Why research into linguistics

That man is the soul of the universe is due to the importance of languages. Through languages, people gain knowledge, deliver culture, and over time form diverse civilizations. For the deep side of researching linguistics, the purpose of it is to explore the essence of human beings. Practically, linguistics helps people learn different languages by looking at the logic and principles of the language family from the differences and similarities.


Before you start to read this article, please feel proud of yourselves. Why? It is because you are performing one difficult skill right now—reading Mandarin Chinese (for Chinese speaking people or people who are able to read Chinese).

Among many official and non-official rankings, Mandarin Chinese is regarded as one of the most difficult languages to learn. As for learning Chinese, Chinese tones, homonyms and homographs are bewildering for Westerners, not to mention the writing of Chinese characters. For Westerners, Chinese characters are like horoscopes in the sky.

Therefore, that we can use Chinese smoothly and fluently is something to be proud of. As Chinese is a difficult language, would it mean that Chinese people are more intelligent than the Westerners?

Chinese learning is a difficult task for many Westerners. It is rumoured on the Internet that Chinese could be the most difficult language in the world by the fake news from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Although indeed the United Nation has never conducted this investigation, people can look up a large amount of information which is prudent to some degree to support the argument that Chinese is the most difficult language to learn by using the keywords ‘the hardest language to learn’. Examples are like this and this. Image created by Kai-Yuan Huang and Yu-Chen Chang

No difficulty to learning a language if one can find the button for ‘on and off’

It is fortunate that there is no so-called ‘the most difficult language’ in the world.

The difficulty of learning a language is based upon its relative position in the language tree to the mother tongue of the learner.

Taking people whose mother tongue is Taiwanese as an example, they will learn Hakka and Chinese more easily due to the similarities in the syntax and language structures of Chinese related dialects. For another example, Japanese people will learn Chinese more easily than English people because Japanese people adopt many Chinese characters within their own language.

In addition, there is no so-called difference to learning a ‘mother tongue’.

‘A baby, no matter which nationality he is, can speak English well if he grows up in an English environment. One growing up in a Chinese environment will speak Chinese naturally. Another one growing up in Africa will speak African languages spontaneously.’ Jo-Wang Lin, who is the Distinguished Research Fellow and Director of the Institute of Linguistics at Academia Sinica, said. He added, ‘There are between 4,000 to 6,000 languages spoken around the world. It is possible that one can learn any one of these languages’.

Having worked on linguistics for nearly 30 years, Jo-Wang Lin, who is the Director in the Institute of Linguistics, Academia Sinica, is one of the distinguished experts in Semantics in Taiwan.
Photo taken by Yu-Chen Chang


The cognitive competence of babies aged 2 to 3 is not developed enough. Perhaps they can neither tell left from right nor do simple arithmetic. However their competence in learning the mother language is extremely impressive. Before they turn 4, they may be considered as being language geniuses for a period of time. As for the reason for this ‘miracle’, the linguistics expert Noam Chomsky identifies that this is babies’ ‘language instinct’, which is the same as the sensory abilities with which they were born.

However, the efficiency with which babies learn languages reduces as they grow up. Thereby, when people learn foreign languages, they will find many difficulties, for examples, vocabulary, complicated grammatical usages, and Spanish rolling R sounds.

Lin thinks that people may not get back the learning efficiency which happens within their infant period. However, people can find it less difficult to learn foreign languages as they discover certain keys to learning languages.

A reflection from a mirror: the symmetry of the syntax between Chinese and English

Lin starts to talk about English, which is the most familiar foreign language for many people.

Chinese and English are entirely different languages. As for the aspects of spelling and writing, Chinese is a language with logographs, but English is a language with phonograms. In terms of sounds, Chinese is a language of tones, but English is a language of emphasis timing. Many differences include language orders and grammar. For instance, the writing order of a whole name is opposite.

In writing a Chinese name, people put the surname first and the forename secondly; on the contrary, English is opposite. But why?

A majority of people would face this problem. They will associate the answer to the question as follows: ‘Chinese people focus more on family concept so that the family name will be at the forefront. On the other hand, Western society focuses more on the individual so that the pattern is opposite.’ This way of illustrating these different language usages sounds reasonable. After all, a language is definitely affected by traditional cultures.

Thus, Lin adds, if the logic of this difference between Chinese and English is acceptable, what is the difference of the writing of dates and addresses between Chinese and English?

The figure shows the Chinese and English way of writing presenting a name, a date and an address.
Figure designed by Kai-Yuan Huang and Yu-Chen Chang

According to the figure provided, not only are the writing order of a Chinese name and English name opposite, but the date and address are too. If the previous statements are rational, do English speaking people focus more on ‘the day of the month’ than ‘the year’? Do they focus more on door numbers than the cities and the countries? Apparently, the logic of the ‘importance’ cannot be extended to the orders of the dates and addresses.

Lin continues providing one sentence for an example as follows.

The sentence patterns of both Chinese and English with the characters and words corresponding meanings are highlighted in the same colours with black, green, yellow, blue and red. Figure designed by Kai-Yuan Huang and Yu-Chen Chang

The sentence patterns of both Chinese and English with the characters and words corresponding meanings are highlighted in the same colours with black, green, yellow, blue and red.
Figure designed by Kai-Yuan Huang and Yu-Chen Chang

The orders of the two sentences are opposite except for the subjects. Following some examples, we can have some presumptions. Even though Chinese and English are different, as for the sentence patterns, they are like two persons, one of who stands inside and the other of who stands outside. They are symmetrical.

