Interdisciplinary approach to the study of language helps Rutgers undergrad

By Jenna Schaal-O’Connor

I like to think of my interest in language as a disguised interest in being human, of which language happens to be the defining aspect:  from a finite set of words and a finite set of rules stored in a finite pile of carbon-based molecules comes an infinite language, an infinite mind, and everything those have enabled us to create, and how? It’s crazy that for over 50 thousand years of human language, the modern scientific study of it began only about 50 years ago.  All this vastness and newness had me thrilled to study linguistics.  So when I came to Rutgers as a freshman, I immediately enrolled in 201, eager to start my career as a linguistics major.  I loved the puzzles of discovering underlying phonological forms, drawing syntactic trees, and figuring out entailments.  But after solving these puzzles, I still wondered about how these processes were instantiated in the brain or how the sentence related to its topic.

For all its insightful glory, linguistic theory does not answer/ask ask all the important questions about language and the mind.  Fortunately, I have found that Rutgers has faculty investigating language in several departments at the Center for Cognitive Science.  For years, my language learning was based on the “x means y” formula, pairing “gato” and “cat,”…but what does it mean to mean something?  How are linguistic terms connected to each other and to the world?  How are language and thought related?  Taking classes in philosophy of language and psychology has proven to be valuable in addressing these questions and has left me wanting to know more.  It is very difficult to fathom how humans have created so much meaning from so much nothing, but the interdisciplinary approach at Rutgers has helped me make headway in  understanding.

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