Michael Erard and the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen
The 25th of July 2018 was a very hot summer day. As I drive up from Belgium to the Netherlands, the air condition just about copes with the heat. Crossing borders within the EU is such a non-event these days, but it still feels special to me, every. single. time.
Alex: Oh, here it is: Max Planck Institute. So this really seems to be like a campus here.
The Max Planck Society, named after the physicist who brought humankind quantum theory, currently runs a total of 84 institutes and the one in Nijmegen is one of only five outside of Germany. In 1979, it was tucked into a small wood just outside the city centre.
Alex: Here we are!
I’m here to meet someone who has come a much longer way than me, in many respects: Michael Erard.
Alex: There he is! … Hey Michael, how are you? - Good. - So great to meet you! - Good to meet you. - And thank you for taking the time.
A self-proclaimed “intellectual oddball and a professional outsider”, he holds an MA in linguistics and a PhD in English from the University of Texas at Austin. When it comes to academia, he seems like a case of “square peg, round hole”. But Michael manages to leverage his background to write about language in a unique way and he’s been doing that for many years now. He has two books under his belt - “Babel no more” and “Um…” - and many bylines in publications like The Atlantic, The New York Times or Science Magazine. I first came across him during the crowdfunding for “Schwa Fire”, an online outlet for long-form journalism about linguistics and language topics: “like ‘This American Life,’ but for language.”
Michael: I think in the last five years maybe, the amount of coverage that I've seen has gone up dramatically in English language publications. And that the quality has really increased. That said, there are some topics and some ways of talking about topics that I'm surprised still come up, editors are still interested in. Which is frustrating for me because I underestimate people's or I overestimate their appreciation for the new and underestimate their ability to see that something has been done before to death. And I guess I'm just too much of a modernist. I was gonna be doing something that's new. Like advance the conversation, that was also a journalistic kind of idea that I had that you try to push the understanding forward. One thing that I'm interested in, still, are the ways that language influences and impacts real life.
In that summer of 2018, Michael was about to wrap up a residency at the MPI’s Language & Genetics department. A one-year writing residency; “part coup, part reward, part lucky break,” as Michael puts it.
Michael: The Max Planck Society has opportunities for journalists to be in residence at any MPI. This MPI has never had a writer in residence before. So I'm the first.
Round peg, round hole?
Michael: And a lot of people have been: oh, it's interesting to have you here. What are you doing here?
As I told the audience at the staff meeting a couple weeks after I showed up, we’re creating this role together, you and me. I don’t know what that meant, but it sounded good. I was aware that there might be many more people to come after me in the same role, and that we shouldn’t fuck it up.
One of the jobs I invented for myself was to look for untold stories about the place, stories that even the people there didn’t know. My job: to hold up a mirror so they could see themselves.
Michael: At the outset, I wanted to really investigate that question because I could imagine, OK, you're going to have someone here who's a writer, does mean that I'm gonna write feature articles for your alumni magazine? And that wasn't a requirement at all. It was: You know, if you want to do stuff like that, that would be great. But what I would I use the time for mainly was, there were a lot of articles that I wanted to do, that I knew publications would be interested in, but it would be published online. And the pay for those things would be so low that it just wouldn't justify the time. Because I think I have pretty high standards for the stuff that I want to do. And I don't work particularly fast. So it made sense to then come here and do some of those things and knock some of those things off the bucket list. It also gave me an opportunity to really dig into areas that I knew that I wanted to write about but I didn't know anything about. And so I got to spend a lot of time on a particular area.
This deliberate approach to writing manifests itself when I enter Michael’s office.
Alex: Is this an old typewriter?
Michael: It is.
That scratching noise you hear is a bunch of little rocks that he rearranges on top of the typewriter. A ritual he started back in the US when writing, typing, in his garage.
Michael: I switched to working with one three years ago, or switched back, actually. As a young writer, I did all of my stuff on typewriters and really liked the thinking process and the creative process involved in typing and retyping. And…
Alex: You mean because it slows you down, because of the way that it works?
