Plenary Session

Each year, the cluster invites inspiring language researchers from various universities to give a talk on one of their most notable scholarships.

7th Language Symposium | May 21st, 2021

Keynote #1
Modeling human nature: Visualizing the dangers and delights of laughter and humor
Otto Santa Ana & Samuel Rose

Laughter and humor are features of human nature that we take lightheartedly. But we should consider what humor communicates. For one, corporations exploit the joy of our children in cartoons, movies, and sitcoms that indoctrinate and socialize. Of course, much humor is harmless, but it can lead adolescents to suicide, and arguably has generated international terrorism. Until recently humor scholars dismissed the truly dark side of humor, but Critical Humor scholars have begun reconsidering discriminatory humor. Since Critical Humor scholars have not been linguists, they employ theories of sociology and psychology, rather than theories of language and semiotics. In my talk, I will introduce a foundational communication theory of laughter and humor to undergird and advance their work.

We hold that laughter and humor have prehuman evolutionary roots: Humor is a subset of animal play that humans, as a social species, still use to reinforce social bonds. Laughter was and remains the signal that announces play as ‘non-aggressive action’. Humans later developed volitional control of laughter and humor, coopting the innocent signal of play. (We focus on cacophonous laughter, not the laugh particle markers used in conversation.)

In this theory, play is the engine, or creative mechanism with which humans maintain social relations. Humor is the spark and content for this social play. Finally, laughter is the fuel, since when humans laugh together our bodies release hormones and we feel greater affiliation with our laugh partners. Laughing together is the source of social power that humans use to reinforce or change our personal relations to others. With this prelinguistic communication theory of laughter and humor, we are in a better position to incorporate feminist theories to analyze misogynistic humor, sociological theories to understand institutional hazing and racist humor, and the psychology of bullying and identity formation.

In our talk we will show you a visualization tool that Sam Rose has developed to graphically illustrate how people behave when they tease someone, what happens to small theater audience or nationwide television audience during a Dave Chappelle stand-up routine, as well as during freestyle rap battles. We will also show you an agent-based modeling program that Sam designed to test our model in real world settings, possibly such as how comedic bashing of Trump affected his political standing across the range of the nation's voters.

OTTO SANTA ANA is Professor in Chicana/o and Central American Studies at UCLA. He has published four books and fifty academic articles, often with undergrad co-authors. He has studied how language is used to validate unjust social inequity using empirical sociolinguistic and critical discourse analytic tools. The talk will introduce key ideas from his monograph on the political nature of humor, based on the thesis that laughter is a tool of social formation.

SAMUEL ROSE recently earned a B.S. in Applied Math from UCLA with a specialization in computer science. He is currently working with a UCLA team working on civil and environmental engineering projects, and on a laughter and humor project team.

Keynote #2
Teaching to a Classroom of Millions: How Duolingo Approaches Issues in Language Learning
Emily Moline & Bozena Pajak

Duolingo is a popular language learning app with over 500 million users worldwide, offering nearly 100 language courses for learners from a variety of language backgrounds. In this talk, we will give an overview of the Duolingo app and our approach to building effective educational products. As case studies, we will present three specific aspects of Duolingo's teaching method: how we approach learner motivation via gamification, humor, and narrative continuity; how we balance implicit/explicit grammar instruction, focusing on Smart Tips; and how we address speaking skills, looking at both controlled and spontaneous practice. We will discuss how we test each of these three components, and the unique factors we must consider when teaching language at a large scale.

BOZENA PAJAK is the Head of Learning & Curriculum at Duolingo. She has a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of California, San Diego, and postdoctoral research experience in the department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester. Prior to joining Duolingo, Bozena was a Researcher & Lecturer in the Linguistics Department at Northwestern University. Her research has focused on second and additional language acquisition across different language domains, including phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and vocabulary.

EMILY MOLINE is a curriculum designer at Duolingo. She has a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of California, Davis, where her dissertation focused on applied adult literacy research. A former Fulbright English Teaching Fellow in Spain, she has research interests and experience in the use of English by speakers of other languages, sociolinguistics, speaking skills, pronunciation, literacy, and language pedagogies.

