sentences. And so what we’re looking for is actually the psychological reality that these theories are standing up to. You know, whatever we can do to try to, to [00:12:00] get evidence for that. So we’re trying to find really solid evidence for how the brain is responding to these theories. And that’s the side of it.

Jordan: I suppose in the past when we didn’t have this kind of technological devices available to us. Language study looked rather different because you couldn’t measure the signals of the brain.

Hilary: It’s true, it’s true. So, um, these methodologies and these technologies that we have now are groundbreaking and.

Every year they’re becoming more and more detailed and fantastic to use, but you also have to train yourselves on them and, you know, continuously learn more and more. But, you know, 60, 70 years ago, it was still very much a, you know, Watching in terms of human behavior, how people respond. There was no easy way to quantify that, uh, numerically.

And now we have multiple ways to do that, which are very good. 

Jordan: So are modern linguists having to train [00:13:00] themselves to use these technologies? 

Hilary: Um, some are. Um, so linguistics is a massive. You have people who are philologists, so they study, uh, the history of language. And you may have people who specialize in Sanskrit or you know, ancient Greek, ancient Latin, uh, different types of Latin.

And at the same time you have Ians who are really focused on the physical aspects of how we speak, looking at the mouth. Um, here at Oxford, we have , two scientific laboratories that study language within our faculty. And one is the lab I work in, which is the language and brain lab.

And then there’s also the phonetics lab and they’re very, uh, Over there, they are really focused on the vocal tract, on the muscles, on how we actually articulate. We’re looking more at how sort of we process and plan. So we do work together, but we kind of look at different things. But yes, linguistics is huge.[00:14:00] 

Jordan: again, it’s this incredible complexity. So not only the. On the mind, there’s a physical element in the movement of the mouth, and even with gesture, what your hands, what your body is doing while you talk. 

Hilary: Yes. So, um, this is something I talk about a lot with my, my students, is the different ways we communicate.

And I am very handsy when I talk, uh, when I give lectures, when I talk to friends, I’m, my hands are everywhere. Like I’m doing it right now, . Um, because I, I don’t know whether I just can’t sit still or I find it easier to be emphatic with my hands as well as my face. But we all have very sort of personal ways in which we talk and communicate.

And this can be different depending on sort of the culture you’re from. The people you’re speaking to, the speech communities you’re in, and you know, there’s such fascinating things being done with the sociolinguistic aspects of language as well. 

Jordan: So Hilary, your work [00:15:00] is amazingly varied. Yeah. and you are dealing with a lot of different fields.

So we’re going to have a look at a few of these:


Could you tell us what is multilingualism? 


Hilary: Sure. So multilingualism is the use of more than one language. Mm-hmm. , and, uh, either by a single person, so an individual speaker, or by a group of speakers. And our world, as you well know, is becoming increasingly multilingual.

In fact, it’s no longer the norm to be monolingual. Uh, you get a really. Big drive for parents to want to raise their children in multilingual communities so that the children are hearing all of these, uh, languages at the same time. So it’s now, unfortunately, I speak , not unfortunately, but I, I only have one other language.

I speak, I would say partially fluently, and that’s only when I use it, and that’s French. I was not raised in a multilingual community, and every day I cry because of it. . 

Jordan: So [00:16:00] Multilingualism, could this. Having knowledge of two or three distinct languages, or could it be an instance of using two or three different languages within the same conversation or something like this?

Mm-hmm. . 

Hilary: Yeah. Both of those things are within sort of the study and realm of multilingualism. When you use more than one language at, in a, in a sort of a given conversation, that’s called code switching, and that’s just switching back and forth and people can do it without even realizing it. Occasionally you’ll hear someone speaking English and a German word will find its way in, or a Portuguese word will find its way in and the person doesn’t even know they’re consciously doing it just because you know the ways in which those two languages are interacting in.

The brain, in the part of the brain that prepares language and accesses those mental dictionaries of all the words we’ve learned during our life, they sometimes get confused. . Yeah. And, and, and the ways in which they’re confused are fascinating too. People do a lot of work on that. . 

