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The role of emotion

Language is complicated. It’s also intensely emotional.
Emotion is central to all human interaction, including language.
ASU linguist explores the emotional side of language.
March 2, 2016

ASU linguist explores the emotional side of language learning

Language is complicated. Anyone who has tried to use high school French to navigate the Champs-Élysées can tell you that.

It’s also intensely emotional, according to Arizona State University assistant professor Matthew Prior. Just take a look at the ecstatic faces of parents whose child has just uttered his first word.

Prior, who teaches applied linguistics and TESOLTeachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages in the Department of EnglishThe Department of English is an academic unit of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Prior is a 2015 recipient of the college’s Zebulon Pearce Distinguished Teaching Award., is interested in exploring the emotional side of language learning, use, teaching and research. He does so extensively in his most recent book, “Emotion and Discourse in L2 Narrative Research.”

book coverThe topic is a personal one for Prior. Growing up with a father who served in the military and later as a minister, being on the move was second nature.

“I probably lived in 30 different places growing up, all over the U.S. and Canada. And I lived overseas as well,” he said.

During that time, he was exposed to several different cultures and languages — including the French and German his parents sometimes spoke at home — sparking his interest in the subject at an early age.

The interest carried on into adulthood, and Prior spent several years teaching English as a second language in both the U.S. and Japan, eventually earning master’s and doctoral degrees in applied linguistics and second-language acquisition before making his way to ASU in 2011.

His specific interest in how emotion relates to language learning evolved from listening to people’s stories about their experiences of learning a second language and how it affected them over the course of their life. What Prior began to realize as he listened was that emotionality wasn’t just present in the content of their stories — it was present in the very process of telling their stories.

“In other words,” he explained, “emotionality is a lens by which people make sense of their experiences, as well as a means by which they communicate their experiences and their meanings to others.”

Why is that important? Because emotion is central to all human interaction, and studying its role in those interactions helps us better understand human emotional life. In the case of emotion’s role in language interactions, it helps us understand how people manage and regulate emotion and well-being in and through talking with others — something we all do, every day.

But this research is still fairly new.

“In anthropology, sociology, psychology and, of course, linguistics, applied linguistics and second-language acquisition, scholars have explored the connections among emotion and language, but we have just begun to scratch the surface,” Prior said. “Until recently, much emotion research has been dominated by cognitive perspectives, but now we are seeing a shift toward investigating emotions not as things inside people’s heads but as part of relating to others. This is where my work comes in. I look at emotion as interaction, as part of language, discourse and relationships.”

In his book, Prior looked specifically at the relationship between emotion and language learning among immigrant men who have lived in the U.S. and Canada for nearly 20 years. Because of the length of time they have spent in the countries, it is generally assumed that they should be acculturated and assimilated by now. However, because many are still struggling with emotions associated with memories of war and loss — often their reason for having immigrated — they are also still struggling with language. And not just second language.

“These are people who have lost parts of their first language,” said Prior. “These are things that we don’t often think about. We assume that once somebody [has mastered] their first language, they don’t lose it. And in fact, they do. And in fact, sometimes they’re forced to give up their first language in order to take on the second language, which is kind of sad.”

Many immigrants also struggle with the fact that they still have an accent, about which Prior says they often feel “an overwhelming amount of shame.” He continued, “These are people that have overcome amazing odds and carved out these amazing lives, but the fact that they still have an accent [brings about shame and anger].”

In acknowledgement of that, Prior takes time in his book to call for researchers to stop focusing on second-language speakers in terms of deficit but rather, in terms of competence.

Yet, perhaps the most important call to action Prior makes in his book is to appeal to second-language researchers to look at the research process itself because, as he put it, “these stories aren’t produced in a vacuum.”

It’s something that only a handful of scholars are looking at right now, and it’s called “social studies of interview studies” — unpacking the whole second-language interviewing research process and laying out “all the mess that went into putting all that together.” It's something Prior asserts is especially useful for novice researchers who otherwise would only see the polished end result.

“We need to start interrogating our research practices,” he urged, “because until we actually see what we are doing, we can’t improve our research practices.”

Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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Marching toward a better future

How do you build a better mousetrap? Ask ants for help, or inspiration.
ASU engineer studies ant colonies to improve computers systems, sustainability.
March 2, 2016

ASU engineer looks to ants, nature for inspiration of innovation, sustainability

When it comes to engineering a solution to a problem, Ted Pavlic looks to a specific source for inspiration ­— nature.

Pavlic, who joined ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering this year as an assistant professorPavlic is appointed jointly with the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering and the School of Sustainability., studies decision-making strategies for autonomous agents — like, for instance, a robot vacuuming the carpet.

“An effective vacuum cleaner must make decisions that are sensitive to its remaining charge, remaining space in its sweeper bin and the demographics of the kinds of tasks that are available for it,” PavlicPavlic is also the associate director for research at the Biomimicry Center at ASU, and he is formally affiliated with ASU’s BEYOND Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science as well as the Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity. Outside ASU, he serves as external faculty at the Human Computation Institute, a non-profit innovation center that advances the science of scalable crowd-power to tackle wicked societal problems. He earned a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering, with an emphasis on optimization and intelligent control from Ohio State University in 2010. said.

In other words, it needs to “think” like a human. Or an ant ... more on that in a bit.

“One day, it may make sense to concentrate on cleaning dirt around the baseboards,” he said. “Another day, baseboards might be ignored because of more valuable tasks that are plentiful in the middle of the floor. But the vacuum cleaner must make these decisions on-line in real time as it monitors its own state and discovers the state of the world around it.”

