PhD candidate's research in lesser-studied Lao language furthers advancement in field

How is language represented in the mind, and how can it be modeled? When people put sounds together to form words, how do these words combine to form sentences, and furthermore, what does this process tell us about cognition? These are the questions Douglas Cole, a PhD candidate in linguistics at the UI from Cedar Rapids, asks in his research to advance data in the lesser-studied Lao language. During a four-week stay in Vientiane, Laos, Douglas worked with native speakers to elicit sentences containing multiple verbs, then transcribed and categorized them in a database based on their structure. By focusing on what speakers actually say versus what is considered “proper” speech, one can gain a better understanding of how language is actually used, and ultimately how it is organized in the brain. Read on for Douglas’ account of the trip.

Douglas spent four weeks in the city of Vientiane this summer for his research.

My Stanley research trip to Laos was a wonderful experience for which I am extremely grateful. Although my time was short, I worked long hours to make the most of the opportunity that I had. I arrived in Laos in the evening, and the very next day I presented a 3-hour workshop on teaching English pronunciation for a group of English teachers. I went to visit classes at the National University the following day and recruited volunteers to be native speaker consultants, and work with me in my research.

The next three-and-a-half weeks were filled with preparing questions to ask my consultants, transcribing our meetings, writing up thoughts and ideas, reading related research, and then repeating the whole process again. It was exhausting, but I did carve out some time to visit friends, former students and colleagues, and my wife’s family. I even got to visit our old dog Mr. Paxton who is now loving life on a farm north of the city. 

The purpose of my trip was to learn about a type of sentence in Lao which contains more than one verb, called serial verb constructions or SVCs, and find out two things: if these sentences were different from similar sentences containing words like and or but, and if they could be further divided into different classes. A word-by-word translation of a Lao SVC into English would be Joy made the rice ate. These types of sentences are interesting because, in the minds of the speakers, the “making” and “eating” are a single event. To express this sentence in English, we would need to use the coordinator “and,” as in Joy made the rice and ate it. Lao also has coordinated sentences, but when “and” is used, the “making” and “eating” are separate events. A similar example from English is the difference between the sentences John pushed the door open, and John pushed the door and it opened.

Douglas gets a chance to reunite with his old dog, Mr. Paxton.

I was able to find several diagnostics that clearly show how these sentences are different from sentences with and. One of the differences had to do with the “goodness” of the sentences when I added the mismatched adverbs yesterday and today. An English translation of the Lao sentences are: *Yesterday, Noy cooked rice sold today and Yesterday Noy cooked rice and then sold it today. The first sentence became ungrammatical when I added these words, while the second remained grammatical. This suggests that these two sentences have different structures, even though the meaning is virtually the same in both.

There is also evidence that shows these SVCs can be further divided into sub-classes. There are several differences between these sub-classes of sentences, but one difference has to do with the types of verbs used to form the construction. There is one type of multi-verb sentence which is made up of two transitive verbs (verbs with both a subject and an object), while another type is made up of a transitive and an intransitive verb (verbs with just a subject). English glosses of the Lao sentences would look like Noy cook rice sell (Two transitive verbs: cook and sell), and Noy shoot bird die (One transitive verb: shoot, and one intransitive verb: die.)

I also found that there are many cultural restrictions of SVC formation, only events that commonly occur together in the Lao culture are able to be described with SVCs. For example, you can say the Lao equivalent of raise eyebrows agree because it is common for Lao people to raise their eyebrows when they agree with you. But you cannot say raise hand agree, it must be raise hand AND agree because raising your hand and agreeing are not events that typically occur together in Lao culture.

The information above, along with other information that I gathered on the trip, helps me to make a case for saying that these two types of multi-verb sentences are different from each other, and different from apparently similar sentences that contain a connecting word like “and.”

Often, life in academia is very removed from “real” life. A graduate student’s existence seems to consist of studying, teaching, and writing, with short breaks to eat and sleep. Having conversations with people outside of your field study can even be a challenge because of the bubble created by our unusual lives. Paradoxically, learning can also suffer in this academic environment, when one is so detached and analytical towards the subject matter. You can miss the forest for the trees, if you will.

Douglas spent about 20 hours each week with language informants to elicit examples of SVC's in Lao that he transcribed, documented and categorized.

In my linguistics coursework thus far, we have always used natural language data to build analyses, but the data were finite, and the questions answered were restricted to what was required for the assignment. On this Stanley trip I was able to step out into the “real” world of language research, where the data are infinite, and the questions that they prompted were my own.

What I found was that language is messy business, and just when I thought I was on the cusp of understanding a type of sentence structure, I would be blindsided with an unexpected finding. This trip has stretched my abilities to the limits, but what I have learned during my time has been invaluable. 

While searching to explain one particular type of sentence structure in the Lao language, I was forced to learn about many seemingly unrelated aspects of the language, and so my knowledge of Lao has vastly improved. I also learned the fine art of linguistic fieldwork, something I had previously only practiced in a safe, controlled, classroom environment. I had to learn about recruiting consultants, dealing with inconsistencies in meetings as well as inconsistencies in their responses, the dangers of leading questions or comments, and the disappointment of spending hours preparing questions that end up leading nowhere. 

The knowledge that I have gained will be invaluable in the future as I continue to research languages and attempt to explain the hidden order and structure inherent in each. I will be the first to admit that I did not do everything perfectly on this trip, but I have already reflected on the changes that I will make for next time, everything from how I went about my preparation to how I navigate the waters of cross-cultural communication with government and school officials. These changes will allow me to better present future research ideas to funding organizations, as well as build a more persuasive case for funding my research. 

Douglas plans to use the specific data on sentences with multiple verbs in a clause for a follow-up experiment, which will be the focus of his dissertation. He is also working on a linguistic analysis of the data, based on new findings discovered on the trip, which he will present at academic conferences and submit to academic journals.

Douglas’ trip was made possible through a Stanley Graduate Award for International Research.

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