Jordan: I [00:17:00] actually have some knowledge of this because I’ve, I’ve done it myself.

Really? I mean, I have used in one conversation, English, Spanish, and Italian together. Wow. out outta necessity because, Latin is the, ancestor of both Spanish and Italian. If I don’t know a particular Italian word, then I might use the Spanish one or convert the Spanish one into what I think is the Italian one to try to fill in the gap in the conversation.

Hilary: That’s amazing. That’s great. I mean, and also sort of sometimes you make errors when you’re speaking. Mm-hmm. and half the word will be in one language and the other half will be in the other. Um, so an example of this, when I was in France a couple years ago, I said, Luk instead of milk because I put le and milk.

But together somehow, I dunno even how I got those words out together, those, those that mix up. But, um, I’m always interested to see, you know, the mistakes that happen when we, you know, when we’re talking. 

Jordan: It’s amazing that , those mistakes could be a field of study in themselves [00:18:00] because it’s just so interesting to see what comes out of this, like this swirling vortex.

Hilary: Yeah. There are still patterns and rules that dictate where these interactions and where these errors and how the errors occur. So there will be certain errors that will never happen or almost never happen, and then there’ll be some that you do get all the time. So we tend to, uh, make mistakes at the beginnings of words, the onsets of words a lot, you know?

Stutter or restart or just use the wrong buff. And we still manage to, to get our point across most of the time . 

Jordan: And sometimes too, I think it’s like you say , you get off to the start and then about a second later you realize, oh, did I just. Did I just make some kind of mistake?

Hilary: And so, yeah. And right now I have my students, uh… my undergraduate students are doing a little data collection project and I’ve sent them out to collect errors that their friends [00:19:00] and, you know, people around them make when they’re speaking.

And this is great until they’re sitting there in class writing down all the errors. I’m making . So I’m really conscious every time I make a mistake. 

Jordan: You’ve gotta be careful. Yeah, I know. . So looking at this big picture mm-hmm. of multiple languages…


Can we say that some languages are overlooked when compared to others?


Hilary: Think particularly in sort of the field of psychology and any sort of behavioral human research field, you do have a lack of diversity in terms of representation of the data that people are giving or showing. So unfortunately, we have a lot of studies that are on English. We have a lot of studies on German.

We have far fewer studies on languages from the global south, from the. You get very, very few studies on, you know, anything that isn’t, I would say European, and this is actually something that has [00:20:00] been recognized, um, not just in linguistics, but sort of everywhere. Because if you think about when we run these experiments and when we recruit these people to come in and do our experiments, well, they’re all gonna be university students or staff, especially at Oxford.

That’s if we’re trying to say that our data is representing the world that really isn’t working. , if it’s just a group of, you know what, um, is actually, there’s an acronym for this and it’s the acronym that’s, it’s weird, so W E I R D and it stands for Western Educated, industrialized Rich, and Democratic Societies.

And they found in sort of looking at psychology studies and. Social science studies that as much as 80% of all these study participants are from sort of weird populations. So now they’re actually, yeah, they’re from, like I said, university, [00:21:00] university populations, and interestingly enough, they’ve also found that undergraduates, particularly American undergraduates, Are not very well representative of, of the world as a whole.

So we suffer not only from a surplus of data on, you know, certain languages, but also the populations we’re studying. Um, we have a lot of sort of, I think overlooking of some very important languages and also researchers and research that has been done in those languages and. 

Jordan: In this worldwide picture, is it that there is simply a lot more work being done into say English.

Or specific Western languages. Yeah. So that even if we took all the data and understanding and knowledge from the various countries around the world, we’d still see that we’ve got more, well, we 

Hilary: also suffer from the issue that most of the funding, most of the money is in the global north and it’s, it’s attached to [00:22:00] research institutions that.

Predominantly, you know, Germanic speaking communities or you know, English or German, Portuguese, Spanish, uh, we’re getting into romance there, but you have sort of a sort of vicious cycle, I would say, in the sense that, you know, we’re just kind of continuing to test English, learn English, get data from English speakers, and then you.