Previous plenary speakers and abstracts:

7th Language Symposium | May 22, 2020 (cancelled)

  • Otto Santa Ana - Chicana/o Studies, UCLA

6th Language Symposium | May 24, 2019

  • Justin Davidson - Spanish and Portuguese, UC Berkeley

Evaluating Minority-Language Agentivity in Catalan Contact Spanish:

Intervocalic Fricatives in Barcelona and Valencia

Dr. Justin Davidson, University of California, Berkeley

Though a probabilistic directionality has been posited to account for contact-induced innovation and change in multilingual communities, which predicts a greater strength of linguistic influence for majority languages than for minority languages (Thomason & Kaufman 1988; Thomason 2001; 2008; 2010), cases of contact-induced change observed in the majority language as affected by the minority language (i.e., minority-language source agentivity [Van Coetsem 2000]) remain less studied (Galindo Solé 2003) and often restricted to lexical phenomena (Poplack & Dion 2012; Poplack & Levey 2010). With respect to Catalan-Spanish contact, this asymmetry of contact influence has traditionally been evoked in reference to the fear that Catalan is over time becoming a mere dialect of Spanish (Prats, Rafanell, & Rossich 1990; see also Hualde 2015 for parallels with Basque and Spanish), culminating in the most recent proposal (Arnal 2011) that Catalan-Spanish contact effects are exclusively unidirectional, with modern speakers no longer exhibiting any Catalan phonetic features in their Spanish.

In this talk, I explore these questions of directionality and minority-language agentivity through two empirical case studies performed in Barcelona and Valencia. The linguistic phenomenon of interest is the variable production of Spanish intervocalic alveolar /s/ (e.g. ‘the friends,’ Spanish las amigos [í.ɣas]; Catalan les amigues [lə.zə.mí.ɣəs]), characterized as a phonetic hallmark of Catalan Contact Spanish (Casanovas Català 1995). Sociolinguistic interviews paired with a word-list reading task in both languages were used to elicit approximately 10,000 intervocalic alveolar fricatives in Spanish and Catalan from 96 Catalan-Spanish bilinguals stratified by gender, age, and language dominance across each city. Fricative tokens, measured in Praat for percentage of each segment’s duration with acoustic voicing correlates (File-Muriel & Brown 2011), were subsequently subjected to mixed-effects regression modeling in R.

Results reveal that whereas Catalan-like voicing patterns are prevalent in the Spanish of Barcelona, in Valencia the opposite directionality is observed, with Spanish-like voicing patterns being prevalent in Catalan. I account for the observed divergence in fricative production across the two speech communities through an analysis of the unique sociopolitical status of Catalan in each city, notably informed by speaker attitudes and language ideologies elicited in sociolinguistic interviews.

These findings highlight the confluence of linguistic and extralinguistic factors that underpin linguistic variation in multilingual speech communities, and ultimately serve to reinforce the bidirectional nature of language contact in majority- and minority-language settings.


  • Arnal, Antoni. 2011. Linguistic changes in the Catalan spoken in Catalonia under new contact conditions. Journal of Language Contact, 4: 5-25.

  • Casanovas Català, Montse. 1995. La interferencia fonética en el español de Lleida: Algunos apuntes para su estudio. Sintagma, 7: 53-59.

  • File-Muriel, Richard and Earl Brown. 2011. The gradient nature of s-lenition in Caleño Spanish. Language Variation and Change, 23: 223-243.

  • Galindo Solé, Mireia. 2003. ‘Language contact phenomena in Catalonia: The influence of Catalan in spoken Castilian’. In Lofti Sayahi (ed.), Selected Proceedings of the First Workshop on Spanish Sociolinguistics. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press, 18-29.

  • Hualde, José Ignacio. 2015. ‘Basque as an extinct language’. In Beatriz Fernández & Pello Salaburu (eds.), Ibon Sarasola, Gorazarre. Homenatge, Homenaje. Bilbao: University of the Basque Country, 319-326.

  • Poplack, Shana and Nathalie Dion. 2012. Myths and facts about loanword development. Language Variation and Change, 24: 279-315.

  • Poplack, Shana and Stephen Levey. 2010. ‘Contact-induced grammatical change’. In Peter Auer and Jürgen Erich Schmidt (eds.), Language and Space - An International Handbook of Linguistic Variation: Volume 1 - Theories and Methods, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 391-419.

  • Prats, Modest, August Rafanell, and Albert Rossich. 1990. El futur de la llengua catalana. Empúries.

  • Thomason, Sarah G. 2001. Language Contact. Edinburgh University Press.

