The universal infrastructure postulated by Levinson and Enfield, however, is deeper – and therefore less obvious. It manifests itself in such aspects as the time lag before a response is articulated. And the researchers hold that they can prove this universal infrastructure by demonstrating that there are rules for informal linguistic usage that people of all cultures follow. Each of the psycholinguists speaks a handful of exotic languages to ensure that they are equipped for these kinds of intercultural studies. Enfield is an expert in Lao and Kri, and can also make himself understood in Khmer and Chinese. His boss, Levinson, has thus far specialized in languages of India, Mesoamerica, Australia and New Guinea.
But even if the scientists have no trouble communicating, cross-cultural studies are very time consuming and costly. Organizing a study in just a single Western European language, on the other hand, is much easier, says Enfield, explaining that they barely even need to advertise for test subjects in such cases. The fact that most study findings stem from this relatively restricted cultural milieu is something he calls “ethnocentrism”.
To get around this problem, Nick Enfield expanded the topic of one of his most recently published studies to encompass a total of ten languages from five continents: Italian, English, Danish and Japanese were examined alongside languages from Mexico, Laos, Namibia and Papua New Guinea. The psycholinguists wanted to find out how much time elapses in the various language areas before a person reacts to a simple yes or no question in conversation. In a bid to make their study as true to life as possible, the scientists analyzed real-life situations that they had previously filmed in the individual cultures concerned.
In Lao, for example, two men discussed what route they should take with their truck to reach the next village. The findings support Enfield’s theory of a fundamental infrastructure in everyday linguistic usage: when it came to questions that could be answered with a yes or a no, people in all language areas responded, on average, after 208 milliseconds. “This time lapse is evidently a universal target,” says the scientist.
The study did, however, uncover minor culture-specific variations. The Japanese answered the fastest, the Danes the slowest. “The infrastructure of language use as we see it is not fixed – it’s a bunch of principles that can grow into specific local traits, thereby shaping a culture,” says Stephen Levinson, explaining this finding.
How closely language use and culture are interwoven in people’s everyday lives is something on which Nick Enfield and five other scientists plan to gather evidence in another research project. Since January, Enfield is heading the Human Sociality and Systems of Language Use project, financed with two million euros from the European Research Council.
Whose job is it to clear up misunderstandings in a casual conversation? How strongly can a person express a particular wish? Here too, the psycholinguists want to answer questions like these for a total of seven different languages. Enfield’s box of technology, including his video camera, is all packed and ready to go. Soon he will be back in Laos to meet up again with the colorfully dressed speakers whose photos adorn the filing cabinet in his office.
Theory of mind (ToM)
The ability to get into someone else’s thoughts, to identify that person’s intentions and align one’s own behavior accordingly. By the classical tests, children do not seem have a fully developed ToM until the age of about four, when they become able to explicitly identify the beliefs and assumptions of another person as incorrect. How ever, work at the MPI in Nijmegen has shown implicit ToM as early as one year.
The innate human ability to form new sentences with the help of a few grammatical rules and a limited vocabulary. As evidence of universal grammar, linguist Noam Chomsky alleged that any healthy child could learn any language as its mother tongue. However, universal grammar is often also understood to be a bunch of principles that are common to all of the languages of the world (such as certain rules of sentence structure, lexical units like nouns, verbs, etc.). Many scientists have criticized this notion due to counterexamples for most of the proposals.
Transferring audio recordings of spoken language to a written record, often in a specially devised writing system. In the case of scientists Levinson and Enfield, it even includes all lulls in conversation, fillers and incomplete sentence fragments. For linguists and psycholinguists, it is one of the most time-consuming aspects of their studies.