Again, you can’t argue that all language works like English does. Um, so that’s something our lab actually really is trying to address. We have research partnerships around the world and several ones that I think are the most. Impressive. And definitely the most interesting are the ones that we have in India.

So we work with researchers in Calcutta. Um, and we’ve worked with, uh, university of Calcutta and so we go over there every year and do field work, and they work with us and we publish together. Um, we’re [00:23:00] hoping to publish together next year some of the data that we’ve looked at, and it’s just a way in which we’re able.

Not only share knowledge, but use what they have, which is a wealth of information and, and knowledge and training.

Jordan: So Hilary, in this next section mm-hmm. , we’re going to talk a little bit about some of the biggest issues for you in academia today. And our first question. In your view:


What are the problems facing humanities in today’s academic environment? 


Hilary: Uh, how long do you have? No, I’m kidding. . Um, so yes, there [00:24:00] is no arguing that humanities as a, you know, area of focus is kind of bleak at the moment. The employment prospects of those graduating with degrees in humanities are nowhere near as strong as STEM heavy subjects, but at the same time, We are very good at understanding maybe why things happen, how things happen, and sort of exchanging knowledge in the sense that we have, you know, historians have access to, to information throughout the ages.

And I mean, I think it’s a really good example that not all humanities just sit around reading books. I, I have a couple books behind me, but, uh, I mostly work off of articles. People I speak to who are in STEM are very shocked that I know what coding is that I use Python. And you can get training in all of these things and you can learn all of these things In humanities, [00:25:00] there’s nothing stopping you.

So I think that one of the biggest problems that we’re facing now is that. Just sort of corral ourselves into this tiny area in which we’re just expected to sit in libraries and read books. But in reality, humanities isn’t like that anymore at all. We’re still reading books. We still love our libraries, but there’s a lot of work going on with digital humanities, with, you know, looking at for evidence, for solid evidence of the things that we have seen happen in art, in culture, in history, in literature, in languages.

So I think the future of the humanities is very much tied to us proving that we’re here for a reason and we actually do something. We show something, we have something to show for what we’re doing, and we do. We have amazing things. There are, you know, huge cappo of digitalized manuscripts that we’re never available before.

Now everybody can just go online and look at them. It’s amazing. People are able to use you. [00:26:00] AI techniques to see patterns that never could have been seen before to do this. And likewise, you know, when you talk about speech recognition is a huge area for us. Everybody wants to know about Siri, everybody wants to know about Alexa.

How we get computers to understand what we’re saying. Well, you can’t just pour data in without there being a structure to that. And that’s a lot of what humanities does, is it provides the structure for the data to be organized the way it. 

Jordan: I think all of those things you’ve mentioned are so, so important.

The value of the humanities in uncovering mysteries, in filling in the spaces that are unknown. Mm-hmm. in looking into the past, there are so many historical and emotional spaces as well that humanities always seeks to fill. It’s incredibly important. I wonder if you think that there is an issue with.

STEM researchers are often seen as the ones who are making [00:27:00] advances and sort of driving the future, and this leads humanities to be overlooked In some 

Hilary: respects, it is. I mean, we’re constantly trying to prove that we’re still useful, that we’re still applicable, that what we’re doing is not just, you know, head in the clouds things, but like I said, I mean, actually, like you said, the emotional aspect to the things that we do and the ways in which people communicate and the way people act.

You can’t discount that and you can’t discount what we’ve learned through so much history and so much knowledge that, you know, the humanities researchers are very well familiar with. So I, I don’t think that anyone in the human. Does not want to encourage collaboration or knowledge exchange or learn from our stem buddies, or hard science buddies.

Uh, so I think that, you know, we’re all aware that the way forward is to acknowledge the fact that we have to, you know, have something solid, something [00:28:00] real to chauffeur for, for what we’re doing. 

Jordan: Yeah. Very, very important words, I think. So our second question:


What kinds of discrimination exist in academia?


Hilary: So my answer to this was what kinds of discrimination don’t exist in academia? , but that’s true for everywhere. Academia is not on its own in terms of discrimination, but I thought I’d talk about one interesting sort of, Type of discrimination that I’ve noticed a lot more just in my own sort of interactions.

