Humans are highly prone to cognitive bias. We habitually make bad judgements and draw unreasonable inferences from the available facts. These tendencies lead to many myths that persist in popular culture, and our beliefs about language show the power, prevalence, and persistence of such myths.
We may believe, for instance, that dialects are substandard English, or that texting harms teenagers’ literacy, or that women talk more than men. This last myth gives the name to an excellent new book of popular linguistics by Abby Kaplan, a linguistics professor at University of Utah: Women Talk More than Men: And Other Myths about Language Explained. Cambridge University Press kindly sent me a copy for review.
The book has 11 chapters, one myth per chapter. Each is structured logically, like a textbook, starting with an overview of popular ideas about a topic, comparing them with what linguists have found, and finishing with a conclusion, summary, bibliography, and so on. The bulk comprises a careful case study aiming to resolve a key question: Can animals talk to us? Are some languages more beautiful than others?
The answers to these questions can be complex, often taking the form Yes, but… or No, but… In addressing them, Kaplan reviews key studies on the topic, lucidly explaining their findings and limitations. What does the research show, and what does it not show? Are the results generalisable, and if so, in what ways?
This strategy gives readers a basic grounding in social science research; indeed, this is an explicit goal of the book. So as well as reviewing a broad array of language myths and linguistic experiment, Women Talk More than Men doubles as a mini-course in critical thinking. As Kaplan observes, in a helpful appendix on statistical analysis:
We’re very good at finding patterns, but we are often tempted to conclude that most of the patterns we see are meaningful, even when they’re not. In addition, once we think we’ve discovered a pattern, we tend to look for more evidence that the pattern is real and ignore any evidence to the contrary.
Kaplan’s book serves as a remedy for these tendencies. For example, a chapter on language acquisition explores whether children need to be taught language explicitly. Given the widely socialised convention of talking to infants, it may seem reasonable to suppose this practice is universal, and even necessary for children to develop speech. But some populations, including in the US, seldom address young children like this, and their children grow up speaking just fine. Kaplan notes:
It’s all too easy to study parents and children in our own culture and conclude that we’ve learned something about parents and children everywhere.
Bilingualism is another knotty subject tackled head-on: specifically, whether it helps or harms our intelligence. Perhaps surprisingly, as recently as the mid-20th century the consensus was that bilingualism was bad for you. This has changed completely: ‘most researchers today believe it’s beneficial’. Beneficial how, and what exactly we mean by bilingual, are among the things Kaplan works to resolve.
Along the way, she presents a wealth of fascinating material, for example this ‘spectacular example of widespread individual multilingualism’ in the sparsely populated Vaupés region of the Amazon:
This small region is home to more than 20 languages; some are related to each other (for example, some of the languages are about as similar as Spanish and Italian), but others are from completely different language families. Even though the area is linguistically diverse, the groups that live there share a large number of cultural traditions. One practice shared by most groups is that speakers of the same language are considered close relatives – essentially, brothers and sisters. This means that a man can’t marry a woman with the same native language, because that would be incest. And so, when she marries, a woman moves to her new husband’s community and inevitably brings with her a different language. The couple’s children are socially identified with their ‘father language’, but of course they learn to speak the mother’s language as well, and possibly languages spoken by other in-marrying women in the community (and their children). The result, not surprisingly, is massive multilingualism.
Kaplan notes with interest that no languages in this area are socially privileged over any others, but that great emphasis is placed on learning them properly, and without mixing. It shows, she writes, that ‘although language differences can be associated with social divides and antagonisms, they don’t have to be.’
Other chapters look at sign language, second-language acquisition, and linguistic relativity. Throughout, answers are reached with methodical care based on cautious reading of data. Tables and graphs are plentiful but not excessive, and readers are guided through them. Nor is it all serious, analytical stuff. A reference to the infinite monkey theorem prompts this amusing aside:
This story is meant as a memorable illustration, not a literal claim. ‘Monkeys at keyboards’ are supposed to represent a process that generates random letters; real monkeys, of course, would be unlikely to do this. In 2003, a computer was placed inside a monkey enclosure in a zoo in Great Britain; the monkeys typed several pages of the letter ‘s’ and urinated on the machine.
My only gripes are trivial. With half a dozen or so typos, proofreading could be improved. I don’t care for the cover – though others might – or for the hefty hardback price (UK£59.99, US$94.99). Luckily the paperback is more manageable, at £15.99 or $24.99.
Kaplan’s book is a pleasure from start to finish and is written in a clear, engaging, and persuasive style. It’s an insightful and accessible work that – while aimed at students – will appeal to anyone interested in language and linguistics, especially those who enjoy a good debunking or fancy a primer on what (some) linguists do or what science can be about.
Women Talk More than Men: And Other Myths about Language Explained is available in hardback, paperback, and ebook formats: you can order it from Cambridge University Press, Amazon, or your preferred bookshop. At the Cambridge site you can read the introduction (PDF), browse the contents, and download supplementary resources. You can also hear Prof. Kaplan speak about some of the myths on Irish radio.