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Language as key to unlocking the human mind

An interview with Enoch O. Aboh
Interview Enoh Aboh
Enoch O. Aboh

(The following is an interview that appeared in the May 2013 issue of the Faculty of Humanities Newsletter).

Where others regard it merely as a means of communication, language for Enoch O. Aboh offers a way of understanding culture, life and even the inner workings of the human mind. As comparative linguist and profiling professor of Learnability since September 2012, Aboh sees countless possibilities for collaborating with other disciplines. ‘For the future of our domain, it is essential that we become more interactive and reach out to researchers from other disciplines.’ 

Accidents and luck 

One of the first things that strike me as I enter a sun-drenched office is the affable nature of a man who humbly describes his impressive career as a succession of accidents and luck. Growing up in Benin in the 1980s, Enoch O. Aboh had little idea of the bright future that awaited him as a professional linguist. ‘I initially studied economics before moving to neighbouring Togo and graduating with a Bachelor’s in English. In those days the only thing that an English graduate could do was become a secondary school teacher, which didn’t seem very attractive at the time.’ Deciding to pursue a more practical line of study, Aboh chose to study translation at the University of Geneva, but ended up missing the entrance exams due to administrative reasons related to his visa application. Forced to wait another year to do a retake, he started exploring computational linguistics and linguistics, two subject areas which had interested him while studying English. ‘I decided to take some courses in linguistics at Geneva, which at the time was the European centre of generative grammar. I took a class taught by Prof. Luigi Rizzi, and was so impressed that I ended up enrolling in the university’s linguistics programme.’ 

Rediscovering language 

In 1998 Aboh's sudden love affair with linguistics became a lasting relationship when he completed his dissertation on the clause structure of sentences in the Kwa language group. Titled From the Syntax of Gungbe to the Grammar of Gbe (Geneva 1999), Aboh’s thesis is devoted to the micro-comparative study of the Gbe languages (a subfamily of the Kwa languages of West Africa) and explores the principles underlying cross-linguistic variation within this language group and typologically different languages such as Romance and Germanic. ‘I had originally intended to explore question formation in French, but was encouraged by my supervisor Liliane Haegeman to focus on Gungbe, which is a language I can speak but on whose linguistic structure I had received no instruction (e.g. grammar, phonology, morphology, semantics). To understand this, it is important to know that in Benin, a former French colony, French is the unique language of instruction and no so-called national language is tolerated in school, not even as a subject of study. Accordingly, I could not even identify the part-of-speech or the grammatical elements of Gungbe, a language I could speak naturally but which I did not think was worth studying. My research on this language and other languages of the Gbe and Kwa family therefore gave me the extraordinary opportunity to rediscover my indigenous native language, which I could then compare to other languages I spoke natively (e.g. French) or as a second language learner (e.g. English). As my work evolved, it became clear to me that certain linguistic phenomena, which I once assumed typical of languages with an oral culture, are constant across typologically different languages as well as across oral or written cultures. A new world had been opened to me.’ 

Joining the UvA 

After completing his dissertation, Aboh continued working as an associate professor at the University of Geneva before joining the Amsterdam Center for Language and Communication as a postdoctoral researcher in 2001. ‘I was attending CALL (Colloquium on African Languages and Linguistics) in Leiden where I presented a paper on focus constructions in the Gbe languages and struck up a conversation with Norval Smith. He made comments on my paper and told me that he had written a paper on the same focus particle I discussed in my paper, but which was also found in Saramaccan, a Suriname Creole. We talked about my dissertation and how I had sought to map the similarities and dissimilarities between Gbe (Kwa) languages. Having proposed a very fine description of these languages, which have been prominent in the formation of certain Creoles like Sranan, Saramaccan, and Haitian, I mentioned that the next step for me would be to examine these Creole languages on the basis of my findings. This we both agreed would inform us on how these Creoles emerged and shed light on whether they have linguistic properties that are typical of West African languages as opposed to other properties typically found in Romance and Germanic languages.' Almost two years after their conversation,Smith, who had himself been doing research jointly with Pieter Muysken on  the development of Surinam Creoles, formally invited Aboh to come to Amsterdam and participate in the NWO-funded research project 'A transatlantic sprachbund? The structural relationship between the Gbe languages of West Africa and the Surinam Creole languages'. This joint project between the UvA and the University of Leiden aimed to identify and account for potential structural relationships between Surinamese Creoles and the Gbe languages. Aboh: 'Looking back at my decision to take part in the project, I realise now that it was a good move in the sense that it made me think about where language variation comes from, who creates it and how its creation can be accounted for.'

