#034 Going Down to the Roots of Research: From Linguistics to Global Issues

Professor AOKI Saburo, Faculty of Humanities and Social Science

Photo of Professor AOKI Saburo

Certainly, linguistics is the study of language, but language has many diverse facets, only a small fraction of which can be fully grasped by a single individual. Nevertheless, as we deepen our research so the scope of our study expands to a consideration of the nature of humankind itself, and even of the workings of the Earth and the cosmos. This tendency is not unique to linguistics; in attempting to gain a fundamental understanding of any academic field, a scholar is sure to be drawn to the same approach. From this perspective, then, Professor Aoki looks to cultivate individuals who can contribute to the understanding and solution of issues that lie beyond linguistics, on a global scale.

Language Is a Bequest to the Future

How many Japanese speakers can explain the grammar of the language? We can use Japanese, yet we don't pay attention to sentence structure, such as subjects and predicates, and we've rarely been formally taught. This is similar to the way we use our bodies—without a good understanding of human physiology.

No one knows who invented language, but it has existed, been shared and handed down from generation to generation long before we were born. We too are bequeathing our language to the next generation. In part, it will be left behind in written form of course, but in fact, through the simple everyday act of speaking we are transmitting a legacy. In other words, language is a bequest to the future. We are urged to use language correctly, but the language we use today differs completely from the language that was used before our time. As language is used and passed on it changes little by little, shaped by a wide range of perceptions and knowledge of the physical world. It takes a new form, and so the process continues.

Language has no physical weight or form. How does it exist? The significant indicator that a language exists is that it has speakers. If the speakers of a language disappear, that language eventually disappears from the world. We take the existence of the Japanese language for granted, but the proof that the language exists is the very fact that we speak it. Yet, if we think deeply, it seems truly mysterious that merely by speaking it we can experience the existence and power of the Japanese language.

Linguistic Diversity Will Save Humanity

The importance of English is everywhere emphasized, and classes in the language have even been introduced in elementary school. English has become a global lingua franca, and without a doubt it is a language everyone should study. But what if English became the only language in the world? As stated above, languages without speakers disappear. A world where the only language is English could also be one that threatens the existence of humanity.

There is a trend too, in certain fields, such as scholarship, business, and technology, to standardize terminology in English. We certainly can't deny that this would make discussion more efficient and would be useful. Still, when we consider that this trend has not extended into everyday life it may be that there is an instinctive urge at work on the part of humanity to preserve language diversity.

No Single Individual Can Elucidate the Whole

Fragmentation is proceeding in every field of scholarship. In linguistics, to take phonetics as an example, the field has split into the study of vowels and consonants, and the study of consonants is further finely subdivided. Even where there are common fundamental assumptions and research methods, each field has its own specialists, and discussions across specialities are very limited. For a time, it was even considered taboo to encroach on another researcher's speciality.

Of course, it is important that researchers deepen their respective themes and produce new results. But more important is whether or not those research results can be linked to other themes. To get a high-altitude view of linguistics as a whole, and to elucidate it as a whole, many researchers must coordinate their activities. It may even be necessary for certain research themes to be carried from one generation to another.

In the same way, to obtain an even higher-level view of scholarship as a whole, Professor Aoki believes that coordination with other fields will become essential. If we are investigating an issue and we learn of how research on the same issue is being conducted in another field, we may find a new approach to it, and furthermore, common values may be created. This is one of the very things that makes scholarship interesting.

Communication, Life, Earth, the Universe—and Language

Research notebooks

Language, which is indispensable for our communication, is a product of humanity, not something that originates from the natural world. Investigating how language originated involves tracing the course of human history. Moreover, if we expand the concept of language and learn that other creatures also have their respective communication systems, we will need to develop a broader interest in biology. And to understand the scientific mechanism by which people acquire language competence through study means looking into memory, psychology, and neuroscience as important elements. In this way, understanding biology, then the planet, then all the way back to the origin of the universe some 13.8 billion years ago, brings us full circle to the essence of linguistics.

When considering a major in linguistics, it may seem quite a hurdle to have to study the fundamentals of neuroscience and biology, and beyond that physics and mathematics as well. But human language grew out of these fundamental elements. This applies not just to linguistics, but to all fields of human study. Human activity cannot be grasped without considering its connections to nature. If we exclude this perspective and focus only on narrow fields of research, how can we gain a truly deep understanding? This is the concept Professor Aoki has arrived at after many years of research in linguistics.

The True Mission of the University

The Bachelor's Program in Global Issues is an educational program that embodies this concept. Every academic field may be seen as standing between people (human society) and nature (the planetary system). "Global Issues" refers to problems arising from human society interfering with the planetary system, such as through the utilization of natural resources, digitalization, and so on. The planetary system does not speak directly to human society; the question is therefore, how should human society act? To grapple with issues such as these requires individuals with specific specialist knowledge who are capable of forming a comprehensive view by seeking out other specialist knowledge—individuals who can weigh the value of the planetary system, discern what must be done in each field, and effect change.

To a greater or lesser extent, human action involves introducing mechanisms into the planetary system that are alien to it. Much of the research conducted in universities is intended to create such mechanisms, and in a sense, it is easy to specialize in it; but at the same time, unless human society considers its relationship to the planetary system it will lose sight of the direction of such research. Paying attention to both of these aspects is a mission for which a university is uniquely suited.

(Bachelor's Program in Global Issues: https://bpgi.tsukuba.ac.jp

Photo of Professor AOKI Saburo

Article by Science Communicator at the Office of Public Relations

Celebrating the 151st 50th Anniversary of the University of Tsukuba
Celebrating the 151st 50th Anniversary of the University of Tsukuba