Featured Linguist: Adele Goldberg

For this week’s featured linguist, we are proud to present Professor Adele Goldberg!

Professor Adele Goldberg

As a kid, my mom always praised me for being logical. Not appreciating how generously mothers view their children, I took this praise very literally and as an undergraduate at U of Penn, I signed up for all of the courses related to logic I could find. I ended up majoring in math and philosophy:  Math, because my parents wanted to ensure I would be employable, and philosophy because I was interested in the philosophy of mind (and because I had a lot of courses in logic).

When I graduated, I had no idea what I wanted to do, and the job market was lousy. If I could only afford it, I just wanted to continue taking classes. This passion, to just be a student, is what led me to graduate school. I was lucky to stumble into UC Berkeley’s Logic and Methodology of Science PhD program which very generously offered me a fellowship despite my rudderlessness. The philosophers in the program were kind and excellent teachers, but the math professors I met in those days were somewhat less skilled at teaching or relating to people. One told us that we should think of him as a fountain of knowledge and then cupped his hands to inform us that we should try to drink the downpour. Another scribbled his lectures on the chalkboard without turning around. I had a sense of not fitting in. Many of the students I began the program with, including all of the women, soon dispersed to other programs on campus.

Perusing the course catalogue in 1987, I found a class by George Lakoff, who had just published Women, Fire, and Dangerous Ideas, which we read and discussed in class. As he pirouetted through topics that crossed linguistics, psychology, cognitive science, math, and philosophy, I was riveted. His enthusiasm for the ideas was palpable. And he seemed pleased to find a potential “convert” from the Logic program.

Transferring to the linguistics program felt like coming home. In my fellow graduate students,  I found kindred spirits. Since we were all expected to take undergraduate classes, the fact that I had virtually no background in linguistics didn’t present much of a problem. I boldly asked the simplest questions “what is the subject in that passive?” which were generously interpreted as deep (“what is a subject?”). Chuck Fillmore and Paul Kay co-taught a course in which they formulated an evolving version of construction grammar. They filled their classes with laughter, a sense of shared curiosity, and a deep appreciation for the richness of language. George Lakoff taught a graduate level “boot camp” where we all learned to come up with examples and counter-examples to formulate and then challenge every idea. He always made time for students, happy to talk shop for hours at the slightest provocation. I was giddy that we were encouraged to take classes in computer science, psychology, cognitive science, and education, with faculty from the same varied departments sharing the narrow halls of a drafty temporary barracks with a dozen of us graduate students.

By sheer luck, I landed a faculty position right after graduating, at UCSD: in a brilliant and eclectic linguistics department with strong ties to the cognitive science department. Luminaries included Liz Bates, Jeff Elman, Marta Kutas, Ron Langacker, and David Perlmutter. It was at UCSD that I learned to appreciate the wealth of evidence for the usage-based approach to language. I also began to take part in the sort of experimental work that I had always felt was important.

I would have happily stayed at UCSD for my entire career, but my husband and I were commuting as he finished his postdoc in the Bay Area. When I interviewed for a new job at UIUC, I attempted to hide my pregnancy under a blousy dress, only later learning that this was entirely unnecessary (and unsuccessful). At UIUC, I found another welcoming community, where I was exposed to new perspectives and new skills. Like UCSD, UIUC had an active cognitive science community at the Beckman Institute, with Kay Bock, Gary Dell, Cindy Fisher, Susan Garnsey, Greg Murphy and Brian Ross. I came to appreciate how to apply the constructionist perspective to learning and processing work, enjoying the thrill of collaborative research.

I’ve come to feel that moving is the best way to grow as a researcher, as day to day interactions with new colleagues have a way of suffusing one’s thinking with new perspectives and ideas. In 2004, we came to Princeton, an hour from where I grew up in Pennsylvania. The cutting-edge work here in experimental methods, neuroscience, and machine learning has convinced me that linguistics needs to embrace the full range of methods at our disposal.

I also now see that there are many unifying themes across newer work in linguistics. The usage-based constructionist perspective offers theoretical grounding for the growing field of sociolinguistics by emphasizing that language is a complex dynamic system with an important social dimension. The approach is also a natural counterpart to the healthy field of laboratory phonology, applied to grammar rather than sound:  both emphasize that generalizations emerge from learned distributions constrained by our general perceptual and cognitive abilities. The impressive strides being made within machine learning provides evidence that language can be learned, while simultaneously making clear that communicative goals are required to shape what it is that we learn.

Thanks to brilliant and committed students and postdocs, I’ve been able to branch out recently into projects on polysemy, second language learning, conceptual metaphor processing, computational linguistics, and language learning in individuals on the Autism spectrum. An appreciation of language’s complexities and nuances provides fertile ground for a panoply of research topics, constrained only by time and resources. As far as these constraints go, I appreciate that I have been immensely lucky.

But linguistics has a lot to offer both academia and our broader communities.  Embracing interdisciplinary efforts and keeping up with rapid changes within the field and beyond, hold the key to its future success.

Thanks for reading and if you want to donate to the LINGUIST List, you can do so here: https://funddrive.linguistlist.org/donate/

All the best,
–the LL Team

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