Dr. Greg D.S. Anderson

Dr. Greg D.S. Anderson is Courtesy Professor of Linguistics at University of Oregon, a consultant for National Geographic Society, and is featured in the documentary film The Linguists.

What is your background?

I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and attended a boarding school for high school. I received my Bachelor of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in Linguistics. I worked at University of Manchester (UK) for several years and then founded Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in the early 2000s.

What is your profession?

I am a linguist. I work on language documentation, helping minority language communities to cross the digital divide, and raise public awareness about the global language documentation crisis. Within linguistics, I am interested in language history (change in language over time), development and extension of grammatical systems.

(Followup) How important is grammar when learning a new language in your own (personal or professional) studies? 

Grammar is key to making the communicative functions of language possible, and what gets constructed by children as they acquire their mother language. This is basically a very different process than learning a second language, since you are always starting with a base line there that does not exist per se in infants.

There are many different theories and approaches to what constitutes the goals of language learning and pedagogy, so what it means to learn a language well would be held to different sets of criteria or standards even by people engaged in second language teaching and learning.

Of course one wants to “sound fluent” and this entails both pronunciation and grammar. Every person is different, but if you don’t start learning a language early enough in life, you may understand and use it perfectly but never sound like a native speaker, or can’t always do so. When learning a second language, grammar is important for both processing what is similar and what is different on perhaps a more subtle level than the sounds of the second language, and apart from certain adverbs and discourse particles and such (which are notoriously difficult for non-native speakers to get right in all contexts), one can even get closer to native performance with adequate immersion in the language.

As for learning a second language, understanding the typology of grammar can be a useful tool since, among other things, it can help explain why you might expect to find a particular feature–a number of features are non-randomly distributed in correlation with other specific features. For example, if the verb starts a sentence as the default order, then adjectives and numerals generally follow the noun, as in Classical Arabic, Old Irish, or many modern Pacific languages. This could happen in reverse, where the verb typically comes at the end of the sentence, then there is likely to be a system where all non-final verbs (like in a conjoined sentence such as “Bill went to the store and bought milk”) get marked a special way, and only the last verb gets the full subject and tense marking, etc. (Turkish, Japanese, most languages of Papua New Guinea).

(Followup) You mentioned [in the film The Linguists] that when working with a native speaker of a dying language, you start with simple words like body parts and numbers. What happens when you want to move from words to phrases? How much work goes on at the sub-lexical level? How important is morphology in other languages as compared to English?

Morphology is VERY important in many languages. Languages like English and Mandarin Chinese show a relative lack of morphology probably in part due to the fact that these languages accommodated to its many second-language users over centuries as earlier versions of both had much more morphology. Typically one finds cycles where things are developed, eroded and lost, and possibly renewed. Even relatively closely related languages can show differences that are quite great like English vs. German/Old Norse, or almost all Bantu languages vs. the ones found in Cameroon and southeast Nigeria, which are quite reduced. However, very high contact languages need not be reduced since the Bantu language Swahili, for example, is quite developed morphologically, but Arabic-speaking traders in Zanzibar played a significant role in its codification and it spread.

What is your experience with language within your profession?

The vast majority of work I do within our profession directly relates to language in various capacities. However, it varies between more esoteric and academic concerns to ones more applied or practical in orientation.

Where can we find more about your work?

www.livingtongues.org, the film The Linguists, or the YouTube channel “Enduring Voices”