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What to Expect from Science in 2017: Linguistics

The concept of thought-reading is longer science fiction; computer translation is improving; and linguists are no longer ashamed to ask ‘why people talk the way they do on the Internet’.
Maxim Krongauz

Head of the HSE Laboratory of Linguistic Conflict Resolution Studies and Contemporary Communicative Practices

The first thing I should say is that linguistics isn’t experiencing any major transitions or new trends right now. Rather, it is going through a period of sustainable development. If any breakthroughs are taking place anywhere, it’s definitely in computational linguistics.

This area of study has seen many unexpected achievements, as various language tools are improving year after year. The simplest example of this is automated translation. We can see that, over several years of their use, the translators built into Google and Yandex have changed from a sort of running joke into useful tools, which can be used to prepare text that may require only minor further adjustments. Furthermore, extensive progress has been achieved in speech recognition. As more and more people start to use this tool, its development has become rapid.

Another area, which is really not my field, but I can’t help but mention it, is neurolinguistics, where linguists work in close cooperation with other types of experts. The most interesting and breakthrough thing has been our improving ability to link speech activity with certain brain functions. This technology has been developing very fast, and brain activity studies with the use of various devices have also seen significant progress. Of course, this might be a sort of sensation for journalists, but one of the most promising developments in this field is ‘thought-reading’. We can study brain activity and assume what topical areas are activated and what an individual is thinking about, even if they don’t verbalize it. Something that might have seemed like science fiction until very recently has become a reality, thanks to technological developments.

As for my own research interests and research carried out by the HSE Laboratory of Linguistic Conflict Resolution Studies and Contemporary Communicative Practices, this covers studying language, speech, and texts in a new communicative context. This is not news, but with the emergence of the Internet, the blogosphere, and social networks as part of it, it is key to understand what has been happening with language under these new conditions, as well as how this has changed and why. The question ‘why?’, which linguists have been traditionally reluctant to ask, is today becoming quite important.

Moreover, scholars are trying to track the factors and features of the new communication environment that have led to changes in language and usage. In regards to the Internet, I believe that an essential factor is that a huge, storable mass of language material has been created and is now available. In particular, our biggest interest today is the architecture of communication and its various components.

In addition, there are some other obvious commercial and political tasks, which are supported financially and also have been developing quite rapidly. They include, for example, an attempt to develop textual portraits with the use of texts posted on social media. In particular, the commercial task is to understand what a person of a certain gender and age who writes certain texts on Facebook or Twitter, or clicks ‘like’ on certain things, is likely to buy. So, for instance, should they be offered a soccer ball or a blood pressure cuff? This essentially is an attempt to draw up an individual’s portrait based on their textual activities, while also identifying their preferences, the things they like, they want, and are likely to buy. So, this is an obvious commercial task. As for political tasks, these are mostly related to security and attempts to uncover terrorists and other criminals. I think that these three applications will be actively developed over the coming year.

See also:

  • Guy Deutscher, Through the Language Glass (Heinemann, 2010);
  • Daniel Everett, Don't Sleep, There are Snakes (Pantheon Books, New York, 2008).
  • The books by Deutscher and Everett have been crucial in studies of the correlation between language and thinking.

What to Expect in 2017 — a Research Forecast

On the eve of New Year’s, it is customary to take a look into the near future. We asked HSE experts in various fields to share their forecasts on which areas of research might be the most interesting and promising in 2017. They tell us about what discoveries and breakthroughs await us in 2017, as well as how this could even change our lives.

Read all forecasts

December 26, 2016