  • Thomason, Sarah G. 2008. Social and linguistic factors as predictors of contact-induced change. Journal of Language Contact, 2: 42-56.

  • Thomason, Sarah G. 2010. ‘Contact explanations in linguistics’. In Raymond Hickey (ed.), The Handbook of Language Contact. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 31-47.

  • Thomason, Sarah G. and Terrence Kaufman. 1988. Language Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics. University of California Press.

  • Van Coetsem, Frans. 2000. A General and Unified Theory of the Transmission Process in Language Contact. Winter Publishing.

5th Language Symposium | May 25, 2018

  • Bernard Comrie - Linguistics, UC Santa Barbara

  • Lal Zimman - Linguistics, UC Santa Barbara

Possessive Chains and Possessor Camouflage

Dr. Bernard Comrie, University of California, Santa Barbara

Recursive possessive constructions produce possessive chains like English the girl’s father’s house. In most such constructions, from knowing the morphosyntax of possessor and possessum in the corresponding bipartite construction, e.g. the girl’s house, one can predict the morphosyntax of the intermediate possessor (father): It combines the distinctive properties of possessor and possessum. Many languages with typologically distinct possessive constructions conform to this generalization, e.g. Russian, Finnish, Abkhaz, Welsh, Turkish, Tsez, Standard Arabic. However, two independent cases are known in which the properties of an intermediate possessor are not predictable from the properties of possessor and possessum in the bipartite construction, a phenomenon that may be called Possessor Camouflage. In Sakha (Yakut) (and the closely related Dolgan), the bipartite possessive construction is head-marking, as in učūtal ǰie-te teacher house-3SG ‘the teacher’s house’. However, an intermediate possessor, in addition to being head-marked, must also be dependent-marked by means of the genitive case, as in kini ehe-ti-n oron-o s/he grandfather- 3SG-GEN bed-3SG ‘her grandfather’s bed’. The second case involves Scottish Gaelic and Irish, where dependent-marking (genitive case) in the bipartite possessive construction is lost on an intermediate possessor. Data will be presented and analyzed, and typological implications discussed.

Bernard Comrie is Distinguished Faculty Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His main interests are language universals and typology, historical linguistics (including in particular the use of linguistic evidence to reconstruct aspects of prehistory), linguistic fieldwork, and languages of New Guinea and of the North Caucasus.

Voicing (trans)gender identity:

Rethinking the relationship between gendered identities, bodies, and the voice

Dr. Lal Zimman, University of California, Santa Barbara

The relationship between gender and the voice is of central importance to phoneticians, transgender people, and listeners who engage in the process of gender attribution based (partially) on auditory cues; in other words, almost everyone who’s hearing. This talk presents a reconceptualization of the relationship between the voice, gendered identities, and sexed bodies through a focus on transgender speakers. There is a long tradition in the social sciences of looking to transgender people as a means of understanding the practices we all engage in as part of constructing our gender (e.g. Garfinkel’s 1967 discussion of Agnes, an intersex trans woman). Linguists, however, have been relatively slow to take up this line of inquiry. This talk is part of a broad research program that explores the vast potential for linguistic insight from the study of trans people’s verbal practices. Following a brief overview of different strains of that program, this talk focuses on the gendering of the voice, which in linguistics remains a site of biological essentialism and gender binarism. Through an examination of transgender speakers in two Western United States urban centers, the central analysis highlights the ways speakers with non-normative bodies and identities navigate the complex interplay of embodiment and social practice. Specifically, three phonetic features are discussed: fundamental frequency, /s/, and creaky phonation in both read and spontaneous speech. Two primary arguments emerge from this work. First, the gendered phonetic styles trans speakers produce demand a more satisfactory account of the gendered voice that recognizes the effect not only of the body and of early socialization, but of speakers’ multidimensional alignments and disalignments with normative femininity and masculinity. Second, even this complexified theory of gender must be supplemented by discourse analysis of the analyzed speech, which demonstrates the crucial importance of interactional stance and agentive stylistic moves in the production of gender differences in the voice. Together, these arguments suggest that the role of gender in linguistics requires more careful and thorough theorization, particularly as the field advances in our recognition of transgender voices, in every sense of the word.

Lal Zimman is an Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Affiliated Faculty in Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research is broadly focused on the linguistic practices of transgender speakers, in which he employs a range of qualitative and quantitative methodologies.