And it’s basically, it’s discrimination based on surnames of researchers who are submitting papers. And oftentimes if you have a foreign sounding surname and you submit a paper or an article or you know something for review for a journal, a lot of times your reviewers will come back to you and tell you, you.

Check your English. You need to check your grammar. This is not well written, and so there have been people that [00:29:00] submit. The same paper with different last names of the main researcher and they get two very different responses just based on that last name. Wow. So we in our lab have a lot of, you know, people who are from all over the place.

And this is great because, you know, linguists languages, we have huge international research group and that includes our students as well. Nobody has an issue with, with writing or speaking in English at this level. And yet some of us will still get back responses that, oh, your grammar is not very good.

Oh, your tenses aren’t correct. Um, and I think that’s, that’s a very, sort of, it’s linked to very serious racial discrimination against researchers. It’s not necessary. It’s not necessary for, for people to be commenting on things like that. So that, that’s just one sort of example. Some discrimination sort of at the research level.

Jordan: Really interesting example there that I wasn’t aware of personally. Mm-hmm. , I mean, if the grammar’s [00:30:00] good, if the spelling’s good, then the grammar’s good and the spelling’s good. That’s sort of thing. 

Hilary: I mean, but likewise, you should read some of my first drafts. Uh, some of them don’t even have verbs in them.

I’m like, you know, I, I try to get my ideas out as quickly as I can, and sometimes I’ll write something like Word do good. More here, . So yeah, I just, you know, I find that to be quite nasty, uh, that sort of thing. 

Jordan: So Hilary, we’re going to have a quick look at a few articles that we’ve chosen and a few of them focusing on your discipline in particular.

The first article we want to look at is one on:


Baby Talk


Jordan: But it’s not the kind of baby talk that you might be thinking of. So this is a study from York and is looking at baby talk across languages. But Hilary, can you tell us what kind of baby talk this is? 

Hilary: Sure. This is what’s called infant directed speech.

So basically when you’re talking to your. You tend to have different pitch contours. You tend to exaggerate certain parts of [00:31:00] words and sounds and phrases. I, I don’t have children and, but I think I do this when I speak to dogs . Um, not in the same sense that I’m trying to speak in like very simple ways cuz you know, dogs are not babies.

Um, but I can tell you definitely my pitch contours changed dramatically when I’m like, oh my God, a doggy. Yay. But what they found, and this is a fascinating sort of study they did with kids, and they found that , these characteristics of how parents and caregivers speak to their children versus how they speak to one another by being more sort of, you know, exaggerated by directing things simply towards the baby.

That the babies have preferences for this type of speech. They find it easier and they find it more accessible, and they find it more helpful for them to, to communicate with the caregiver at , these young ages. It’s 

Jordan: really interesting. What, what do you think it’s telling us that we are seeing the same features across [00:32:00] multiple languages.

What is it fundamentally that makes this kind of language, this style useful or natural for talking to 

Hilary: babies? Yeah, so there’s definitely something in there that, uh, first of all, this is universal, which is huge importance that this isn’t just related to a language that might be syllable structurally, uh, it’s just sill.

Like English, but tonal as well. So Mandarin, Chinese beam tonal that we’re seeing, you know, the same sorts of responses is that there’s a clear preference for little baby humans to be able to process and take in all those words and those phrases and those combinations in a way that’s maybe a bit simpler or maybe just a bit more straightforward or less noisy in the sense that there’s not a lot of complex in these structures at that point. I think it’s, it’s a lovely study. 

Jordan: sAbsolutely. Yeah. I think as you say, really slowing down the structure of the language to make it more understandable for the young mind. Yeah. [00:33:00].

Okay. Moving on to our second piece and something very different here. Yeah. This is from McGill University, and this is all:


AI and its ability to learn the patterns of human language


Jordan: So what do you think about this?

Hilary: So this is good, this is good. Uh, I talk about this with my students. Um, when we, we talk about language acquisition and whether or not computers can learn language in the same way, and I think that one of the biggest problems that AI and computers might have in the sense is, The way we speak is very, very varied, very varied.