Michael: Yeah. And also that it focusses you on the piece in the moment. I’ve been working on a process by which I write paragraphs and then go back and redraft them or revise them, even if they don’t need any editorial changes specifically. There’s something about putting it back through my hands and then through my brain and then output. That allows me to pick up things that I wanna change. It’s a prompt to different kinds of creativity.
One thing I loved about coming into the place was the smell of the soup of the day. Whatever was cooking in the canteen filled the whole lobby with its scent and gave it a homey feeling. “Gezellig” is the Dutch word for cozy, which is an aesthetic and important cultural value, which people seemed to practice often. You’d come in to the building to the unforgettable smell of soup; it was like coming into your grandma’s house, if your grandma also lived in an aggressively modern steel-and-glass building with high-angled staircases and abstract art on the walls.
It had the hush of a library, or a deserted airport terminal, a restaurant before it closes. The architects had clearly read The Pattern Language, as the relative narrowness of the entrance gave way to ever-expanding spaces and surfaces of glass as you moved into the institute.
Instead of drilling in, you were drilling out.
Past the canteen and its irresistible soup, the floor descended a level, and the two levels were connected by both stairs and a ramp. Standing at what felt like the very center of the place (but which was not its heart) you would see, in one direction, stairs going up to the new wing; to the right was the glass-enclosed library, with modern furniture and gathering tables, plants, and pillars rising up like trees; to the left a door into the main auditorium, outside of which were a row of severe gray busts of famous brain scientists, all men, stuck on poles. I wrote some funny poems about those heads. Back behind you was the entrance. With windows so huge, the forest that surrounded the institute felt half-inside the building, not in a threatening way, but creating calm. The walls were mostly white, complemented by mustard yellow upholstery on the couches of the canteen.
Walk down any of the hallways, you’d be struck by the overwhelming quietness of people hard at work. Each open door revealed someone working at a computer or keyboard, like a miner in their hole pecking out ore. What you wouldn’t immediately see is a layer of chatter, hidden to the ear but revealed on social media, mainly Twitter, going on between researchers near and far, some even in the same building.
I wondered what other backstories of lives in language existed around me in those quiet halls.
Michael: The working language here is English, the day-to-day language and the language of meetings and presentations and things like that is English. There are a lot of Dutch speakers here. So you hear a lot of Dutch, but they all speak English. You know, to varying degrees, but mostly fairly well. And it kind of becomes an opportunity for the non-Dutch speaker to sort of shift into Dutch.
Language science has to be a big tent if there are going to be big discoveries. And MPI was a big tent.
Michael: I think it's important to understand that the commitments of the Max Planck Society overall are to do innovative cutting-edge science. You can see that here particularly in some of the projects that are going on, for instance in genetics. What are the genetics involved in producing the language-ready brain? So that's an important focus. There's also a research group that studies bats and the genetics of bats and their vocal communication. Because bats are one of the few types of animals that are vocal learners, meaning that they have to learn their calls from adults. And if they don't have that exposure, then they don't produce anything, or what they produce doesn't sound like their species. And then there's really interesting work, like down the hall, there's a project on individual differences in language abilities, which is an interesting direction for the psychology of language to go in. Because so much of the work over the last 40 years - even longer - has been to try to pick out what is invariant among or within populations or even to just do a lot of experiments with college students, say, and claim, on the basis of the samples, that what they're finding is universal.
The MPI for Psycholinguistics was founded by a Dutch psycholinguist named Willem Levelt. Perhaps it’s telling that Levelt’s first scientific contribution (and the best work he ever did, according to him) was on a phenomenon of visual perception called binocular rivalry: when one image is presented to one eye and a different image presented to the other, the two images aren’t seen as superimposed on each other but perceived as their own things, one at a time, back and forth.
The rivalry exists for the eyes, not the brain, which gives each visual input equal time. It doesn’t tame or annihilate their difference, but gives them space, an opening to be together and yet remain themselves.
It struck me as a workable metaphor for how psychology and linguistics and neuroscience and genetics imprint themselves on the MPI, which doesn’t blend them into the same field but gives them space to be themselves in the context of language.
