Psychology Magazine

Language: A Task Analysis (kind Of)

By Andrew D Wilson @PsychScientists
In the last post, I discussed the similarities and differences between language and other types of information. From the first person perspective, spoken language is just another type of auditory event. The main distinction between the word "dog" and the sound of a dog barking is that the auditory event of barking is about the thing that caused the sound - a barking dog - while the auditory event of the word "dog" is not about the thing that caused the sound - a human speaker. The word "dog" is (usually) about an animal that is related to the auditory event by convention. Thus, the sound of a barking dog conveys auditory information and the sound of the word "dog" conveys linguistic information.
In this post I want to lay out classes of tasks in which linguistic information is useful. As a starting point, I will identify situations where language appears to fill a gap, although at this point these are no more than general descriptions. In any specific task analyses that might eventually follow, the basic strategy will be to begin by asking what perceptual resources exist to carry out the task. If perceptual resources are unable to explain task performance and if linguistic resources are available, then these will be considered for their potential contribution. It might be helpful to think of linguistic and perceptual information as occupying different niches in a task space. Perceptual information helps me to walk and catch a fly ball and linguistic information helps me do the types of things described below.
1. Expanding the range of knowledge about the environment
Perceptual information is limited in time and space. From a given point of observation, I can perceive some things about the environment, but not others. I can see a tree that is in my direct line of sight, but I can't see the dog behind it. I can hear the dog bark behind the tree, but I can't hear the bark of a dog 10 miles away. For the auditory event of a barking dog to be informative I have to be close enough to the dog at the time it is barking. If I am close to the dog but it is silent or if I am too far away from a dog that is barking, then I will not learn about the dog's presence via auditory information. Similar limitations apply to all modalities of perceptual information. This means that our ability to learn about properties of the environment via perceptual information is always limited in time and space by our ability to detect the information. This constraint is due to the nature of the mediums through which perceptual information flows (e.g., air, water).
Linguistic information is not similarly bound by time and space. A language user must be within earshot of auditory linguistic information (or within sight of visual linguistic information), but that speech event can be about properties of the environment that are not perceivable from that point of observation. Thus, linguistic information extends the range of properties we can know about an environment.This is due to the nature of the medium through which linguistic information flows (language) because the relationship between information and what it means (although, see my below for me waffling over the use of the word "meaning" in cases like this) to be one of convention rather than specification and this allows the meaning of the event to be different than the physical event that causes the linguistic information (e.g., a speaker).   2. Conducting speech acts
Austin introduced this idea in his book "How to do things with words." Essentially, there are some actions that cannot exist without language. For example, it is impossible to get married in the US without the words "I now pronounce you husband and wife." The act of marriage is accomplished via these words. It is impossible to make a promise to someone without language (or some other symbolic act that has a conventional meaning of promising). 
3. Recording information
This is essentially an extension of point 1 above, but it is such a specialised case that I thought I'd give it its own category. Language allows information about the world to be preserved over very long time scales and distances through songs and writing. This function of language critically allows humans to build upon prior knowledge and is one source of stability in culture.
4. Directing behavior within the perceivable environment
Linguistic information can be used to shape behavior within an environment. A person who is seated in front of two equally graspable objects can reliably be made to choose one rather than the other on the basis of linguistic information (e.g., "pick up the red one"). It is interesting to note the difference between linguistic direction of behavior and the compulsory effecting of affordances. If I perceive an affordance and if I am disposed to effect that affordance (by having assembled the right kind of task specific device), then I must effect the affordance (yes, yes, I know this is contentious. Regardless, acting on perceptual information is more obligatory than acting on linguistic information). This is not the case with linguistic information. If some one tells me "pick up the red one" I don't necessarily have to comply. However, linguistic instructions often do work because humans are social animals with complex notions of behavioural appropriateness and obligation. Understanding this class of tasks will necessitate a good understanding of the social embededness of language.
These four categories are about things that can't be accomplished very well without language or some other form of symbolic communication. To accomplish #1 and #3 you have to be able to refer to things in their absence, which means that you have to have something to hand (words, gestures, etc.) that can substitute for things that aren't there. The actions described in #2 only exist in the medium of language. #4 is a borderline category. It is possible to use gestures to direct someone to a particular object in the environment, but, you can direct people more accurately (and to do more complex things) if you also have language.
The next three categories are about things that don't necessarily need language, but that we use language for nonetheless.