Um, we never say the same word exactly the same way, even if we’re the same speaker. Like even there’s just minute differences that you can see on a waveform if you look at it. Yeah. In a recording, speakers articulate very quickly. We talk very quickly. I usually, if I’m with my friends and they’re also American, [00:34:00] California English speakers, we’ve run all of our words together and it’s like, well, yeah, what did you, yeah,

Um, and it’s very hard, I think, to, to parse things that way. Generally, environments are very, very noisy in which you hear language in which people are interacting. So this also affects how things sound, how, how we phrase things, how we speak. And the sounds in the words are not always discreet. You can’t always separate them, and if you’re training AI or a model based on just pouring as much data into it as possible, will you ever be able to fully train it to the extent that a human mind can? Figure out these variations and figure this out. So there’s a great example I have of a tweet. Somebody recently showed from an ai, which, which you sort of, you feed a prompt into it and it generates a picture, um, or a painting basically.

So the prompt that was fed in was salmon swimming upstream and what the [00:35:00] computer, uh, or what the AI generated. Salmon fills, so like pieces of salmon on a plate going upstream. It’s hysterical. I actually want the painting on my wall because I think it’s, it’s, it’s fantastic, but. Trying to teach a computer that salmon is different than salmon, cooked.

Salmon is different than salmon. The fish, I mean, the semantic complexity of the way in which we, we, you know, store meanings to words, I mean, let alone how they sound, is hard. So I don’t know if we’re quite at that level yet. We’re trying very. 

Jordan: Well, it’s, adding another layer of complexity to the whole thing.

Mm-hmm. , because if we’re studying how language works in the mind of a human, and then we go to the next level of, well, this machine or this AI program produced this pattern, so why did it produce that pattern? Is. Ever increasing 

Hilary: complexity. Indeed, indeed. And you have, you know, Google and uh, hugging face, these companies are feeding billions of [00:36:00] parameters and gigabytes worth of data into these models to get them trained, to get them more and more information.

And it’s stunning what they can do, but it’s also interesting what they can’t do yet. 

Jordan: So, moving on to the third piece, and this is a little bit broader. Mm-hmm. This one is from Chemistry World (‘Class still a barrier to success in academia, survey finds’):


Is class still a barrier to success in academia?


Jordan: Hilary, what are your thoughts on this one?

Hilary: I think it’s very true, particularly students and early career researchers and. You know, even, even academic faculty from working class backgrounds or as we call, you know, people who are from first generation academics, so their parents didn’t complete university or go to university. My mother never went to to uni.

Um, my dad did. He became a lawyer and I like to tease him whether or not law school is really graduate school. But I think that, you know, this ties into a lot of assumptions and a lot of ways in which. [00:37:00] Things occur at the academic level and certainly at the higher education level that leads to people feeling left.

And out of place in academic settings, particularly at Oxbridge. So Oxford is . You know, this concept of Oxford being, you know, the, the colleges and the halls and Christchurch and you know, these very, you know, hallowed halls of academia that a lot of people who are here don’t feel particularly at home and they feel quite out of place.

And I mean, an example is, you know, I. I was sitting at dinner with two of the heads of, uh, different colleges and they were talking with each other and they were talking with me about what I had done over the summer and what they did over the summer. So what they did over the summer is they went to their summer houses in Italy and played tennis.

And then they asked me what I did, and I looked at them and I said, I didn’t do anything. I stayed in Oxford and worked. So, um, it’s very different worlds, I think. And when those worlds collide and when they [00:38:00] clash, you feel very uncomfortable and out of place and a bit depressed because you know, where’s, where’s my summer house in Italy?

Jordan: I know what you said there about first generation students because if you are the first in your family to go in to the world of academia, then it really is a completely new world to you. Yeah. And , you don’t necessarily have the benefit of the experience coming down from the older generation.

No. Mental preparation. It’s. Can be alien. Mm-hmm. 

Hilary: to a person like that. And my experience with those students and with those researchers, are they the hardest working and they hold themselves to the highest standards? I think overall I’ve, I’ve seen, you know, so many students of this caliber that really give themselves a hard time and are some of my best, best students and produce the best work.