It’s an imperfect metaphor, obviously, because the hope is that these pursuits inform each other more than two separate visual stimuli do. The point is, there’s no rivalry, though the great challenge is to get them to interact, which is something the directors and others target as a concern.
Michael: You know this is the kind of place where you go out to make coffee, and then in the shared kitchen, you bump into someone who you saw give a talk on the genetics of skull shape and brain shape. Ancient brains are kind of flatter, and more modern brains or are globular. And you say, hey, that was a great talk and it turns out that she's also working on the genetics of synesthesia. So even that brain shape finding or discussion was totally new to me. But then to realize that there could be sort of a genetic way of looking at synesthesia and that synesthesia as a phenomenon is so diverse, but is patterned within that diversity, that was really interesting.
The commitment to trying to understand language in an evolutionary frame - how did things get to be this way? - and the willingness to reach back beyond the human species, not only to proto-humans but to other animal species, like bats and seals, is really, really interesting. You know, in my own linguistics training and my own formal linguistics training, those kinds of things were kind of declared off limits. Real linguists don't talk about that, real linguists don't find that interesting. There's a lot of policing. What blew my mind was like really I think most of all was the absence of any policing. I was going: Oh, that is, like hope you could talk about I could see how that connects.
One of the things that I've been interested in tracking and I asked people about a lot is how much of that is MPI? How much of that is Europe and how much of that is MPI? And certainly some of it is Europe simply because Chomskian ideas had some foothold here. But people who espouse them never had the same amount of power over publications and funding and hiring as they did in the States. So it's never kind of developed a political edge here. But also being in a place where, one, the commitment is to cutting-edge science and to basic science and to funding people, you know. There's no discussion at all of “if only we had money, that would be really interesting to look at.” There's things… people are very well taken care of here, very well-resourced. When there aren't very many resources, the stakes become very high for the resources, for fights over the resources that exist and so here people don't have to compete in the same way and be territorial in the same way.
“Living in a foreign country” had long been on our bucket list, but neither of us had any idea about how much work it would actually take. I had lived abroad before, but as a younger person, without a family, and without the complications and lubrications of the early 20th century. When I moved to Taiwan in the early 1990s, half-convinced that I would spend the rest of my life moving around the world, my kit comprised a backpack and a suitcase, a manual typewriter, and a tourist visa (which I had to renew every three months in Hong Kong). It was that simple.
This time, I had a wife and two kids, a daycare contract and a school fee, a stipend, a business to set up for the stipend to pass through, a bank account for said stipend to end up, two accountants (one Dutch, one US), two Dutch bank accounts (one personal, one for the business I set up), and a phone and data plan (along with two laptops, two iPads, and two smartphones), not to mention a property manager and a renter for our US house and a friend to take the cat.
In Holland, there weren’t only a lease agreement, a municipal ID number, and a residence permit that was attached to a scientific research visa, there was a specific bureaucratic sequence involving each. (Fortunately as bureaucracies go, we experienced the Dutch one as fairly swift; no bribes necessary, and very few lines.) The complexity of such a move was exhausting, dizzying; without my wife, who dealt with the financial logistics (packing up the household and getting everything into suitcases was my job), it would have been impossible. But we did it.
On our third day in the Netherlands, our first order of business was buying the bikes which we rode for the rest of the year. We had no car; only three or four times during the year did we really need one.
My wife and I—the whole family, really—spent our first five months or so psychologically weightless, which wasn’t altogether unpleasant: we were unmoored but not in danger. Then there was about five months of experiencing the local gravity. Living in Europe was the reality; when someone said they’d been to France for a conference or going to Austria for vacation, it was no thing. Those months felt great. Grounded. Attached. Limitless possibilities stretching in front of us and boundless opportunities to realize them. That all came to an end. Those last two months introduced a hurtling reality of an accelerating gravitational force, and by the middle of August we had smashed back to Maine.
How was your trip? people asked, as if we’d orbited the earth once or twice, when in fact we’d established a moon base, journeyed to Mars, explored asteroids, learned to float and fly, and solved numerous technical challenges on the fly. It wasn’t a trip; it was a life.
Michael: There's an article that's about what it is that we… that's kind of an assessment of what we know right now about the language of the dying and I'm doing that for the New York Times Magazine. I would really love to have you know just one relationship with one editor or one publication. If you're out there listening…! But the book is about that but that, but also first words.
Alex: So you’ve got both ends covered?
Michael: Yeah. And you need to do that because the last words stuff is so heavy and so dark and it really makes people uncomfortable. But if you can kind of leaven it with the other side and I think the two need to be together because even in linguistics and in the sciences more generally there's not. I mean some people do but something in some fields to do but there's not. You don't you you you get one or the other. You don't get you don't get the full trajectory.
I spent a lot of time reading in and around palliative care and hospice care. And cognitive states, cognitive behavior, diagnosing death, experiences of dying, experiences of caregivers and family in those situations.
It would be multilingual, for sure, once I start getting into it. And what I've heard anecdotally is that the nursing homes and hospitals have to get multilingual staff because as people approach the end of life, they often revert to an L 1, regardless of how ever much time they’ve spent using an L2. That's anecdotal. I don't know how much it's true for all sort of later acquisition, sort of later bilinguals, and I don't know what sort of early bilingual behavior is like. The truth is that this is a population that is so incredibly understudied. And I know that I keep tweeting about this, but there really is not very much done on this at all. There's a lot of stuff on language and aging, there's a lot of stuff on language and dementia, Alzheimer's with monolingual and multilingual populations, both. But they sort of stop at a respectful distance from the very very end of life. That's where I want to go. That's where I want to go.
There was nobody at NPR who who does that. There's very much a focus on language acquisition rather than language attrition. So the linguistics as a whole and psychology have been oriented towards what infants and babies do you know beginnings. Because they're easier to study and they're fun to spend time around! And there are just way, you know… the ethical hurdles, the methodological hurdles with the dying population are so high and there's so much variability. That's why people have really not tackled that.
I haven't tried it in the US so much. I mean it's all professional professionals either way. Although we'll see. I'm going to come back for the Drongo language festival in November and I'm going to have a little lab where I'm collecting both first words and last words for people. And we'll see what kind of things people say about last words. My sense is though is that actually in the Netherlands because of the euthanasia laws that there might be more of an openness to talk about death and dying than in other places. But I've talked to people in the US and I've talked to professionals in the US and the professionals here and also people who do some work in China and Japan, and have said to me: It's really great that you're working on this because it really is something that people need to get more comfortable talking about. What that says to me is that they see a lot of resistance.
Alex: But they want to encourage you to keep trying…
What I want to convey in this list of trips and places is a progression of ease and familiarity, so that by April we were seriously thinking that we should stay.
Looking back, we should have.
So many times in Europe I found myself doing things I knew I couldn’t have been myself if I hadn’t done them. And that leads to the consideration, which we could only know in the now, that was an unknowable future then: everything we feared, disliked, and wanted to escape from in the US is even worse and more intractable than we remembered, and I feel trapped living here, adrift and yet immobile, disconnected and useless.
Alex: And this was after the French version came out or was this more to prepare the translation?
Michael: I didn't have any interaction with her during, I don't think. I mean it's interesting that there really isn’t more interaction that is promoted by either at least on my side by the agents or the publishers. You know, like, you send the PDF of the manuscript off and then you don't hear anything from anybody. And then they ask you for figures and for photos and photo permissions. And then the book comes out and that's it. And that's it. Hey, like, who are you? And so one thing that's been really fun about social media is being contacted by the Arabic translator of “Babel no more”. And I think it would be great to meet in a more extended way and talk about his experience during the book. And it was great meeting the French translator whose name is Naïma Carthew, because she really appreciated the book. I mean it was a super special thing to meet her. She was almost like a co-parent. You know, in a way.
Alex: For the French edition?
Michael: Yeah. She had a relationship to the English text and to the French text that nobody else has. And she read it and she had to read it in a way that even the original editors didn’t. I felt really super honoured to get to meet her.
