New Linguistics Department Head Talks Language and Cognition

Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Linguistics Diane Lillo-Martin says her field plays an important role in understanding the human mind. She talks about her vision for the future of her department in this Q&A.

Diane Lillo-Martin

Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Linguistics Diane Lillo-Martin says her field plays an important role in understanding the human mind. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Linguistics Diane Lillo-Martin became head of her department for the second time in September 2021. She says a lot has changed since her previous headship, but one thing has not: the importance of her field to understanding the human mind. Here, she talks about her vision for the future of her department.

Why did you become a linguist?

I took a general education course as an undergraduate and fell in love with the field. Linguistics is not often taught at American high schools, so having linguistics as part of general education is important for bringing students into the field – in addition to helping more students have an improved understanding of the characteristics of languages.

At the time I fell into linguistics, I was also studying American Sign Language (ASL). I was very fortunate to have exposure to the linguistic analysis of ASL as an undergraduate, as that has determined the course of my life. I went to grad school to continue studying ASL linguistics and have been doing so ever since.

What do linguists do?

Linguistics is often described as the scientific study of language. We look at the properties of languages, such as the ways that sentences are structured or meanings are derived. We are interested in the ways that languages are different, but we are even more excited by the ways that different languages are similar – we call these “universals.” At UConn, our approach is primarily concerned with trying to understand in a formal, analytical way what rules are abstractly present in a person’s mind when they know a language.

Outside of academia, linguists can be found in many fields. Some are doing linguistic analysis of big data in the tech world. Some are involved in clinical fields when language is disrupted. Many are involved in different types of language teaching. Still others go into law, journalism, marketing, and other fields.

What makes linguistics so important?

Everyone uses at least one language. Because of this, people often take it for granted and don’t realize just how complex and remarkable language is. Linguistics helps students to recognize the structured patterns that underlie language. Furthermore, language can be used as an example of human cognitive capacities, so we understand the human mind better when we understand language. Language is part of culture and identity, and the linguistic perspective recognizes the value of all languages and all varieties.

An important part of our department is the ASL program. UConn recently started offering an ASL major, making it the first university in the state of Connecticut to do so. The ASL program serves hundreds of students interested in learning to sign, teaches them about deaf culture, and offers an option for students to begin to learn about sign language interpreting. The students are very active in supporting the use of ASL, and they worked hard for the approval of special interest housing starting next fall.

Everyone uses at least one language. Because of this, people often take it for granted and don’t realize just how complex and remarkable language is.

What are the most popular/most beloved undergraduate classes in your department?

Our most popular course is LING 1010: Language and Mind. This is a course that uses facts about the organization of language to help understand the properties of the human mind. It’s one of the largest lecture courses at UConn – this semester it has enrolled about 700 students!

Another popular course is LING 1020: Language and Environment. This course helps students to see how languages are used in different contexts, and why all varieties are valid. Finally, LING 1030: The Diversity of Languages provides students with an overview of the properties of languages around the world and across time.

What makes linguistics unique among research disciplines?

Linguistics is a highly interdisciplinary field, with implications for the biological and psychological sciences, humanities and social sciences, and health and clinical fields. It is also a relatively inexpensive field in which scientific techniques can be applied to readily available data.

What are some of the most interesting research projects in your department?

Our syntax researchers are exploring the similarities and differences across languages, in studies that are comparing properties of large numbers of languages. In some cases, over 100 languages are compared in a single study. This kind of project combines analytic rigor with broad generalization and gives us a much better understanding of the limits of cross-linguistic variation.

One new project our semantics researchers are conducting involves a collaboration with faculty in the Department of Philosophy to consider the ways that people think and talk about conditionals – what might happen if such-and-such. This project is also cross-linguistic and furthermore makes use of classical and modern philosophical approaches to logic and meaning.

Another interesting project in the department, being conducted in collaboration with researchers at UConn’s Brain Imaging Research Center, looks at some of the changes that we see over time in children’s language, and how those changes connect with neurological changes taking place during the same time period in the brain. This research uses functional brain imaging (fMRI) on adults to examine fine-grained differences in the areas of brain tissue that are active when a person uses the types of language that show up earlier versus later in children.

My own research, in collaboration with colleagues across other departments and outside of UConn, involves the study of ASL. Most knowledge about the universals of language is from studying spoken languages. We must also include sign languages to have a complete picture of the universal properties of language. Our research often addresses these major questions by investigating the time course of language development by young children.

What do you hope to accomplish as department head? How are things different now from when you were head previously?

The faculty in our department are very active in research. As department head, one of my priorities is to support that and find new ways to facilitate enhanced research progress. As a relatively small department, we will be strategic in how we balance meeting our responsibilities with growth and new types of activities. There are some exciting new directions our field is moving toward, so we plan to be at the forefront of some of them.

I’ve been at UConn for 35 years, and I was previously head from 1995 to 2007. The faculty makeup of our department has changed a lot, and UConn has also changed quite a lot. One positive development is that, when I was head before, I was usually one of about three women department heads in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Now there are many more women, which I see as a very good sign. But there is still quite a way to go for UConn and for our department in moving toward more appropriately reflecting the diversity of society.

What can students take away from studying linguistics, even if they pursue other areas of study?

I often tell my students that there are a few take-home messages I hope they will remember in the future, even if they forget the details of my course. Among these messages are: Language is a complex, patterned, rule-governed, human phenomenon. Human children can pick up the patterns of language by being immersed in accessible input, and they do so incredibly quickly. Language is a human right, and communities have the right to use the language or variety of their choice; linguistic discrimination is not justified. And from my own specialty: Sign languages are full and complete, and deaf communities – including deaf children – have the right to use a natural sign language.