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Linguistics professor dissects language to unlearn truth

11 September 2017
Getting down to the truth

Professor Nick Enfield, Director of the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre, explains his interest in linguistics, his goal to unlearn 'truth', and teaches us how to identify bullshit.

Linguistics professor Nick Enfield

What is your background, and why did you decide to join the University?

I grew up in Canberra, where I did my undergraduate degree in Asian studies and linguistics at the Australian National University. I did a PhD in linguistics at the University of Melbourne, and went from there to the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. My postdoc there evolved into a fourteen-year stay as a staff scientist in the Language and Cognition Group, headed by Steve Levinson. In 2010, I started a five-year European Research Council grant called ‘Systems of Language Use’. As I was nearing the end of that project, the job of Professor and Chair of Linguistics was advertised at the University of Sydney. It was a great chance to rejoin the world of research and teaching in Australia. The rest is history.

What appeals to you about the study of linguistics?

Linguistics is a club that only cool kids get into. So I’m afraid I can’t just divulge its many appeals for a public audience. Come and do a major in linguistics if you want to be initiated into the arts and science of research on language. But seriously, the appeal is language itself. Languages are incredibly rich, complex, and beautiful systems with something for everybody. You will find treasures in language, whether you are interested in formal structure, aesthetics, politics, human history, culture, social relations, child development, the human mind, our evolutionary past – you name it. Language is a constant journey of surprise at the realisation of the things you didn’t know you knew. We all use language all the time, but we are gloriously unaware of its inner workings. And there are more than 6000 languages spoken worldwide, most of which are understudied, so there is plenty of work to do.

What have you unlearned recently?

I have two young kids aged between three and four, so every day it seems I unlearn the most everyday things. I see them grapple with new challenges like how to tie shoes, how to pronounce new words, how to ride a scooter, or how to draw eyelashes. Working with them on these things is a constant reminder of the unconscious nature of much of our knowledge and abilities. It’s the wonder of teaching that we learn so much from it. When I struggle to explain something that I intuitively know, I am reminded of my limitations, and often surprised to gain new perspectives.

The essence of unlearning is to unlock our confident beliefs and subject them to scrutiny.
Professor Nick Enfield
newspapers to unlearn truth

Why do you think it’s important to consistently challenge what has been done previously, as an act of unlearning?

Human cognition is full of biases. For example, there is the confirmation bias. When we already hold a certain belief, we will readily and unquestioningly accept evidence and arguments in favour of that belief. But we will treat evidence against that belief with a great deal of scepticism. A range of other biases similarly result in something called ‘lock-off’. This is the process of closing off further consideration of a problem once we have decided what we think, or what we should do. Lock-off is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it reduces the complexity and cost of our decision-making. On the other, it causes us to stop thinking further about a problem, and therefore to become less flexible and less able to learn and adapt. The essence of unlearning is to unlock our confident beliefs and subject them to scrutiny.

What projects are you working on with your colleagues?

We have just started working on an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant titled ‘Do Language Boundaries Stabilise Ethnic Boundaries?’. In this project, I will be working with postgraduate students in the Laos wilderness to describe three minority languages of the country. The languages are spoken by small populations that are in close contact with each other, but that maintain clear distinctions in language and ethnic identity. We want to understand the linguistic diversity of the area and how the maintenance of language distinctions relates to the maintenance of ethnic distinctions. We are also collaborating with colleagues from Bangkok and Hong Kong.

In another project, I am head of a Sydney Research Excellence Initiative 2020 (SREI 2020) grant known as the Post Truth Initiative. With a range of incredible colleagues from across my faculty and beyond, we are looking at today’s crisis of rational discourse and the range of post-truth phenomena known by names such as alternative facts, fake news, propaganda, and bullshit. 

Why is it important to identify bullshit?

Bullshit is awful. It is poison. Human nature is such that we mostly take others’ statements in good faith, and when we speak without concern for the truth we are abusing that good faith. Good decision-making depends on having reliable starting assumptions, and the spread of misinformation, myths, lies, and deceit not only compromises good thinking, it devalues the coin of rational discourse. We need to confront bullshit wherever it is found, especially in public discourse, and we need to strive to make sure that it is regarded as the pollutant that it truly is. In our SREI 2020 project, we are looking at a range of ways to understand and confront the problem, drawing on philosophy, communications, political science, linguistics, and more. In the ‘bullshit detector’ project, we are using tools from linguistics and information technologies to develop a tool that automatically alerts us to the signals of deceptive talk. It’s a hard problem!

What’s interesting about the variations of English around the world, especially Australian English?

Like all languages, English shows variation across the communities that speak it, and it is constantly changing and evolving. English, is, of course, a special case because it is so dominant globally, and it is so well-studied. Australian English reflects a history of population movement and modern dynamics and values in this country. One notable thing about Australian English is that despite the size of the country, there is much less variation in accent here than in other English-speaking areas, such as North America or the United Kingdom. Still, there are subtleties: compare a Sydney and an Adelaide native’s pronunciation of ‘shower’ or ‘wool’, or ask a native Melbournian to tell you the difference between ‘salary’ and ‘celery’. While English is undoubtedly fascinating, we teach linguistics students that English is just another of the world’s 6000 or so languages. If you think English is the model for everything interesting about language, you ain’t seen nothing yet!

Where has your research taken you?

I specialise in mainland southeast Asian languages. My research has taken me to many far-flung villages of mainland southeast Asia over the years, mostly in Laos, but also in Cambodia, Vietnam, and southern China. Since the 1990s, I have trekked with tape recorders and video cameras to gather data on languages spoken by small, isolated groups. When I started working in my current field site near the Laos-Vietnam border, the village was separated from the nearest road access by a 14-hour hike through upland forest in one of the most biodiverse tracts of land in mainland southeast Asia. With rapid economic development, access is quickly changing, but still my work takes me to some of the most beautiful and intriguing places I know.