And they still think it’s terrible and then, you know, it breaks my heart. I have to. It’s a real credit…

Jordan: What you say there that that kind of feeling of wanting to do as well as they can is a real credit to [00:39:00] them.

Hilary: Absolutely. 

Jordan: So Hilary, we’ll close the show with a few final questions:


Who is your research champion? 


Hilary: So this is a great question because I actually just saw him, um, recently. He, uh, is my undergraduate professor from Wheaton College in Massachusetts where I did my bachelor’s in literature. And let’s just say that I wasn’t the , the most focused student as an undergrad. I had a lot of sort of, directions I wanted to go or didn’t wanna go.

And I found out quite quickly that nobody cared if I, if I skipped class, um, if I just didn’t show up. And so I was a bit of a wayward student at this stage. And then I met my, sort of my mentor, um, Michael Drout, and he’s been professor of English at Wheaton College now. Oh my gosh, if I say how many years, then you’ll know how old I am.

But, uh, for [00:40:00] a long time and he has still been a very, very big sort of driving force in my life. A very good friend, a mentor, and has seen me through all of my, my degrees to where I am now. And I actually was just able to catch up with him for … last week. 

Jordan: It’s a lovely story and I think it’s nice to have in your academic journey, a steady presence, somebody who can kind of help you to direct your energy and start walking in the right direction.

Hilary: Uh, for sure, for sure. And it’s great because he’ll send me students now to work with over the summer for like summer placements. Um, and he has some great stories about how badly behaved I was as an undergrad, so that’s always fun. But no, it’s, it’s, he has been a fantastic person to have in my life for.

Jordan: Uh, very broad question, possibly an existential one, but:


Why does research matter?


Hilary: So this is interesting because I’ve just applied to take part in AHRC, which is the Arts and Humanities Research Council[00:41:00] sort of governance program, um, here in the UK to interact with policy makers. Like, so government people, people actually changing things at the policy level.

And this was something that I wasn’t particularly familiar with in terms of trying to make my research applicable to, to the real world, to trying to get those links there. But I think that, you know, not only can our, our research in the humanities sort of. You know, support a range of different outputs, uh, bring new perspectives to understanding research findings, um, but also to engage other disciplines, for example.

You know, there is a particular challenge in the medical fields where adults rely on children for language brokering in situations where the parent might not be a native speaker of the language. So if the parent is going to the doctor, parent will bring the child and the child will translate for the parent both ways and these sorts of sort [00:42:00] of, you know, ways in which language is interacting sort of outside of, you know, the general realms of just humanities.

I mean, we use language every day. You. We can understand the how and why of all these communication strategies by understanding that language doesn’t exist and avoid, it doesn’t happen and void. It’s continuously being acquired, it’s changing, it’s being used and adjusted by humans all the time. And we can apply this knowledge to real life effects that take place in communication.

And that’s just, you know, we can do all of this by, by stepping outside. Getting some knowledge exchange with individuals who are outside of academia who are in the professional world and the policy wor world. So it does matter. You know, we’re the ones who find a lot of evidence for things. Uh, we’re the diggers I would say.

Jordan: So Hilary, finally:


How can our listeners reach you?


Hilary: So listeners can reach me if they want to contact me either by email. [00:43:00] So if you literally go onto Google and search Hilary Wynne at Oxford, you should pop up all of my contact details.

I have LinkedIn, you can find me there. Email, Twitter, I’m on most of the social media platforms except TikTok. I haven’t quite figured out TikTok yet. Uh, maybe that’s for the New Year. But, um, yes, you can always, always find me and I, I do endeavor to, to reply somewhat quickly, but if it’s term time, as you well know, I get a lot of emails, so it may take a little longer, but you can, always message me.

Jordan: Well, Hilary, thank you so much for coming on the show today. It’s been an absolute pleasure to have you. 

Hilary: Thank you so much, Jordan. It’s been a lot of fun talking about all these different things!

Jordan: The more on Hilary, you can find her on Twitter or LinkedIn, or search for Dr. Hilary Wynne and to listen to more research like hers, take notes and share.

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