4th Language Symposium | May 26, 2017

  • Judith Kroll - Psychology, UC Riverside

  • Maria Manoliu - Professor Emerita, Linguistics & French, UC Davis

Bilingualism, Mind, and Brain

Dr. Judith Kroll, University of California, Riverside

The use of two or more languages is common in most places in the world. Yet, until recently, bilingualism was considered to be a complicating factor for language processing, cognition, and the brain. In the past 20 years, there has been an upsurge of research that examines the cognitive and neural bases of second language learning and bilingualism and the resulting consequences for cognition and for brain structure and function over the lifespan. Contrary to the view that bilingualism adds complication to the language system, the new research demonstrates that all languages that are known and used become part of the same language system. A critical insight is that bilingualism provides a tool for examining aspects of the cognitive architecture that are otherwise obscured by the skill associated with native language performance in monolingual speakers. In this context, variation in language experience becomes a critical tool for investigating the constraints and plasticity associated with language learning across the lifespan. In this talk, I illustrate this approach to language processing and consider the consequences that bilingualism holds for cognition and the neural networks that support it more generally.

'Animacy' versus 'Efficacy': Culture and Grammatical Gender in Latin

Dr. Maria Manoliu, University of California, Davis

If studies of non Indo-European languages point to the fact that the scale of Animacy differs from one culture to another (see Dahl 2000), historical grammars of Romance languages have interpreted the Latin grammatical genders in Latin according to Western European culture, as a way of encoding two main inherent semantic oppositions: [Animate vs. Inanimate]. But this model is far from accounting for the difference between the semantic features encoded by Latin neuter and non-neuter grammatical genders. Compare, for example, (1) and (2):

(1) neut. saxum ‘stone, rock’ vs. masc. lapis ‘stone, landmark’, rupes ‘cliff’

(2) neut. mare ‘sea, salted water’ vs. masc. pontus ‘sea’ and fem. aqua ‘water’.

The Animacy model cannot account for the masculine gender of pontus and neuter of mare or feminine of aqua.

According to our hypothesis, the gender subclassification of nouns in Latin was rooted in an earlier Mediterranean culture, in which the cognitive category of ‘Efficacy’ reflected a perception of the ‘(in)capacity of doing, affecting other beings’ as an inherent property of objects. Compare the following distribution of nouns:

(i) ‘capable of being effective’ :

(3) feminine: terra ‘earth’, arbor ‘tree’, aqua, like femina ‘woman’, masculine: ignis ‘fire’, ventus ‘wind’, like vir ‘man’

(ii) ‘incapable of being effective’: neuter

(4) saxum ‘stone’, templum ‘temple’, tempus ‘time’; most nouns referring to fruit: pirum ‘pear’, prunum ‘prune’, generics for species: animal ‘animal’), etc

Since some entities can be active in some contexts, and passive in others, it is necessary to distinguish between the virtual and the actual properties of the referents. The ‘capacity of being a doer (active, effective)’ is a virtual property of the referent that might be encoded in an inherent semantic feature (seme) of the noun. The property of ‘being a doer’ is the actualization of this capacity in certain conditions.

3rd Language Symposium | May 20, 2016

  • John Baugh - Washington University in St. Louis

2nd Language Symposium | May 22, 2015

  • Nick Ellis - Psychology, University of Michigan

“Usage-based approaches to language acquisition”

Dr. Nick Ellis, University of Michigan

Usage-based approaches hold that we learn language through using language. Our linguistic ability emerges as a result of our cognitive learning mechanisms analyzing this experience. Corpus Linguistics provides the relevant evidence of usage. Cognitive Linguistics and Construction Grammar analyze the representations of language and how people acquire, represent, and process this knowledge.

This presentation analyses (1) usage patterns of English verb- argument constructions (VACs) in terms of their grammatical form, semantics, lexical constituency, and distribution patterns in large corpora, (2) patterns of VAC usage in learner-directed speech and in first and second language acquisition, (3) psycholinguistic investigations of VAC processing in first and second language speakers. It demonstrates that:

1. Language usage is highly patterned in ways that support learning.

2. Language acquisition is guided by this patterning.

3. Language users have rich implicit statistical knowledge of these patterns.

1st Language Symposium | April 25, 2014

  • Nobuko Koyama - East Asian Languages and Cultures, UC Davis

  • Matt Traxler - Psychology, UC Davis

  • Robert Bayley - Linguistics, UC Davis