UI teaching assistant researching rare Lao language

From The Daily Iowan

In order to make further progress on a rare language, University of Iowa graduate student and teaching assistant Douglas Cole spent four weeks in Laos this past summer.

“I study linguistics, and generally, we’re trying to figure out what’s possible, what’s impossible, and trying to understand why some things are impossible and never seen,” he said. “And along with that, trying to understand what those limits can tell us about our brain, cognition, how we think, things like that.”

Cole is focusing his research on a specific form of language the people of Laos use, which is called Serial Verb Construction.

“My area of expertise is with the Lao language,” Cole said. “I’m studying a particular type of sentence that they have, and actually a lot of languages have this, but English doesn’t.”

Serial Verb Construction is a sentence that can have numerous different verbs without any words such as “and” or “but” to separate them.

He said these types of sentences have caused people to question whether those who use them see the world differently from others.

“There’s a debate right now because these languages look so different from languages such as English that it has caused people to question if people who speak languages such as Lao see the world differently from people who speak languages such as English,” Cole said. “If they see the world as a series of disconnected events without the ability to put them together to a more unified whole or unified event.” Cole said he doesn’t believe the Lao people view the world differently; rather they just use a unique form of language to express what they’re thinking.

“They’re seeing the world and talking about the world in the same way that we are, and that’s what I’m trying to show ultimately in my research,” he said. “And this trip over the summer was kind of the beginning stages of that — the groundwork.”

Cole is applying for funding to travel back to Laos and work on psychological experiments that may help disprove other theories about the Lao language.

Professor William Davies, and the head of the UI Linguistics Department, said Cole’s research into the Lao language is important for numerous reasons.

“First, it fills quite a hole in the literature on the language,” he said. “More eyes and minds on the language will increase everyone’s understanding of it. Second, the perspective Doug brings to linguistic work on the language is different from the other person working on it, so a more diverse set of researchers will at least be exposed to the language.”

Davies said the type of work Cole is doing will be useful to the Lao people, as they will be able to access more information about their language and therefore their culture.

Linguistics Professor Catherine Ringen said researching lesser-known languages is an important part of understanding language as a whole.

“Without data from little-studied languages, we get a distorted view of how languages differ,” she said. “If we only study languages related to English, for example, we may be surprised by differences that occur widely in other lesser known languages.”

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