Surely, when you hear the words ‘science’ or ‘research’, white coats, test tubes and laboratories come to mind. But there is science beyond mathematical formulas and proof of this are research groups such as Psylex (Language and Cognition) at the University of Zaragoza, whose general field of research is the study of language from a cognitive point of view. More specifically, it focuses on theoretical and applied research into the nature and structure of the lexical component of natural languages.
But what does it mean to study language from a cognitive point of view? “It basically means approaching language as a part of human cognition: both in terms of studying the structure and nature of the human capacity to learn and use natural languages and analyzing the relationship between this language capacity and the rest of the cognition that characterizes us as a species (reflective consciousness, memory, intelligence, capacity to do science and understand the world, capacity to create culture and transmit it, etc.),” explains José Luis de la Cruz. )”, explains José Luis Mendivil, Professor of the Department of Linguistics and Hispanic Literatures of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of the University of Zaragoza and principal investigator of the Psylex group.
This research group is heir to the former Sylex Group (born in the late twentieth century) and recognized since 2008 as a Reference Research Group of the Government of Aragon. Sylex (whose name refers to “syntax and lexicon”) was born “to unify and organize the research efforts of the professors in the area of General Linguistics at the University of Zaragoza, with the specific objective of applying for research projects or obtaining recognition from the University of Zaragoza and the DGA. This has been the case since then until now, although the initial objectives have expanded considerably, along with the number and type of researchers”, explains Mendivil.
The research task of the Psylex group focuses on the formulation of concrete hypotheses regarding the nature of human language in all its functions (cognition, communication and generation and preservation of culture). Currently, the group has four main lines of research, all of them closely interconnected: Language and Cognition; The Formal Architecture of the Lexicon; Language Acquisition, Learning and Teaching; and Linguistic Diversity and Languages of Aragon in the Peninsular Context (study and description from typology, multimodality and diachrony).
But wasn’t science all about numbers?
As we mentioned at the beginning of the article, it is still hard to see (and make people see) that social and human disciplines are also science. This is corroborated by Mendivil: “Of course it is still difficult, as if there were only one path to truth and knowledge. The disciplines traditionally called “humanistic” have also developed tools to scientifically validate their discoveries and contributions and, in a very singular way, linguistics, understood as a cognitive science, actually has a methodology of research and empirical falsification very similar to that of other traditional empirical sciences, such as biology or chemistry”.
Iraide Ibarretxe Antuñano, professor in the Department of Linguistics and Hispanic Literatures at the University of Zaragoza and researcher at Psylex, expresses herself along the same lines: “Science is any activity that carries with it a scientific method to investigate its corresponding object of study. That object of study can be a Paleolithic bone, a molecular degeneration or the way in which the sounds of a particular language are articulated”. Ibarretxe stresses that, therefore, “the difference lies in the object of study, but not in the methodological rigor in carrying out scientific research”.
“In Linguistics we are fortunate not only to do research on one of the aspects that make human beings unique: language, but also to be able to carry out our research in different types of laboratories, those found inside research centers and those found outside, in the natural environment where human beings develop language,” adds the researcher.
Zaragoza Linguistics: scientific dissemination and popularization
A key aspect in science is dissemination, knowing how to explain what a field of research consists of to people who are unfamiliar with it. Psylex attaches great value to this activity, which is why Zaragoza Lingüística, the group’s main scientific dissemination and popularization activity, was created in 2009.
It is a pioneering initiative in the Spanish-speaking world and its most popular activities include: the Zaragoza Lingüística lecture series, the Zaragoza Lingüística YouTube channel, Zaragoza Lingüística a la Carta (a multimedia repository with ten sections containing more than a hundred audiovisual materials on language and languages); collaborations in the media and publications on linguistic dissemination, among others.
Mendivil presents this initiative as follows: “Zaragoza Lingüística is the flagship brand of the group’s outreach vocation and its name also aims to highlight the importance of Zaragoza and its University in the rest of Spain and the world in this field”.
Why is popularization in science so important? “In the case of disciplines that are not as directly applicable as, say, medicine or engineering, outreach is crucial: our essential task is to better understand our object of study (language and languages) and the best thing we can do for the society that funds and supports us is to return in the form of understandable and solid concepts everything we discover and manage to understand, with the immediate objective of increasing the general culture of people about the world around them and the more immediate objective of improving their lives,” says Mendivil.
For the principal investigator of the Psylex group, undoubtedly, the most complex part of engaging in outreach is “finding the balance between authentic outreach and mere simplification or trivialization. Authentic dissemination makes complex and non-obvious issues understandable; simplification reveals a lack of understanding and perpetuates clichés and false concepts”.
Regarding the satisfactions of popularization, Ibarretxe points out that “possibly one of the greatest is when you manage to infect people outside your field of research with your enthusiasm for how “interesting” (“beautiful”, “curious”, “exciting”…) your area is. Sometimes we don’t realize that the things we do in research, if well publicized, can be of great interest to other people“.
In Mendivil’s opinion, dissemination “gives more personal satisfaction than academic satisfaction, since the merits that are recognized for researchers and university professors are more related to scientific productivity (impact publications and obtaining six-year periods) and teaching (teaching courses and subjects and positive evaluation of students) than to the popularization of discoveries. Even so, it is worthwhile.
Mamen Horno Chéliz, PhD in Hispanic Philology, Bachelor in Psychology, Vice-Dean of Teaching Staff and Teaching Innovation of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of the University of Zaragoza and researcher at Psylex points out that “it is also comforting to observe how the general population is having a different conception of the facts of language as a result of our dissemination work. One of our main objectives is, without a doubt, to contribute to disprove the so-called linguistic myths, which do so much harm to coexistence in society”.
Nomination for the Archiletras Awards, an acknowledgement of the group’s research work
The research work of the Psylex group was recognized this year with a nomination for the Archiletras Awards in the Research category. Psylex, under the umbrella of the University of Zaragoza, competed with the University of La Rioja and Brown University, which finally won.
These awards were organized by Prensa y Servicios de la Lengua, publisher of the quarterly print magazine Archiletras, the six-monthly Archiletras Científica and the website archiletras.com, with the aim of recognizing and distinguishing individuals or entities for their merits in the promotion, support, research or development of the Spanish language.
Despite not winning the award, the research group is satisfied: “It was a great honor, and the fact that we were nominated, although we did not win, was already a prize. In any case, it should be noted that, since we were nominated as a university, and not as a research or dissemination group, it was not very feasible for us to aspire to the award. But, as I said, given that the nomination is already an award (including the attendance to the gala of a representation of the group) and that the idea of nominating us already reveals a generous recognition of our work, we have no complaints about having competed in the wrong category”, declares Mendivil.
Ibarretxe maintains that, in addition to the recognition itself, the nomination was “an injection of renewed energy not only to continue on this path in the future, but also to look back and see that it was truly worth the effort. He recalls that when they decided to start working in outreach and create Zaragoza Lingüística, nothing similar had been done in Zaragoza and that from the beginning they got a good response from the students, and now they even fill “the largest spaces on the San Francisco campus”. He emphasizes that they have always had “the support and enthusiasm of our students“. Therefore, he emphasizes that “the nomination of Archiletras is a prize for us, but also for all the people who have accompanied us in recent years both in person in Zaragoza and virtually“.