Noam Chomsky and Language Acquisition
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- Well, there's a
- No one would take seriously the proposal that a human organism learns through experience to have arms rather than wings, or that the basic
- So, you might learn to play baseball, you might learn about the American
- Well, should we believe this? We know there has to be some effect of the
- On the other hand, there is
- One reason that they're interesting is that they
- Continuing on this
- Some studies have,
- The example given by Brown and Hanlon in the
- Well, there's a radical claim about the origin of language associated with the guy who we met when we talked about behaviourism who wrote A Review of Verbal Behaviour, the linguist Noam Chomsky. And Chomsky makes this radical claim. And this is that we shouldn't view language learning as learning at all. Instead, we should view it as something similar to growth. So he says,
- No one would take seriously the proposal that a human organism learns through experience to have arms rather than wings, or that the basic structure of particular organs results from accidental experience. [Language] proves to be no less marvellous and intricate than these physical structures. Why, then, should we not study the acquisition of a cognitive structure like language more or less as we study some complex bodily organ?
- So, you might learn to play baseball, you might learn about the American Civil War, but if Chomsky is right you didn't learn to speak English. Rather, what happened is you heard English and - but the capacity grew in your head and something a lot more similar to the development of arms or legs or a visual system.
- Well, should we believe this? We know there has to be some effect of the environment shaping language, obviously, because in order to know English you have to have heard English, in order to know Dutch you have had to heard, to - had to have learned and heard Dutch. And in fact, languages differ in all the ways that we were talking about. Some languages like English has a - have a distinction between 'l' and 'r.' Other languages do not. For a language like English, that creature there is referred to with the morpheme "dog." That's a historical accident of English. In French it's "chien" and in Greek it's something else. And each of those 6,000 languages and people in the room who know another language would say, "Yeah, in Vietnamese it's this," "In Urdu it's this," "In Czech it's that."
- Finally, there is syntax. So, English is what's known as a subject-verb-object language. That means if you want to convey the idea that Bill hit John, you would say, "Bill hit John." But not all languages work that way. In fact, the majority of languages, more languages, are actually subject-object-verb languages. So, you would say, if you wanted to convey that Bill was the hitter and John was hit, "Bill John hit." All of this has to be learned. And all of this has to be learned through exposure to language users.
- On the other hand, there is considerable evidence that the development of these language skills, in some way, is similar to growth in the way that Chomsky suggests. So, here are some basic facts about language development. One is something which I had mentioned before. All normal children learn language. There can be specific impairments of language. Now, again, we spoke about them before when talking about the brain. Some of these impairments could be due to trauma, the aphasias. Trauma, a blow to the head, a stroke can rid you of your language. But, also, there are genetic disorders, some falling under the rubric of what's known as "specific language impairment," where children are born without the same ability as the rest of us to learn to speak. And these are interesting in many ways.
- One reason that they're interesting is that they illustrate something about human language. It is not - It would not be unreasonable for you to think before listening to this lecture, "Look. All you need to have to learn a language is to be smart" or "All you need to have to learn a language is to want to communicate" or "All you need to have to learn a language is to be a social person wanting to - having the ability to understand others and deal with others." But the cases of specific language impairments suggest that all of that is wrong, because there are children in this world right now who are plenty smart, who really want to communicate, and who are entirely social creatures but they can't learn language. And this suggests that the ability to learn language and understand language is to some extent separate from these other aspects of mental life.
- Continuing on this theme, we also know that language is learnt without any sort of feedback or training. There are many Americans who believe that they need to teach their children language. And there's a huge industry with DVDs and flash cards and all sorts of things designed to teach your children language. And I think many parents believe that if they didn't persist in using these things their children would never learn to speak. But we know that that's not true. We know that this isn't true because there are communities where they don't speak to their kids. They don't speak to their kids because they don't believe it's important to speak to their kids. Some linguists would interview - Linguists would interview adults in these communities and say, "Why don't you speak to your babies?" And these adults would respond, "It'd be ridiculous to speak to a baby. The baby has nothing to say. You might as well just speak to your dog." And then the American linguist would say, "Yeah. We speak to our dogs." [laughter] Americans and Europeans speak to everything and everybody. Other cultures are more picky and they don't talk to their children until their children themselves are talking. This doesn't seem to make much of a difference in language learning.
- Some studies have, motivated by Chomsky's work in expressed - sorry, motivated by Chomsky's critique of Skinner's Verbal Behaviour, have asked even in - "What if we just looked at children within the United States? Don't these children get feedback?" And the answer is yes and no. So your average highly educated Western parent does give their children feedback - do give their children feedback based on what they say. But they don't typically give feedback based on the syntax or grammaticality of what they say.
- The example given by Brown and Hanlon in the classic study in the 1970s is they did all of these studies looking at what children say and how parents responded, and it turns out parents respond not to the grammatical correctness but to the affect or cuteness or sociability of the utterance. So for instance, if a child says to his mother, "I loves you, Mommy," it's a very unusual parent who would say, "Oh, no. The verb agreement is mistaken. [laughter] You've added a redundant 's.' It's not appropriate." Similarly, if a child is to say, "I hate your guts, Mother," it's an unusual mother, "That's wonderful. There's a subject, verb, object. The whole thing's structurally fine." We respond to our kids like we respond to each other based on the message that's conveyed, not the grammaticality of the utterances. Children make grammatical mistakes all the time but then they go away and they go away without correction. So those are some basic facts.