Bridging the boundaries: How braille and cognitive science research can inform each other, and why we should listen Dr. Robert Englebretson Dept. of Linguistics, Rice University [email protected]



Linguistics (and Cognitive Science)

• • Not just about word etymologies anymore! Research areas include: – – – How the brain processes and produces language (spoken and written) Child language acquisition The interaction of language in society – Documentation and description of endangered languages Research methodologies include: – Experimentation, brain imaging, qualitative methods, distributional analysis, ethnography, etc.

– What people do in the lab, vs what people do in real life (= “ecological validity”)

An Ethnographic Orientation to Braille

• • • For its readers, braille is a tactual writing system, commensurate with the visual writing system(s) used for a particular language For its readers, braille is not a “code” – Reading braille does not mean “decoding” it into print – Proficient/fluent readers have internalized the braille writing system on its own terms Many braille readers are also bi-literate: proficient in the print writing system too, especially for typing

A profound lack of Awareness #1

• • • Major works on reading, both general-interest and academic, completely ignore braille (E.g. Wolf 2007, Snowling & Hulme 2005) Major works on writing systems either ignore braille altogether, or include it in a chapter on shorthand (e.g. Daniels & Bright 1995) My response: developed and taught a seminar on braille for undergraduates at Rice U (syllabus available upon request); include a lecture on braille in general linguistics course unit on writing systems; raise awareness about braille as a valid/important field of study

A profound lack of Awareness #2

• • Braille authorities have likewise displayed a lack of awareness about the findings of reading and language research Bridging the boundaries = trying to bring these perspectives together

What we know about how reading works

• • • See the selected bibliography for some good overviews – Fluent readers process words and sentences in hierarchically organized chunks, not as flat strings of letters – People have tacit knowledge of the units of language: phonemes, syllables, morphemes, constituent phrases – – Importance of word meanings and association networks Importance of frequency (both ‘type’ and ‘token) One of the most crucial steps in reading is mapping these structures onto orthography (= the writing system), and to develop automaticity in doing so Reading fluency is more than (just) speed

Braille and tacit linguistic knowledge

• • • • All cognitively ‘typical’ people, whether blind or sighted, have (usually unconscious) knowledge of phonemes, syllables, morphemes, and phrasal constituents Whether coming to English braille as a child for your first writing system, or as an adult from print, these ‘chunks’ are part of your knowledge of English Making explicit the relationship between English braille contractions and the ‘chunks’ of English ( Hamp & Caton 1984; Lauenstein 2007) Some English braille contractions are structure-accentuating, while others are structure-attenuating

Bridging Contractions

• • Contractions that overlap the boundary between two ‘chunks’ Note that these units are defined in terms of form (phoneme, syllable, morpheme, etc.)

Turn to the handout for a discussion of selected examples

Discussion of findings from previous work.

Consequences for readers, and suggestions for future research.

Conclusions #1

• Relevance for Cognitive Science – English braille contractions is a complex issue, and an untapped and fertile testing-ground for investigating current issues in reading: frequency effects, dual-route models, the weights of roots vs affixes, the hierarchy of syllabic vs morphemic structure, and the resiliency of readers to adapt to systems that violate the natural chunks of language.

Relevance for braille authorities

• • Given what we know about how the brain works, how reading works, and how language is organized, the role of structure accentuating and structure-attenuating contractions needs to be made fully explicit, and investigated through well-designed and thorough studies of both braille reading and writing – When changes are made to braille contraction rules, structure attenuating contractions should be avoided if: • They introduce structural complexity that reduces fluency • They inhibit the bootstrapping and word recognition process Any changes to current rules should be done in such a way so as to make contracted braille more structurally accurate and psychologically sound