A love of linguistics

Aboh's interest in language variation would go on to play a more prominent role in his research at the UvA. In 2003 he was awarded a Vidi Grant for the project 'The typology of focus and topic: a new approach to the discourse-syntax interface'. This project sought to investigate the nature of the interface between discourse pragmatics and syntax by exploring how grammatical rules that determine the structure of a sentence interact with discourse/pragmatic properties. Following this project, Aboh' work continued developing along two main axes: comparative syntax with a focus on linguistic variation and typology, and the comparative syntax of Creole languages as they relate to their source languages. In exploring these aspects, his own research took a clear turn towards understanding issues of language acquisition and change. 'One of the things I learned from my work on Creole languages is that speakers and learners have this profound capacity of taking different language elements and recombining them into a coherent grammatical system. This  seems to be an essential aspect of our "learning algorithm", which we can also see in the formation of new words. For example, take the word "Whatsapp", which was actually a fused sentence "what is up?" with interrogative meaning, but later became a noun after the final part was manipulated substituting the preposition "up" for what looks like an affix "app", taken from "application". The newly formed word somehow maintains the interrogative meaning, but also means communicating with friends using a specific application on one’s smartphone or any similar android device. This led to the usage of this word as a verb, which Dutch infinitive form takes the affix "en", as in "Whatsappen". This verb, however, consists of two parts, one Dutch and one English. This a clear example of the things that learners are capable of, and which I seek to understand in my current research; how are they able to do this, and what are the principles behind it?'

Making linguistics accessible in Africa 

As someone for whom linguistics has been a key to unlocking a new world in the study of languages, Aboh is passionately involved in making linguistics accessible on the African continent. Aboh: 'One thing I learned while contributing to our knowledge of the differences and similarities between languages, is that much of the work we do here is unknown in Africa for reasons mainly related to the unaffordability of books and material.' Given this state of affairs, many African languages are still considered by their speakers as worthless both on economic and scientific counts. Wishing to play a part in increasing linguistic awareness in Africa, Aboh started collaborating with linguists from Rutgers University and New York University and in 2007 formed the African Linguistics School (ALS). Unique in terms of its objectives and teaching methodology, the ALS aims to expose African students to new advances in linguistics and help them conduct further research on Africa languages. Held in 2009 and 2011, this year’s ALS will take place in Ibadan, Nigeria and will involve about 80 students. Aboh: ‘With the help of funding from the UvA and others we were able to cover students’ travel and accommodation costs in 2011.’ As for the need for such a school, Aboh is in little doubt. ‘I am really involved in the ALS, not only because it’s important that African students contribute to the debate, but also because West Africa is one of the regions with the highest rate of language diversity on earth; it’s a goldmine for linguistic research. If there is anything to be discovered in language acquisition, language variation, contact and change, it’s there!’

An ambassador of learnability

Listening to Aboh talk about the need to expand linguistic knowledge, it seems obvious why he is the ideal person to play a leading role in the Learnability programme, which forms part of the Brain and Cognition research priority area. As professor of Learnability, Aboh will be responsible for bringing together a diverse mix of researchers and formulating collaborative, cutting-edge research programmes. Aboh: ‘There are three concrete aspects to my position: one is to develop a new working hypothesis in terms of learnability by introducing new courses related to learnability and linguistics, and the other is to formulate new research proposals and securing funding. The third aspect of my position requires me to act as ambassador for the Learnability programme and make it visible to the international community by networking with other universities.’

Interdisciplinary collaboration

Except for being the face of Learnability, Aboh is also enthusiastic about working together with other research institutes. ‘One area of my work that I am really involved in is the notion of brain and cognition, and how languages help us understand the properties of our brain. A typical example of this is the work being done in neurolinguistics on bilinguals who suffer from aphasia and who uncontrollably switch from one language to the next. When one considers that language learners also typically mix languages, what then does that tell us about the learning algorithm? Is it possible that the learning device automatically generates theses mixed outputs, and that in our communities we learn how to control this tendency so as to be able to stick to one particular register in a given language (e.g. formal vs. informal) or to one particular language (e.g. English, French, Gungbe)? Also important: how do we model such a learning system? How can we account for the diffusion of newly created forms in the community and how is that related to the emergence of linguistic as well as cultural norms? To help me understand this, I will need to work with researchers involved in evolutionary biology and genetics.’

Aboh also sees possibilities for collaboration in the field of cultural studies. ‘If you examine the way learners change language, you realise that learning and change run in tandem. This phenomenon not only has a huge impact with regard to linguistic knowledge, but also on our understanding of culture; how do we learn cultural conventions and taboos, and how can we account for the fact that culture is continually evolving? Assuming that change is inherently part of our learning algorithm, could it be that the change forming part of the learning process is actually a way ensuring the survival of a culture? This is an aspect of my work I would like to jointly investigate with colleagues from ASCA.’

A bottom-up approach to teaching 

As for his teaching duties, Aboh is currently responsible for several courses at the MA level, including: ‘Perspectives on Universals’, where data is described with the aim of  investigating the language blueprint as well as properties of what is (im)possible in human languages; and ‘Language Contact’, in which the focus is mainly on the structural changes that take place once languages come into contact with one another, as well as issues like code-switching and language mixing. ‘Unlike many universities I have been involved with, the UvA has a bottom-up approach to teaching. As someone who comes from a country with a very rigid academic system, I appreciate the fact that there is no hierarchy between lecturers and students. The fact that students can easily challenge everything we say, ensures a healthy academic setting and can sometimes leads to unexpected, productive partnerships.’