Archive for the ‘linguistics’ tag

VerbCorner – A Window Into The Brain One Thought At A Time

By January 31st, 2014 at 8:56 am | Comment

VerbCorner invites citizen scientists to answer fun questions about words and their meanings to eventually help train computers to understand language.

SciStarter is shuffling science into the language department. Explore the science of words with these citizen science projects!

SentencediagramVerb. Noun. Pronoun. Adjective. Adverb. Preposition. Conjunction. Interjection… If you’re anything like me, the sight of sentence diagrams and parts of speech trigger nightmares of grade school English class and number 2 pencils. But, how do we understand what a word means? As useful as dictionaries are, they only provide other words in their definitions. How do we know when to use one word in a sentence and not another? How do we explain a complex idea to children?

In July 2013, Lily Bui introduced us to VerbCorner, a citizen science project investigating the structure of language and, ultimately, the structure of thought. According to Dr. Hartshorne, the director of MIT’s Games With Words, “Scientists still haven’t worked out the exact meaning of most words… It is [similarly] hard to understand how children come to learn the meanings of words, when we don’t fully understand those meanings ourselves… I can tell you as a former translator, we translate words into meaning and then back into words.” With an infinite number of words and sentence structures, where should linguists begin to understand their meanings?

In VerbCorner, the mammoth task of understanding how language is structured is broken down into smaller, simple tasks. Through wild stories, each task focuses on one of seven unique aspects of verb meaning to elucidate the fundamental building blocks scientists think make up language such as how a verb is used and its relationship to a change of state. To date, over 1500 citizen scientists have provided more than 117,000 judgments on the initial 641 chosen verbs and six aspects of meaning, supplying Dr. Hartshorne and colleagues enough preliminary data to begin understanding how we understand words.

VerbCorner

Are there patterns to how we use verbs? Do we systematically choose words? Or is our word choice completely random and learned in childhood? Regardless of what language you speak, scientists are learning that how we choose words appears to be similar. Scientists have discovered there is a relationship between grammar and meaning which is systematic, and thereby machine learnable. Previous work by Beth Levin lead to the creation of VerbNet, a database where verbs are categorized based on their meaning and usage. Citizen scientists in VerbCorner are helping Dr. Hartshorne’s team verify that verbs with similar descriptions (such as contact or force) are similarly classified and only work in particular grammatical situations.

According to Dr. Hartshorne, “The most interesting things we are learning are about the building blocks of the mind.” In the initial release of VerbCorner, one task tried to understand the building block ‘change of state’ be it physical, mental, or a location. “If ‘change of state’ really was a core component of how we conceptualize the world, it should have been easy to make a task that got at it. We were unable to make such a task. People found it very hard to keep track of all three types of changes.” Dr. Hartshorne explained. Consequently, the initial task was broken down into three new tasks, each focusing on a different aspect of changing state. Suddenly, citizen scientists were able to complete the task. “This suggests that linguists were wrong about ‘change of state’ being a building block of meaning… Rather the building blocks are probably ‘change of physical state’, ‘change of location’, ‘change of mental state’, and possibly more.”

With these results, VerbCorner achieved its first goal – the analysis of the original 641 verbs and six aspects of meaning. But, there is lots of work still to do – another 400 verbs and four additional tasks have recently been added to the project which ultimately plans to cover all the verbs and components of meaning in VerbNet. Linguists, psychologists, and computer scientists plan to use our evolving understand of language and meaning to develop a deeper understanding of human thought as well as fine tune the artificial intelligence programming society is increasingly reliant upon.

Why not flex your mind over language skills at VerbCorner this afternoon?  I’m certain you know more than Siri.


Dr. Melinda T. Hough is a freelance science advocate and communicator. Her previous work has included a Mirzayan Science and Technology Graduate Policy Fellowship at the National Academy of Sciences (2012), co-development of several of the final science policy questions with ScienceDebate.org (2012), consulting on the development of the Seattle Science Festival EXPO day (2012), contributing photographer for JF Derry’s book “Darwin in Scotland” (2010) and outreach projects to numerous to count. Not content to stay stateside, Melinda received a B.S in Microbiology from the University of Washington (2001) before moving to Edinburgh, Scotland where she received a MSc (2002) and PhD (2008) from the University of Edinburgh trying to understand how antibiotics kill bacteria. Naturally curious, it is hard to tear Melinda away from science; but if you can, she might be found exploring, often behind the lens of her Nikon D80, training for two half-marathons, or plotting her next epic adventure.

The Science of Words

By January 18th, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Comment

We’re shuffling science into the language department as we explore citizen science projects about words. Explore the science of words by checking out these projects, fit for lovers of literature and armchair museum curators!

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Investigating Word Modalities
Help determine whether certain words are associated with sight and sound. Complete an online questionnaire, assessing the “sensory modality” of the words.
Get started!

 

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The VerbCorner Project
Dictionaries have existed for centuries, but creating exact meanings of many words still needs help. These researchers have broken the problem into a series of microtasks in need of your input.
Get started!

 

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Notes from Nature
Help museum staff transcribe scanned copies of labels and ledgers that have been meticulously recorded and stored with species over the past century. In many cases these are the only historical records of species distribution available. Putting them online can help accelerate research.
Get started!

 

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Ancient Lives
Ancient Lives wants you to help transcribe ancient papyri texts from Greco-Roman Egypt. The data gathered will help scholars reveal new knowledge of the literature, culture, and lives of Greco-Romans in ancient Egypt.
Get started!

 

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Ignore That!
How well are you able to ignore unnecessary information? To study this, researchers ask you to look at words and simple figures and answer questions about them online.
Get started!

 

 


We’re taking citizen science to the NBA! Meet us at the 76ers NBA game on 2/18. It’s Science at the 76ers night! SciStarter is organizing a series of citizen science activities on the concourse. During the game, microbe collection kits will be shot from the 76ers’ T-shirt bazooka right into the stands so fans can swab microbes from their shoes and cellphones for Project MERCCURI! If you are involved in or run a citizen science project available to people in the Philly area, contact info@scistarter.com to see how you can participate!

Have you joined more than one citizen science project? Take a 5-10 minute survey and tell us about your experience in this survey

If you’d like your citizen science project featured on SciStarter, email jenna@scistarter.com

Mind Control, Concentration, and Color – Understanding the Stroop Effect

By October 10th, 2013 at 11:09 am | Comment

brain lightbulbIn a technologically savvy, hyper-caffeinated, on-the-go society, it can be nearly impossible to ignore distracting information. With flashing lights to deafening sounds, even our smartphones demand attention. How does the mind sort through these conflicting signals, allowing us to concentrate and process only the most important visual cues?

Ignore That! was developed by Dr. Joshua Hartshorne, a post-doctoral fellow in the Computation Cognitive Science group at MIT. Part of the Games with Words project, citizen scientists explore how the brain chooses an appropriate response when faced with conflicting information through a series of simple, 3-minute tasks. After providing your age, gender and handedness, participants identify the color of a word (white or orange), rather than the word itself, then the location (left or right), not direction, of a series of arrows.  According to Dr Hartshorne, “Sometimes, it’s really hard to ignore information even when that information is irrelevant. We’re trying to understand what factors go into this… At what age are people best at ignoring irrelevant, distracting information? What about men vs. women? Or left-handers vs. right-handers?”

Stroop effect

Can you say the color not the word?

Known as the Stroop effect, these selective attention tasks help psychologists understand how the brain evaluates information. In the 1930s, John Ridley Stroop observed that reading words was a lot easier than reciting their color. When a word’s meaning is coupled with distracting information, such as a color, two different regions of the brain are stimulated. The right side automatically decodes letters and reads the word. The left consciously analyzes the color. When you are asked to read the color (active) rather than the word (passive), the brain becomes conflicted – the interfering data of the word slows down your response time; relying on the anterior cingulate to choose the correct visual cue to base your answer on. As one of the most famous experimental psychology experiments of all time, similar tests are used clinically to assess brain damage, dementia, mental illness, and famously the effects of altitude on Everest climbers.

Since its launch in November 2012, nearly 1100 citizen scientists have played Ignore That! exploring how our minds work. “I keep doing Stroop demos on myself because I feel like if I concentrate harder, I should be able to block out the effect.” Dr. Hartshorne reflects. “But it’s impossible. That amount of concentration doesn’t exist. Which itself is a bit of mystery: Is this an example of a failure of evolution or is it actually good that we are distractible in this way?”

Shiny, shiny, look at the shiny… How distractible are you? Can you control your mind to read the colors while blocking out the words?

Want another word game challenge? Try out another one from Games With Words: Verb Corner!

Photos: Public Domain


Dr. Melinda T. Hough is a freelance science advocate and communicator. Her previous work has included a Mirzayan Science and Technology Graduate Policy Fellowship at the National Academy of Sciences (2012), co-development of several of the final science policy questions with ScienceDebate.org (2012), consulting on the development of the Seattle Science Festival EXPO day (2012), contributing photographer for JF Derry’s book “Darwin in Scotland” (2010) and outreach projects to numerous to count. Not content to stay stateside, Melinda received a B.S in Microbiology from the University of Washington (2001) before moving to Edinburgh, Scotland where she received a MSc (2002) and PhD (2008) from the University of Edinburgh trying to understand how antibiotics kill bacteria. Naturally curious, it is hard to tear Melinda away from science; but if you can, she might be found exploring, often behind the lens of her Nikon D80, training for two half-marathons, or plotting her next epic adventure.

Games With Words: Play On

By July 17th, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Comment

Imagine trying to uncover the meaning behind all the words in the English language. Well, that’s what dictionaries are for, right? Not quite. According to Joshua Hartshorne, the director of MIT’s Games With Words, our current understanding of any word is simply based on its relationship with other words. That’s precisely the problem.

To provide an analogy, imagine if you only recognized the color blue because you knew it wasn’t yellow, green, or red. You know it’s “lighter” than black but “darker” than white. You also know it’s similar to the color of the sky or ocean. But take these relationships away, and ask yourself–do you truly understand what blue is?

This is essentially what Games With Words aspires to investigate in language—the intrinsic meaning of words. Hartshorne’s interdisciplinary team of psychologists, computer scientists, and linguists are trying to characterize what verbs mean.

“Dictionaries notwithstanding, scientists really do not know very much about what words mean, and it is hard to program [computers] to know what the word means when you [yourself] actually do not know,” says Hartshorne. “Our best computer systems, like Google Translate and Siri, treat words as essentially meaningless symbols that need to be moved around.”

One component of Games With Words is Verb Corner, which aims to uncover the meaning of verbs, a particularly challenging subset of language. Choose from 6 different games and scenarios that you can tackle. The more questions you answer, the more valuable the questions you have already answered become. This is because Games With Words uses cutting-edge analysis techniques to estimate your biases (everyone understands language differently!) and simultaneously identify difficult questions. So, the more data they have from each person, the better these analyses work.

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“Rather than try to work out the definition of a word all at once, we have broken the problem into a series of tasks. Each task has a fanciful backstory, […] but at its heart, each task is asking about a specific component of meaning that scientists suspect makes up one of the building blocks of verb meaning. In this, we are building on pioneering work by Ray Jackendoff, Steven Pinker, Beth Levin and many other linguists and psychologists.”

Hartshorne recalls that back in 2006 when he started doing web-based experiments, collecting data from groups of hundreds of people was impressive. Nowadays, with existing technology, it’s possible to collect data from groups in the thousands if not tens of thousands. The ability to do this only adds value to studies like Games With Words. However, one of the biggest challenges is still scope. Because this is such a massive undertaking (there are lots and lots of words), the Games With Words staff needs all the help they can get from citizen scientists like you. (Yes you, dear reader!)

“We realized very early that even with a small army, it would take us well past the ends of our careers to finish this project if we don’t attract enough citizen scientists.”

The Games With Words team will be sharing the results of the project freely with scientists and the public alike, and they expect it to make a valuable contribution to linguistics, psychology, and computer science.

If this is up your alley, follow it down to Verb Corner, ASAP! Find other language-related projects (and over 600+ other citizen science projects) using our Project Finder.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons, GamesWithWords.org

Although she holds dual bachelors’ degrees in International Studies and Spanish from the University of California Irvine, Lily Bui has long harbored a proclivity for the sciences. A daughter of an engineer and an accountant who also happen to be a photographer and musician, respectively, Lily grew up on the nexus between science and art. Lily has worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; served a year in AmeriCorps in Montgomery County, Maryland; worked for a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter in California; and performed across the U.S. as a touring musician. She currently works in public media at WGBH-TV and the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) in Boston, MA. In her spare time, she thinks of cheesy science puns (mostly to entertain herself). Follow @dangerbui.