Beyond Words - Language Blog

Interview with Linguist and Author Dr. Michael Erard

Dr. Michael Erard’s body of research is enough to pique the interest of any language-lover. At the intersection of discourse and cognition, Dr. Erard explores linguistic phenomena, from metaphors to clarify concepts in early-education skill-building to the thinking that underlies how rock bands select their names. His latest book, Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners, probes the history of hyper-polyglots – individuals with an uncanny ability to acquire a staggering number of languages.

As a senior researcher with the FrameWorks Institute – an organization founded in 1999 to engage in robust research to create communications solutions for social problems – Dr. Erard writes about the use of metaphors as tools for shifting the way we view the world around us. ALTA Language Services spoke with Dr. Erard about explanatory metaphors, the virtue of verbal pauses, and the circumstances that inspired his research.

MK: I wanted to start by talking about the road that led you to the work you do, which seems to have a healthy blend of scholarship and popular appeal.

ME: A combination of things. I’ve always been interested in language and linguistics, and I remember clearly wanting to read things about language and linguistics and not finding things that were suitable, readable, interesting; things that fit where I was. Then in junior high I remember my dad showing me a book by Leonard Bloomfield, and that was a great introduction to linguistics. But at that age I found it quite daunting. Now we’re in a great age of popular writing about language.

MK: What factors best prepared you for the work that you currently do – university education, hands-on experience, mentors, upbringing, or something else?

ME: I’ve always been very self-directed in work and learning and I’ve had the chance to take a multi-disciplinary approach. In undergrad I studied economics, history, political science; then in grad school I went over to the social sciences side, then switched to the English department. Teaching, out of all of those, brought the threads together. The multi-disciplinary education that I’ve had gave me a willingness to meet students where they were and not assume that they have nothing in their heads and not want to try to develop their ideas into something else.

My career track was as much a matter of being pushed as pulled. I finished grad school in an era that had gone through an incredible boom economically and intellectually. I fell into a program aimed at training PhDs to take jobs outside of the academy, that encouraged original thinking. They understood that all these companies being built needed smart people with analytical skills, management skills, business skills – the new PhDs had all that. To be a PhD outside the university and be intellectually engaged, solving substantial problems allowed me to circumvent some of the angst and heartbreak that people experienced in tenure track jobs. I had been a freelance journalist for a while before grad school, and someone said to me, “You don’t have to become a professor.” I’ve been able to exercise control of my life. People are rarely presented with such a clear, forking path.

MK: Have you been happy with your decision?

ME: I nearly starved to death the first part of that time because I was doing it all wrong. I needed to learn some things about business. And so I retreated a bit. I wrote grants; I was an editor for the school of nursing at UT [University of Texas at Austin], and that gave me certain resources, like a library, gym, healthcare, and that allowed me to have the time and energy to focus.

MK: Let me ask you about your work with the FrameWorks Institute. I understand that you conduct research on metaphors. How does one analyze and test metaphors? How do you know when you’ve hit upon a particularly resonant one?

ME: We want to see how much a metaphor will affect an issue and the way people think about that issue. The metaphor will channel conversations in particular directions…. For instance, we know that if you ask Americans about who is responsible for children turning out well, many respond that the mother and father are responsible for teaching right from wrong. That’s not very helpful if someone is trying to build support for municipal or state or federal engagement in early child development. You can’t pay for mothers and fathers to be more involved…. So we think in terms of policy outcome and look for ways to make policy level solutions more thinkable.

Then we test the metaphor – ask people questions about their default position, then ask questions later and test a different metaphor. There are other tests that do, at the end of which we’re able to recommend one metaphor…. Once it’s out of our hands, we know how long it lasts; we know what sticks around, and then we give it to experts to do usability tests, and then debrief. We work specifically on social issues, so we work for non-profits…. We don’t do corporate stuff or partisan or electoral stuff.

MK: Do metaphors translate across cultures and languages?

ME: There’s a line of thinking that there are a limited number of conceptual categories that work across all cultures. We tend to see cultures as more particular than that, but we’ve also been focused mainly in the U.S.; some in Canada, Brazil, and the UK. Metaphors don’t always work in exactly the same way. The kinds of things that might hang up someone’s thinking that would require a metaphor in a particular culture might not work the same way in another culture. To address a certain issue, we might need a different metaphor. But if I can go back and edit, or rather expand upon what I said before, I suspect there are some issues and outlooks that are more universal when it comes to addressing those issues or overcoming cognitive biases, regardless of culture or historical error.

MK: Your most recent book [Babel No More] focuses on people that have an incredible knack for languages. How did you first become interested in hyper-polyglots?

ME: I came across a conversation online about who was the most lingual person in the world. Even among people who were ostensibly experts in language acquisition, there was so much discussion, disagreement…. It’s a boundary thing, a boundary case. If you’re interested in that phenomenon, the discipline would consider you kind of weird, so it was something no one had looked at.

MK: In your other book [Um. . .: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean] you hit upon a topic that’s particularly relevant to the translation and interpretation community. In your writing about verbal pauses, you mention a study that suggests that children under the age of 2 tend to pay more attention to unfamiliar words predicated with verbal pauses – as if perhaps the “uh” or “um” warns them that something new is coming and that they better pay attention. As interpreters, we are taught to eradicate those filler words and sounds. Is that a misled idea? Could it actually be detrimental for listeners to not have those pauses?

ME: I think so. In so many ways, the “uhs”, “ums”, and restarts are an indication of someone’s internal state. That’s exactly what we have language for, for communicating that. So we have to use these clunky things called words and these clunky bodies in order to bridge those distances between minds. I can imagine there are multiple situations where knowing someone has paused in a particular place provides a huge amount of information to someone who’s listening. Actually, having an interpreter bring over into the target language a speaker’s inability to find the right word – oh, and transcripts, same sort of thing. If someone got hesitant or disfluent on a particular topic when they weren’t before, that’s indicative of a certain mental state. You lose some information if the pauses aren’t conveyed.

For more information about Michael Erard’s research and publications, visit his website.

Interview has been condensed and edited.