People | 20 QUESTIONS

Yuki Hirose: Exploring the cognitive basis of language

by Claire Williamson

Staff Writer

Name: Yuki Hirose
Age: 50
Nationality: Japanese
Occupation: Professor of psycholinguistics
Likes: Summer
Dislikes: Moths


1. You’re a psycholinguistics specialist. Can you break down what, exactly, that is? It’s about how humans acquire, use and lose languages. Psycholinguists are interested in what cognitive mechanisms and processes are involved in how humans understand and produce linguistic expressions (say, sentences).

2. So it has nothing to do with psychology? You could call it the psychology of language. It’s about how linguistic knowledge is stored and practiced in our mind and brain. But it’s not what people typically assume, like “wow, you must be reading my mind from what I say!”

3. Can you give us an example of what you actually study? I’ve been looking at how the human language processing system deals with structural ambiguities. For example, the phrase “Japanese history teacher” can be interpreted as “a teacher (whose nationality is not specified) who teaches Japanese history” or “a teacher from Japan who teaches history.” Looking at how such expressions are interpreted tells us what cognitive bias our brains have, what counts as costly in their computation and what sort of information influences the computation.

4. What’s the most recent study you’ve conducted? I recently traveled to Bangkok to do a cross-linguistic comparison with Thai, where the word order for ambiguous expressions (such as in No. 3) is the complete opposite of Japanese. It was fun!

5. You also look at how children intuit sentences and word compounds. How do you get them to concentrate? I always try to design my studies so I can introduce them to children as fun games. It’s still hard to control because it’s pretty unpredictable what each child will focus on until s/he actually sits down with me. But that’s also the fun part of research, to put it in positive terms.

6. What is the most unique aspect of the Japanese language? Japanese is one of the languages where the most important information appears last (i.e., the verb). Such languages keep psycholinguists busy.

7. Why is it so difficult for adults to pick up a second language? Because they have become such an expert in — so attuned to — their first language!

8. For polyglot hopefuls, what’s actually the best way to study a language? Curiosity. Studying anything without it would be hard to keep up. Making a fun friend who speaks the language always helps, too.

9. Right now you’re affiliated with the University of Tokyo. Have you faced any particular challenges as a female professor? Overall, I find my male colleagues are pretty well-educated or well-trained about gender equality. I am so proud of a number of great female role models that must have contributed to keep our workplace this way. On the other hand, I am afraid some of our female students may still suffer from the social bias held by their own fellow male students.

10. Have you had any rewarding teaching moments? When one of the most successful graduate students told me “I took on linguistics because I took your course as a freshman.” That made my day.

11. What else do you like about your job? Relatively speaking, that (researchers) embrace a sense of autonomy.

12. What do you look for in a mentor? Someone I can always ask myself “What would s/he do in the same situation?” and know that’s the answer I should follow.

13. What’s your favorite phrase in Japanese? Kore de ii no da. (“All good.”) It’s the dad’s catchphrase in “The Genius Bakabon.”

14. What do you have too many of? Junk. I am so bad at getting rid of things. I tend to save everything that might come in handy one day. So I am an ecologist. But being so without organization skills means disaster.

15. What book should everyone read? “Chiisai Gengogakusha no Boken” (“Adventures of Little Linguists”). It’s my book! Haha.

16. What do the kanji that comprise your first name mean? Do they match your personality? My first name, Yuki, is not particularly uncommon, but 友 (friends) is not the most common character to use. Considering how all my friends have made — and will continue to make — my life so much fun, I can’t think of a better character.

17. What three things do you always have in your refrigerator? Food, food that’s recently expired and food that’s long expired.

18. Do you collect anything? Hilarious sentences my son produces in his process of language acquisition and hilarious homework pieces.

19. What’s your ideal superpower? Something I know I don’t have control over. Maybe to make world peace?

20. What advice would you give your 10-year-old self? You will see all the bad things you are doing right now in your own child in the future. Be prepared.