Noam Chomsky Teaches Linguistics to UA Students

Members of the campus community and the public are welcome to attend Noam Chomsky’s lecture: “Minimal Computation, Learnability, Evaluability, and the Architecture of Language” (part 2)

March 31, 5 p.m.
Social Sciences 100

On March 24, more than 150 UA students showed up early to hear a lecture on “Minimal Computation, Learnability, Evolvability and the Architecture of Language.” The crowd included not just the students signed up for the course, but students and faculty from all over campus. The appeal: The lecture was being given by Noam Chomsky.

Noam Chomsky, widely considered the father of modern linguistics, is currently in his second week of a two-week stint as a visiting faculty member in the UA Department of Linguistics.

Chomsky, a professor emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is credited with revolutionizing the field of linguistics by introducing the Chomsky hierarchy, generative grammar and the concept of a universal grammar, which underlies all human speech and is based in the innate structure of the mind/brain. Beyond linguistics, his work has influenced fields such as cognitive science, philosophy, computer science, mathematics and psychology.

"He literally invented the discipline and has been leading it for 60 years," said linguist Andrew Carnie, dean of the UA's Graduate College.

This is Chomsky’s third visit to the UA in four years, primarily due to Chomsky’s long-standing connections to the faculty in the Department of Linguistics. During this visit, his longest yet, Chomsky is lecturing twice to students in a biolinguistics class (LING 449A/549A). He gave a book signing for his new book “Why Only Us? Language and Evolution” and was a panelist at the March 25th event “A Conversation on Privacy” with Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Nuala O’Connor, presented by the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. While on campus, Chomsky will also have individual meetings with faculty and students. 

“This is such a unique and invaluable experience for all of us in the Department of Linguistics," said Simin Karimi, head of the department.

To  familiarize students with Chomsky's work, Karimi is co-teaching a biolinguistics class this semester with Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, professor of linguistics and cognitive science; and Regents' Professor Tom Bever, who has appointments in linguistics and cognitive science. The teachers decided to invite the campus community and the public to Chomsky’s two lectures to the class.

Dalin Oakes, a graduate student in classics, said she attended the talk “because it’s Noam Chomsky! I’ve heard about him in so many of my classes. When my professor realized Chomsky was speaking tonight, he actually canceled class so we could come.”

Natalie Dailey, a graduate student in speech, language and hearing sciences, disagrees with Chomsky’s theory on language, but still wanted to hear him talk: “I am curious to see if he has softened his views on the innateness of language. I come from the theory that language is actually learned through statistical regularities and through being exposed to statistical properties of language.”

Bever, who was one of the first graduate students in the linguistics program started at MIT by Chomsky and Morris Halle, introduced Chomsky to the class saying, “It is hard for us to realize until it’s too late that we are in the presence of greatness. Noam is easily viewed, correctly viewed, as one of the giants of linguistics, so this is a great honor for us.”

Chomsky adjusted his mic headset, joking that “this is the only piece of technology I’ve gotten to work in my life.” Cell phones put away, all eyes in the room focused on the man sitting behind the desk.

After the talk, Rolando Coto, a graduate student in linguistics, said, "It’s a tremendous honor to be taught by one of the founding minds of our field. His research program brings together numerous threads of inquiry in cognition and linguistic structure and ultimately transcends them to aim at the core of what makes us human."

“In contemporary linguistics, no one is more giant than Noam Chomsky,” said Noah Nelson, a linguistics graduate student. “To have the opportunity to hear him lecture is simultaneously humbling and invigorating, and reminds me of why I became a linguist in the first place.”

Published Date: 

03/29/2016 - 3:40pm