5. Social relations
Humans are extremely social animals. Not only do we need each other's company, but the network of relationships we form is large and complex. Apprehending the meaning of linguistic information can cause changes in emotional states in ways that maintain, strengthen, or break social bonds.
6. Self-regulation and loopy cognition 
One of the interesting things about linguistic information is that we can create it for our own use. I can tell myself to stop wasting time on the internet, I can repeat the items on a grocery list until I get to the store, I can recite a mantra during meditation. The creation of this type of linguistic information changes our own behavior - I get back to work, buy the right stuff at the store, or slow down my heart-rate. The parallel case in perception/action is our ability to move around, which changes the landscape of affordances in the environment.
7. ???
I don't know quite how to capture this category at present. We talk to dogs and washing machines and thin air. We talk to things that can't possibly understand what we're saying. At first I was tempted to lump this in with #6, but I think there is something distinct going on here. We don't actually expect dogs to understand what we're saying, but talking to animals seems to be about communication at some level anyway. This makes it distinct from self-regulation. Talking to / yelling at inanimate objects cannot really be an act of communication, but then why do we do it? Is it simply a way to let off steam (which is self-regulatory)? Perhaps language is just one of the mediums through which we channel energy -  humans simply natter on.
Perceptual-linguistic systems
Our use of perceptual information is context-specific. The online control of locomotion involves perceiving terrain with respect to our current capabilities. Just looking at an environment doesn't tell us about whether we can move through it; this information must be calibrated with respect to our bodies and current state. Thus, our actions (e.g., can I walk over this surface?) reflect perceptual and embodied factors.
Another way to say this (although not the way it is usually talked about) is that the meaning of an information variable is inherently multidimensional. Although from the 3rd person perspective, we can examine an information variable and see that it specifies, say, the catch-ability of a fly ball, from the 1st person, perceiving a variable in itself is meaningless. In order to learn the meaning of / how to use an information variable, we must perceive it in concert with other perceptual information that tells us the consequences of undertaking a particular action with respect to that variable. Even in a trained system, other information always impinges on the specific meaning of an information variable in a given context. For example, the state of my body (exhausted versus energised) changes whether an information variable about catch-abiltiy means catchable or not catchable (this is accomplished because the state of my body changes how I am able to move with respect to the variable). Thus, the specific meaning of an information variable is multidimensional (relies on multiple sources of information) and context-specific.
Our use of linguistic information is also context specific. In this case, the meaning of a particular speech event arises via a system comprising both linguistic and perceptual information. Linguistic information is always embedded in a broader perceptual context and the way we use linguistic information is inseparable from this context.
Consider the sentence "I am going to kill you" in the following contexts:
Said by a stranger hiding in the alley
Said by you when your partner forgets to take off work to see your daughter's play
Said by your partner who was just startled by the surprise birthday party you arranged for them
The way the sentence "I am going to kill you" influences our behavior (or, what it means) is mostly dependent on the broader perceptual context in which it appears.
Here is an example taken from the glorious tumblr, Sh*t my students write that illustrates the same point:
Eye contact can show you how much the person means what they say. For example if a husband looks his wife in the eye and says “I love you” it will come across better then him looking at his car and saying it even if he sometimes loves his car more. 

Indeed. An utterance does not have a core meaning that is modified by context. Meaning arises from perceptual-linguistic systems that evolve over time and space.
This presents an apparent paradox. Earlier I said that a speech event and its meaning are related via convention. Now I am saying that the meaning of a speech event is also determined by perception (of the current context) and that a given utterance has no core meaning. The seeming paradox arises because it is tempting to equate the notion of the conventional meaning of a speech event with a definition of a word (e.g., the meaning of the speech event "dog" is equivalent to the definition of the word "dog"). In ecological psych, meaning is defined in terms of appropriate use. So, if I can use the word "dog" correctly, then I know what it means.