From the perspective of linguistics, every single sentence is like a drama. Inside the core of the drama is a verb.

Lin carries on examining the examples provided previously. For example, the verb ‘study’ is the core of the drama. ‘John’ is the main character. The rest of the words are supporting roles, which are modifiers. When modifiers are used with a verb, they become a ‘verbal phrase’.

It is intriguing that in English sentences verbs lead with the rest of the supporting roles following behind. However, in Chinese sentences, the supporting roles come first and finally the core of the verb comes after.

The verb is the core of the sentence, which means the ‘head’. From the figure, it shows that the positions of the heads of Chinese and English sentences are opposite.
Figure designed by Kai-Yuan Huang and Yu-Chen Chang

Key to language intuition: ‘the front head’ vs. ‘the back head’

Lin explains that in linguistics there is a method of categorizing languages, which depends on ‘the position of the head’.

English is a ‘front head’ language opposite to those are modifiers first, which means the important constituents are at the front and complements are in the back. However, Chinese is opposite to English. Chinese is a ‘back head’ language. Thus, the language placement of Chinese comes with modifiers first and the important constituents coming after.

The different placement of ‘the front head’ and ‘the back head’ explains the opposite orders of Chinese and English names, dates and addresses.

As for the whole name, the surname is a modifier which shortens the words of one’s name, for example, Chou, which means one is one of the members of the Chou family. A name is accurate to recognize the certain identification, for example, Jay Chou. The placements of Chinese and English names depend on the position of heads. The concept of ‘the back head’ in Chinese shows that the placement of the family name comes first and secondly the forename. On the other hand, the concept of the ‘front head’ in English is opposite, in which the first name comes at the beginning and the surname at the end. This same concept is applied to English dates and addresses.

Lin suggests that according to the terminology of linguistics, Chinese and English have different ‘head parameters’. Amongst different languages, finding out the principles of the parameters is one of the aspects of the research that the linguists dedicate themselves to. Lin adds that ‘it seems there is a row of power switches’. ‘As we adopt one parameter, we turn on one of the power buttons; the more power buttons you turn on, the more efficiently you learn languages’. Lin says.

Generally, regarding learning a language, people mention an abstract phrase, which is ‘language instinct’. Sorting the rules, inferring one thing to another and analogizing application can help people learn different and difficult languages, such as Greek and African languages. If you try your best to work out the way you learn languages, perhaps you can regain the proficiency of a ‘language genius’ that you had when you were four years old.

Q: Is your research about finding out the language rules to help people learn foreign languages more effectively?

A: (Smiling) Honestly, it is not like what I talk about sorting out the rules to learn foreign languages well. Finding out these rules of learning languages is an interesting pursuit. However, based upon the concept of head parameter, the area of linguistics focuses more on the aspect of ‘syntax’, especially in ‘logical semantics’.

My research is based on the methods of mathematics and logic. How the meaning of researching language is produced is based on the concepts of mathematical sets and functions to elaborate the components of languages. In Taiwan, I am the first one who dedicates themselves to this aspect of linguistics research by this mathematical method and I am also one of the minorities who engage to do this research in the greater Chinese area.

Q: Why do you like to work on linguistics and in addition why do you specialize in the area of semantics?

A: As for the interest of doing research, I find that I have come to like it over time. When I was at university, I started to take linguistics courses and later I became more interested in syntax. At that time, the most attractive thing for me was to find out the process of the language rules and demonstrations. After graduating from university, I started to be obsessed with appreciating the beauty in and symmetry between languages when I did my masters degree at National Tsing Hua University. Due to my desire for getting to know how the beauty of symmetry in language formed, I continued my academic career and worked on my PhD in linguistics in America.

It was when I wrote my PhD thesis that I literally learned semantics. During the period of my masters, I was lucky that I met distinguished tutors who helped me learn much about syntax. Thus, when I studied in America, the course of syntax was relatively easy for me. However, ‘logical semantics’ was a course that I had never heard of before. Not until the time I wrote my PhD thesis and adopted many concepts of philosophy, logic and mathematics did I have some understanding of this field.

It occurred to me that my tutor said ‘one should be equipped with abilities so that they would know how to deal with things in society. Therefore, I came to ask Angelika Kratzer, who was a famous and distinguished semantics expert, to be my supervisor. With the help from her, I completed my PhD thesis and this led me to the career of working on logical semantics.

The research of linguistics is interesting and especially in my research area I do not really rely on expensive devices. It often requires my brain, literature reviews and linguistic databases so I can enjoy writing an article or a book in an imaginary world. Without being limited by my external environment, I really enjoy working on this area.

Some thoughts come to mind when I have a walk. I can finish one article within several weeks if I try to do it quickly.

Seldom do people work on semantics in Taiwan. Thereby, no matter what I do, it is easy for me to be a pioneer within this area. I enjoy seeing the views which people haven’t seen yet and help people follow the things I have done. It is amazing.


|Editor: Kai-Yuan Huang

|Art editor: Yu-Chen Chang

|Translator: Ching-Yi (Ann) Wang