This is just one of many ways the solutions and ingenuity of the natural world can shape the development of engineering designs. Pavlic says that the goal of his research isn’t to simply translate these concepts, but to find inspiration from these biological solutions that can inform design contexts.

Ted Pavlic

“Naturally evolved biological solutions are tailored for their ecological context, and often the human technological context has important mismatches even when analogies are used,” said Pavlic (pictured at left). “Furthermore, scientists often find the ingenious natural solution that was once thought to be operating in a natural scenario is actually entirely different than the actual solution being used.”

A good example of that is the passively cooled Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe. The ventilation and cooling system in the shopping tower was inspired by an untested idea about what might be going on in towers in the termite mounds of Africa. Excited by the concept that African termites might have converged upon a general solution for building African towers, designers built the Eastgate Center to mimic this biological narrative.

But when researchers studied African termite mounds with modern technology, it was found that the actual natural story had nothing to do with the elaborate narrative once put forth.

“So a towering example of biomimicry turned into just another example of sustainably minded human ingenuity,” he said. “Nevertheless, that human ingenuity would not have been possible without first thinking about the termites, the problems that they have to solve, and the unique constraints imposed on them by their physiology and their ecology. The Eastgate Centre may not be biomimetic, and it might only be weakly bio-inspired, but it is certainly bio-informed. It is that kind of novel thinking that I try to catalyze by looking at natural problems through the eyes of an engineer.”

Insect inspiration

Termites aren’t the only insects with behavior worth modeling.

Several ant species have colonies that are able to regulate the colony-wide levels of protein and carbohydrate intake. This means, rather than bringing in whatever the nutrient mixture is in the background environment, individual ants are able to make coordinated decisions that reduce the intake of some food sources to compensate for having to increase the intake of other food sources that better meet the colony’s nutrient requirements.

“Each species of ant has a good solution to a particular problem that is modulated by details of its local environment,” Pavlic said.

How is this coordination across foraging individuals accomplished? 

“We certainly have similar multi-objective problems to solve in technological spaces,” Pavlic said. “For example, managers of the power grid must decide how to alter the state of one generator in order to better meet the increased demands of one area of the grid while recognizing that such a change may require reducing the supply from another generator.”

Currently, engineering solutions to similar problems are effectively centralized — either requiring a great deal of explicit coordination among distributed computing agents or requiring a central decision-maker. However, these ant colonies can reallocate their resources in a totally decentralized way with apparently very little communication and explicit coordination.

“Certainly there are many aspects of macronutrient regulation in ant colonies that would be foolish to mimic in the design of building power systems,” Pavlic said. “However, having a mathematical framework to pinpoint exactly what makes the decentralized implicit coordination possible in the ants gives insights on what things can be added to or taken away from conventional technological ways to solve these multi-objective resource allocation problems.”

One way to accomplish this might be to study the ants’ foraging habits.

“As we learn about what allows animals to work in highly effective groups, we can learn about how to make humans work more effectively in groups.”
— Ted Pavlic, assistant professor in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

When given two food choices that differ in quality, some ant species will quickly determine the best of the two choices and allocate all foragers to it, but they will be ignorant of a third food item added that is of even better quality. Other species will allocate all foragers to the best choice, but they will do so more slowly and will be able to discover and reallocate foragers to a third better choice after it is introduced. And other species will not choose one food, but they will instead continuously match the distribution of foragers to the relative quality of the available foods.

By understanding the different recruitment mechanisms in these cases, researchers like Pavlic can inform the design of technologies that help to aggregate information from groups of humans and coordinate the group decisions.

“Consider a large online shopping website. If products sold on that website receive a large number of good reviews and products are sorted by how well they are reviewed, then it is unlikely that the top-selling product will ever be dislodged by a new and better competitor unless viewers sometimes make mistakes and look at products other than the best-rated,” he said.

The idea that “mistakes” allow for discovery of new options is how you differentiate between the first two classes of ants that commit to one choice or, in the second class, are able to find a later better choice. However, the third class of ants uses a very different recruiting scheme that is analogous to having reviews that disappear after a certain number of people have read them. If a similar review mechanism existed on an Internet shopping site, users would likely discover new products much more quickly and all products on the site would receive attention proportional to their relative merit.

“So by studying the differences in recruitment mechanisms across ants, we can propose different mechanisms for sharing information in human groups,” Pavlic said. “This idea could be enormously useful in the case of crowd computing, where anonymous individuals contribute to some group outcome that may not even be possible to observe at the individual level.”

Looking to the future

Pavlic notes that the work he does isn’t all about making automation smarter.

“As we learn about what allows animals to work in highly effective groups, we can learn about how to make humans work more effectively in groups,” he said.

Over the next few years, he plans to illuminate how behavioral analysis can be used in the design of sustainable, resilient automation systems across a wide range of applications. In doing so, Pavlic will help to grow the field of operations research to better address the needs of high-performance multi-agent robotic systems as well as decentralized algorithms for the sustainable built environment.

“I think that decision-making algorithms are everywhere, whether we designed them ourselves or they were discovered by the process of evolution under natural selection,” Pavlic said. “If we approach them with a common engineering perspective, we can express them with a common language that helps to illuminate similar problem structures even if the application space is apparently different. This common language helps to recognize both the similarities and differences in solutions for similar problems.

“We need to view nature as a catalog of diverse solutions. We can participate in adding to that diversity with our own solutions, but we should also learn and borrow whatever we can from existing solutions when possible. Through this process, not only can science enhance engineering, but engineering can find a way to participate in the scientific process and contribute more than just new technology.”

Erik Wirtanen

Web content comm administrator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering