Charles Yang is a professor of linguistics and the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Cognitive Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Yang received his Ph.D. in computer science from the MIT AI Lab in 2000. After six years at Yale, he moved to Penn where he teaches linguistics, computer science, and psychology, and directs the program in cognitive science.  Dr. Yang works on language acquisition, variation, and change, natural language processing (NLP), and is broadly interested in the study of the mind including, more recently, numerical and conceptual development in children. Dr. Yang has written several books, including The Price of Linguistic Productivity: How Children Learn to Break the Rules of Language (MIT Press 2016), which won the Leonard Bloomfield Award from the Linguistic Society of America. He has received fellowships from the National Science Foundation (1995) and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (2018).  

The LSA Member Spotlight highlights the interests and accomplishments of a different LSA member each month. Explore previous Member Spotlights.

Q: When did you first join the LSA?

I first showed up at the 1997 Cornell summer institute. I was doing syntax as a hobby before realizing I was no good at it.  With a background in computer science, it wasn’t even clear I’d become a linguist until I lucked into a job at Yale. Honestly, I didn’t really know much about the LSA but the Yale department had a couple of LSA junkies who’d go every year and talk about all the fun they had. I joined and went to the 2004 meeting in Boston.  I am now a Life Member.

Q: How have you been involved with the LSA since you joined?

To my surprise (and delight), I was given the Bloomfield book award a few years ago. I am currently on the Bloomfield committee and will chair it next year. I look forward to doing more for the Society. 

Q: How has the field of linguistics changed since you first started your work?

As is well known, philosophy turned to language and its role at the foundation of knowledge in the first half of the 20th century. In the second half,  linguistics played a founding role in the development of cognitive science. Like it or not, these days language is at the center of AI, and all the baggage that comes with it. 

I hope that as we understand the nature of language better—how it is learned, how it is used, how it helps us relate to the world and each other—linguistics will continue to occupy a central place in modern intellectual life. The biggest challenge is to maintain our identity as a field while continuing to engage with ideas from other fields (and indeed new fields). We have a lot to learn but even more to offer. I am excited about what may become another “linguistic turn” in the near future. 

Q: What, in your opinion, is the most important service the LSA provides to its members? To the field?

Linguists have been very welcoming to me. They have been unfailingly patient, encouraging, and supportive, and I have had the privilege to learn from many of them. That’s probably the most important service that the Society can provide: a big tent for all those interested in the science of language.