If you're reading this, you're almost certainly a fluent user of at least one human language. Like most people, this ability probably seems so natural to you that you don't give it much thought. As with many other skills such as running and playing a musical instrument (if you're self-taught), it is possible to be very good at doing it without having much insight into how you're doing it or how you learned how to do it. Yet the ability to use language and to learn how to do this is something that seems to distinguish human beings from all other animals. While there is a lot of disagreement on the precise role that language plays, cognitive scientists (specialists in the study of the mind) agree that it is an intimate part of what it means to be human. Because language is central to human cognition, it is the focus of a huge amount of research: into what it means to know a language, how children learn their first language, how children and adults learn second languages, how language influences or fails to influence thought and perception, how we use language to influence others, how language changes from one generation of users to the next, what is possible and impossible in language, how human language evolved in the first place. While all of this research has made many discoveries, especially in the last 40 years, it turns out the problem is more complex than anyone might have imagined. We still do not fully understand how we learn and use language.

Language is not just something we do; it is also the whole elaborate system behind this skill: the basic units (sounds, words, meanings, etc.) and the patterns in which these units are combined to form the sentences, conversations, essays, etc. that we produce and understand as language users. Linguistics is the science that studies this system. It studies the system for particular languages such as English, Chinese, Swahili, and American Sign Language, and it studies what is similar about all of these systems and in what ways they can differ. Because in school you have been introduced to the idea of talking about language, using words like vowel, syllable, word, noun, and sentence, you have some idea of what we will be doing. The difference is that we will be looking at language in more detail and with more precision that was possible in your classes at school. In fact you'll discover that sometimes we'll be using the terms you are already familiar with in quite different ways. You'll also discover that some of the common ideas that people have about language are based on prejudices rather than on the objective properties of language.

This course is an introduction to some basic concepts from linguistics; that is, it looks at what languages are, what human language more generally is, and at how language "works". The focus, which differs from that of many other linguistics courses, in on how language is designed in a way that facilitates communication and reasoning.

This course also differs from other linguistics courses in the way we will study these things. Other linguistics courses start with data from real human languages, such as English and Japanese, but real languages are messy affairs, full of complications that sometimes seem to obscure the basic phenomena we want to understand. Of course eventually we want to confront real languages in all their messiness, but we'll start instead with some simple artificial languages that describe situations in simple artificial worlds. The languages and the worlds exist within software that you'll be learning to use.

You'll work with these languages in two ways. First, given a particular language, you'll try to figure it out. This will give you insight into how people learn languages. But "figuring out" will go beyond just being able to use the language, that is, to produce and understand words or sentences in the language. It will also include describing the language, that is, being explicit about how it works. That is, you'll be approaching the language like a linguist as well as like an ordinary language learner.

Second, you'll use the software to create or modify languages. This way you'll come to understand the functions of different properties of human language. For example, you'll see how adding grammar to a language that consists only of words makes the language much more powerful.

The course consists of four units. In each unit, you'll first use the software to explore some concepts with artificial languages. Then there will be some discussion and exercises with examples from real languages. You'll find a table of contents with links to the different units in the sidebar at the left.