** As an aside, our cultural view of language is strongly bound up in the idea of definitions. The longest books our culture produces are lists of definitions called dictionaries. But, consider the fact that it is possible to be fluent in a language without knowing a single definition. When children learn language it is always in the course of doing things. You don't sit a baby down with a dictionary and recite the definition of "water" to her. You say the word "water" whenever it occurs to you that it is relevant in the course of daily life. It is surprisingly easy to catch people using words correctly that they can't define - "nonplussed", "enervate", and "penultimate" are fun ones to try. These are unlikely to trip up readers of this blog, but the point is that language works perfectly well without the concept of definitions. And, without the concept of definitions permeating our culture, it is interesting to reflect on whether linguists and psychologists would have felt the need to invent the idea to explain language use.**
Since speech events are not about the physical production of the speech sounds, whatever meaning such events do have will be conventional. This does not necessitate that the meaning will be the same across contexts. In fact, the further I delve into this question the more I am convinced that meaning only exists at the level of perceptual-linguistic systems. There is, of course, some stability in the way a word is used a across contexts. The traditional cognitive approach is to try to explain such stability by invoking concept representations. A successful ecological explanation for language use must also be able to explain stability, but, to me, this isn't the interesting bit. A more important line of investigation is how perceptual-linguistic systems facilitate successful communication given variability in meaning.
In fact, look, if I were to go back and re-write the last post I wouldn't talk about meaning at all for either perceptual or linguistic information. I would only talk about appropriate use - do we know how to use words to change the world in ways that suit us? Ecological psych talks about "direct access to meaning" in terms of what happens when we perceive an information variable. But, what this really means is that we are able to coordinate our action appropriately with respect to this information variable. This is the same thing we need to know about language - how do we coordinate our actions with respect to linguistic information?
A note on representations
It is worth stating explicitly that this take on language is non-representational. Representations are not needed to explain how linguistic information can guide behavior and be informative about the world. Establishing a parallel with perception-action helps to explain why. 
In perception, we have to learn to detect information variables or event structures and then we have to learn the meaning of / how to use these variables or events. As perceivers (and not psychologists adopting a 3rd person perspective) we don't know that these variables or events are in a specification relationship with the environment. The fact that they are in this type of relationship means that we can use these variables in the continuous control of action (because they are sufficiently stable). But, as perceivers we don't know anything about specification and we don't need to. As perceivers, our job is to figure out how to use information appropriately (i.e., to figure out what the information means). We don't get access to this for free; we have to learn it over time. 
Ecological psychology doesn't pay enough attention to the acquisition of meaning and this can make it seem like detecting an information variable is always equivalent to knowing how to use it, but this is true only for a trained system. Exactly the same problem is faced by the language learner. First we learn to detect linguistic information and then we have to learn how to use this information. Although perceptual information means what it means in virtue of its relationship to the physical world and linguistic information means what it means in virtue of its conventional use, the task facing the learner is identical. Differences arise not because perceptual information and linguistic information are fundamentally different things but because they occupy different niches and probably because what constitutes appropriate use of linguistic information is much less stable than what constitutes appropriate use of perceptual information.
This parallel means that if representations aren't required for perception-action, then they aren't needed for language either. People are generally more willing to accept a non-representational account of perception-action because it jives with our intuition about how things work. When I walk down the street I don't need to recall my walking representation, I need to look where I'm going. Many people's intuition about language is that we do have to recall/activate a word's representation in order to use it. But, perhaps, like walking, language is also basically about looking where we're going. In any case, it's not good science to rely on what is intuitive and to reject whatever seems odd. There is a good argument that  perception-action can work without invoking representations and there is a solid theoretical framework for understanding how it works without representations (ecological psychology). If language is the same type of thing as perception-action, then it too will work without representations. We should not dismiss this logic because it seems weird or counter-intuitive to think of language in this way.
To summarise the main points:
1. We talk to ourselves, to things that don't understand us, to things that do understand us and we talk to us/them ABOUT language things, social things, stuff in the room, stuff out of view and stuff that doesn't exist IN ORDER TO change something about the world to suit us
2. For a given task, the first place to look to explain performance is perception. If perception cannot explain task performance and if linguistic information is present, then consider how linguistic information is being used
3. What constitutes appropriate use of linguistic information emerges from perceptual-linguistic systems rather than from linguistic information alone.
4. If perception-action is non-representational, then language use is non-representational
This post and the two previous ones summarise my attempt to explain language use within an embodied and ecological framework. There are many, many unknowns still, but now begins the fun part of actually doing some research to see whether the data support these ideas (BTW, there will be some fully funded PhD studentships on this topic advertised shortly). In terms of the basic approach, I still need to work out the kinks in how I talk about meaning. I could have spent another week or so re-writing this to make the language more precise. But my maternity leave is ending and I'll be back to work soon so getting out something is better than nothing!

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