Online Social Games: A New Approach to Understand Language Evolution

Human beings are the only species on Earth who are endowed with a complex and extremely expressive medium for communication, that is, language. How and when did language evolve is one of the hardest questions in science. Some scientists believe that our brains have biologically evolved to support language, while some others believe that language emerges through social interaction of people. It is hard to verify these theories because, languages do not fossilize and neither can their evolution be recreated in a laboratory. Till date, the only way to verify these theories has been through mathematical modeling and computer simulations. However, simulation experiments are often doubted for their overly simplifying and therefore, unrealistic assumptions.

In this talk, I will describe a new approach to study language evolution through online social games. Online games are very popular these days and often played over a social network. Therefore, it is possible to design interesting games that require people to develop new languages solely through interactions over a social network, and in turn, test whether the social interaction theories of language evolution are plausible. We designed one such game to investigate whether words and their meanings could emerge solely through social interactions. Our initial experiments are promising and points at the possibility of emergence of words through social negotiations. This work illustrates the great potential of online games for designing, otherwise impossible, social and cognitive experiments. When such games become popular, they will provide us huge amounts of data to study the processes of social and cognitive dynamics.

Monojit Choudhury is a Researcher in the Multilingual Systems Group at Microsoft Research Lab India. His research interests span theoretical and applied aspects of computational linguistics and complex systems. Monojit has received his B.Tech and PhD from Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur. He is a recipient of the Young Scientist Award of Indian Science Congress Association.