Modeling Language Competition

Modeling Language Competition
Dr. James W. Minett, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Electronic Engineering, The
Chinese University of Hong Kong
Tue, May 8, 2007
MB104, HKU
4:30 p.m.
The world’s languages are becoming extinct at an unprecedented rate. At least half of
the languages now spoken are not expected to survive the 21 st century (Krauss 1992;
Crystal 2000). Which languages will survive, and which will die?
I will discuss this issue from the perspective of computational modeling, an approach
that has become more prominent following the work of Abrams & Strogatz (2003).
Their work, however, is severely deficient in terms of its linguistic content, ignoring the
impact on the competition of both bilingual speakers and modes of transmission
(vertical and horizontal). Furthermore, their method provides no means to investigate
the effect of language contact or population structure, which are known to significantly
influence competition as well as trigger the emergence of new languages (Mufwene
In my own work, I aim to resolve all of these deficiencies. I represent a community that
is undergoing language competition by a population of computational ‘agents’, each of
which models the interactions of a single speaker with the other speakers that make
up the community (Minett & Wang, 2007). By adjusting the population structure by
which the speakers interact with each other, this approach can help us to better
understand the likely course of evolution of a broad class of scenarios of language
competition and contact. Tuning the model so that its behavior mimics that which we
observe in the field (for example, in the competition between She and Hakka in
Eastern Guangdong), I aim to develop sets of practical steps by which the
revitalization of endangered languages can be attempted.