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Oxford Professor Asifa Majid Calls for Greater Diversity in Linguistic Research in Harvard Radcliffe Talk

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Asifa Majid, a William Bentinck-Smith Fellow at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, presented her findings on the building blocks of language and conceptual variation during a presentation Monday.

The lecture, titled “Language and Thought,” centered on how language bridges thought and communication as well as the distinct properties that emerge from this connection.

During the lecture, Majid, a psychologist and professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Oxford, detailed the importance of fieldwork in her research of conceptual variation, or the differential representations of the same idea.

“Fieldwork to me is important because you want to go where language lives to improve the ecological validity of our findings,” Majid said. “It helps examine the nexus of culture, language, and daily discourse practice.”

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Majid said collaboration is crucial in her field of study, stressing that “one single person can’t do this.”

“I work with people who are committed to long-lasting, or long-scale, descriptive work in communities around the world,” Majid said. “They’re either doing fieldwork, or they’re native speakers themselves with expertise in these languages.”

Describing a study in which she and her colleagues investigated global responses to smells, Majid described how their findings identified a universal response despite differing languages.

“We look at the muscle movements of the faces and we can see that there’s a strong correlation in which smells elicit a disgust response and which ones elicit a more pleasant response,” Majid said. “What that suggests is that there’s an initial universal emotional reaction to odors, and then later cultural-specific packaging for language.”

Throughout the lecture, Majid highlighted the importance of increasing diversity in linguistic studies, using maps and statistics to demonstrate the geographical inequity in current research priorities.

Though language diversity is greater in Papua New Guinea and Africa, Majid said, it is relatively smaller in Europe. Majid cited a 2008 study showing that in contrast, 68 percent of psychological study participants come from the U.S., 14 percent come from the U.K., and 13 percent come from the rest of Europe — with just 5 percent coming from the rest of the world.

“This paper caused a big furor in the field and yet, when we look again a decade later, hardly anything shifted at all,” Majid said.

Majid finished the lecture by stressing the importance of expanding research beyond Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic — or “WEIRD” — linguistic study participants.

“More broadly, I think what it tells us is that we really need to go beyond our WEIRD participants to think about diversity,” Majid said.

—Staff writer Laasya N. Chiduruppa can be reached at laasya.chiduruppa@thecrimson.com.

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