Alex: Those are the words that I would also use to describe that summer day in 2018. I did feel super-honoured to meet Michael. Grateful for his time. The connections he had made for me at MPI (more on that in the bonus track of this episode). And I’m really grateful to him for sharing parts of a beautiful essay he had written about his time in Nijmegen. (Those are the bits with music underneath that you’ve been hearing throughout the episode.) Thank you, Michael. Or, in the words of former MPI director Steve Levinson:
You’re like an artist, he said, you collect these interesting moments or bits and make something out of them. It made me fall even more in love with the place — I felt seen.
So what was MPI? As far as apt comparisons, Hogwarts comes to mind. So does Mecca. An MPI alumn compared it to Shangri-La. An anthropologist, Gunther Senft, called it “a paradise for language researchers.”
In order to succeed at your writing residency, you also have to not succumb to the fantasy that this niche ought to be your permanent home. You are temporary; you don’t belong. And it doesn’t belong to you. It’s been granted. A kingly gift. Ultimately the king will take it back.
You can’t have it forever—that’s the point. Once you take from it, it must cast you out, so that you can spread what it offered around. A bee doesn’t live in the flower. It must buzz free.”
This is a list of nouns collected by me from the MPI Proudly Presents presentations on June 20th. Activity, ADHD, age, alignment, alpha power, ambiguity, artificial language. I think a lot about what has been talked about at MPI 40 years ago, and I imagine that “artificial language” was not. Asymmetry. Attention, autism. Baby (certainly a familiar noun). Bands. Bats.
Bat: 40 years ago, the notion that bats would not only be mentioned but be the subject of a whole presentation on the future of the institute would have been thinkable.
Beep, brain, brain organoids, CDH3, clarity, cluster, collaboration, communicative success, conditioning, connectivity, constraint, context, convergence, correlation, cortex, CTNP1, data, delta, design, development, diagnosis, dialect, differences, directions, discourse, dish, disorders, distance, diversity, efficiency, electrode, entrainment, esoteric society, expanded neuroepithelium.
Many of those terms were unfamiliar 40 years ago; some hadn’t even been invented.
F100. False positive, families, finding, FOXP1, FOXP2, frequency, fruit, gamma, genes, genome, genotype.
Here we are, the unthinkable is reality, the discourse changes, we call this progress.
Grammar, grey matter, group, hemisphere, hemodynamics, high constraining condition, hPSCS, imaging genetics, incongruent processing, index, indices, infant informativeness, integration, intellectual disability, intelligence, item, label, latencies.
A list of nouns scraped as as my attention allowed from a day of talks is a rough measure, but as a finger in the wind it’s telling.
Learning, lemma, lexical item, longevity, macrocephaly, mammal, manuscript, meaning, medial surface, mega-analysis, memory, milliseconds, model, modeling, morphology, mother, motion, mutation, N400, narrative, network, neural activity, neural lineage, neuroectoderm, neurons, nodes, onset, oscillation, p-value, participant, performance, phase, phenotype.
I mean, as you read this, think about the nouns that aren’t here. Maybe I overlooked them because they’re so common to disciplinary discourse; the greater possibility—and I think this is actually the case—is that they’re not present at all.
Planning, population, predictability, prediction, predictions, prefrontal region, processing, production, rate, regions, representation, resting state, results, rhythms, sample, segments, sentence triplets, sex, signal, sound, spatial information, species, speech, speech artifacts.
Once we hit the S’s, things get to feeling familiar again.
Stability, standard, stem cells.
Ah, maybe not so much.
Text. Ur-home. Theta power, time period, tongues, tree, turns, variance, variation, ventricular zone, vocabulary.
A note about the construction of this list: I kept a running list of nouns on my phone as I heard them, then later alphabetized the list. Typing it up later was my first look at this scoop a talk, so I haven’t seen before the three words that end the series, which are artifacts of alphabetization, it’s true, but which you have to admit pulse with a power that deliberation would fail to produce.
The three nouns are these:
Links and credits
Piano music in the bonus track (below): My love (piano loop) by Shady Dave