As promised last week, today’s Cam Lang Sci post brings you a report on ‘Language Detectives’, a public engagement event some folks here in Cambridge’s linguistics department put on on Saturday as part of the University’s Festival of Ideas.
I’m happy to say that 4 talks, 14 activities, 40 volunteers, and in the realm of 200 visitors or so later (we lost count), we can call it a success. Many people – local and not so local, young and not so young – came and participated, trying their hand at something new or learning something interesting from linguistics research. We haven’t had the time to crunch the numbers from all the feedback forms yet, but the overall impression is that most people found it “enjoyable, interactive and fun”, as one guest put it.
Particular highlights seem to have been: finding out about neural networks in a series of challenges that pitted the human mind against neural nets; cracking some patterns in Inuktitut orthography – and then writing your name in Inuktitut; puzzling over the stroop effect or how we recognise words in some classic psycholinguistic experiments; and discovering in lingquiztics that English is in fact not the language with the most native speakers (do you know which is?). The phonetics lab had panpipes made of straws to demonstrate how pitch varies, spectograms to ‘see’ you voice and an artificial larynx that lets you talk without making a sound. The maps of Cambridge showing visitors’ first and second languages soon filled up, showing a wealth of linguistic knowledge across the city: French, Greek, Mandarin, Polish, Afrikaans, Farsi, Vietnamese, Spanish, Serbian, Catalan, Cantonese, Czech, Filipino, German, Brazilian Portuguese, Romanian, Italian, and Dutch. And that’s just first languages! One person’s takeaway was “multilingual is good”!
All in all an exciting – if exhausting – day, which opened up the breadth of linguistics research to a varied audience and, who knows, may have inspired some language detectives of tomorrow.