Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

LSA theme semester examines varied issues of language

What does it mean to "know" a language? How do children acquire language? What is the relation between language and culture?

As a defining human characteristic, language plays a central role in virtually all aspects of human activity. It also is a socio-cultural phenomenon and a formal system grounded in human cognition and biology. The study of language rests at the intellectual intersection of the humanities and the social, biological and behavioral sciences.

  Dancers perform mudra in the Odissi style of Indian classical dance. From left, Kritika Rajan, LSA first-year honors student; Debnita Talapatra, LSA second year student; Manoranjan Pradhan, Odissi dancer; Sreyashi Dey, communications manager, North Campus Research Complex; and Ishika Rajan, LSA first-year honors student. As part of the LSA Theme Semester "Language: The Human Quintessence," the women will perform “The Language of Mudra” at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Keene Theater in the Residential College. (Photo by Hans Anderson)

U-M's winter 2012 theme semester "Language: The Human Quintessence" will examine language through a series of free public lectures, courses, conferences, performances, and exhibitions as a window into the human mind, brain and society. The semester will serve as the nexus for investigating issues in philosophy, cognition and cognitive neuroscience, linguistic theory, developmental and social psychology, anthropology, ethnic and gender studies, evolutionary biology and information theory.

The semester is sponsored by LSA and the Department of Linguistics, together with faculty from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, the English Language Institute and the Residential College, and the departments of Afroamerican and African Studies, American Culture, Anthropology, Asian Languages & Cultures, Classical Studies, English Language and Literature, Germanic Languages & Literatures, Philosophy, Psychology, and Romance Languages and Literatures.

"Language fundamentally defines what it means to be human and governs how people act, interact and think," says Marlyse Baptista, professor of Afroamerican and African studies and professor of linguistics, who also is co-director of the theme semester. "The public is invited to examine issues of language endangerment, discover how people and societies communicate, how children and adults learn languages and the biological basis for our human capacity to produce language."

The semester officially kicks off at 4 p.m. Friday with a free lecture by Native American languages expert Leanne Hinton, professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, about the struggle of indigenous people to preserve their mother tongues. The lecture is at the William L. Clements Library, 909 South University Ave.

Other highlights of the semester include a dance performance and free public lecture.

Today, "The Language of Mudra" will explore the idea of language, expressed through mudra or hand gestures in the Odissi style of Indian classical dance, in a free performance by LSA students Debnita Talapatra, Ishika and Kritika Rajan, and Sreyashi Dey, communications manager for the North Campus Research Complex, at 7 p.m. at the Keene Theater in the Residential College, 701 East University Ave. Click here to view a preview.

On Feb. 2, Robert Mankoff, cartoon editor of The New Yorker magazine, will discuss the caption contest he created in 1998, analyzing data from more than 300 contests and 1.7 million entries, at 6 p.m. at the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library Gallery, 913 S. University Avenue. For more information go to