Monday, October 17, 2005

The Origin of Language

Two of the great mysteries of human development are

(I) How did spoken language originate?
(II) How do children learn language so quickly?
The first of these two questions is rarely discussed by contemporary linguists for the simple reason that we don't have a clue how language came into being. We know from an evolutionary standpoint that the difference between primate and human vocal apparati was critical to language development but as was noted by Carl Zimmer, who is quoted at a religious "Origin of Language" site as saying in his book Evolution:
No one knows the exact chronology of this evolution, because language leaves precious few traces on the human skeleton. The voice box is a flimsy piece of cartilage that rots away. It is suspended from a slender C-shaped bone called a hyoid, but the ravages of time usually destroy the hyoid too.
Typically, when scientists don't have an answer to a question they keep their yaps shut. And we do that with one exception and that consists of comparing such things as the human "voice box" Zimmer refers to and the primate vocal apparati and comparing parts of the human brain known to be involved in language processing with corresponding parts of primate brains. That is, we can hope to say what it was that evolved that allowed languages to come into being, but we cannot say how and when it did so.

So, what linguists do is focus on the second question. It is a great mystery how it is that children learn language in a relatively brief period -- from something like the age of 2 to the age of 12 or so -- and they do this without being taught. Parents and others provide models and parents and others also provide corrections though frequently the latter are totally lost on young children for they are seen not as corrections of linguistic form, a notion that is quite abstract, but as a denial of the truth of what they say. Some very good advice is given at a Kid Source site where it is said:

How can I help a child pronounce words correctly?

* By setting a good example. Don't interrupt or constantly correct the child. Don't let anyone tease or mock (including friends or relatives). Instead, present a good model. Use the misarticulated word correctly with emphasis. If the child says, "That's a big wabbit," you say "Yes, that is a big rabbit. A big white rabbit. Would you like to have a rabbit?"
The keys are confirming the truth of what they child has said while providing a correct model. And what is said about pronunciation holds for corrections of grammar. We had a picture of a pig in our linguistic offices for years which said, "Teaching a pig to speak annoys the pig and wastes your time." The same is sometimes true of correcting a young child's speech.

One of the truly unfortunately developments in linguistics in my opinion has been Chomsky's focus on what he has sometimes called "the language organ." In an Q and A with a BBC interviewer in 1996, Chomsky says, speaking of the problem linguists face:

So, the main goal was: find the actual rules of language. Then the next goal would be: explain how they got there. Well, to explain how they got there you have to go back and ask: what's the initial state of the language faculty? What's its initial design, presumably common to the species, because we're not adapted to learn one language or another? So, what is the initial design of the common language faculty that enables it to take these highly intricate, closely articulated, delicately structured forms very rapidly on the basis of minimal interaction with the environment? It's a typical problem of growth -- you know, of growth of organs -- in this case the growth of the language organ.
I shudder every time I think of Chomsky's "language organ."

As I said in my last blog, when I showed up at M.I.T. I was disposed not to take very seriously Chomsky's talk about our innate language faculty. Why did/do I feel this way?

In my opinion, the approach of Chomsky to the second question asked at the beginning of this blog about how children learn language is little different from the sort of answer that Christian and Jewish religious fundamentalists give to the first question I asked above. At the religious Origin of Language site I cited earlier one reads:

When God created the first human beings—Adam and Eve—He created them in His own image (Genesis 1:26-27). This likeness unquestionably included the ability to engage in intelligible speech via human language. In fact, God spoke to them from the very beginning of their existence as humans (Genesis 1:28-30). Hence, they possessed the ability to understand verbal communication—and to speak themselves!

God gave very specific instructions to the man before the woman was even created (Genesis 2:15-17). Adam gave names to the animals before the creation of Eve (Genesis 2:19-20). Since both the man and the woman were created on the sixth day, the creation of the man preceded the creation of the woman by only hours. So, Adam had the ability to speak on the very day that he was brought into existence!

Notice how easy it is for the people responsible for the Origin of Language site to answer this amazingly difficult question. All they have to do is quote the Bible.

If science were this easy, anyone who can read could do it. It is hard to figure out what the human vocal and auditory apparati consist of and how they might have evolved and how the brain evolved to provide the capacity for humans to learn the languages we speak today, as well as learn how to use them. When God created Adam he is said to have been given the capacity to speak instantly. That is, he was not only provided with what Chomsky calls "the language organ," he was given a specific, full blown language, with its sounds, its morphemes, its words, and the grammatical rules that allowed Adam to speak to Eve (also outfitted with this stuff) the moment she was created. This is a point of view that is staggeringly simplistic.

I feel the same way about Chomsky's answer to the second question with which we began. How do we learn languages? Easy, Chomsky says. We take our "minimal environmental" data and let our language organ go to work on it. Of course, linguists who try to specify the features of this language organ or, what is the same thing, who try to specify the features of universal grammar face a very difficult task. That takes very hard work. But at a fundamental level, Chomsky's answer to the question of how children learn language is as simplistic as is the Bible quoter's answer to the question of where human language came from.

Notice Well: I am not making fun of religion. There are numerous religious points of view that do not involve providing simplistic answers to difficult questions. I learned years ago that I am not an atheist per se. I was raised as a Southern Baptist and it is those teachings I reject. That makes me a fundamentalist atheist I suppose. As for other religious points of view and there are very many including religious views of very smart, sophisticated people I have nothing to say. They don't interest me. As I suggested, when a scientist knows he can't answer a question, his best option is to stay silent.

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Blogger concerned citizen said...

More then learning language is the need to communicate. For instance Helen Keller, where would she fit into this debate? Obviously, her need for communication overrode any physical abilities she had.

12:03 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

I think what Peter was saying about language being skill and not knowledge is prehaps the idea that as humans, learning language is an inhert instinct,urge, or whatever and a persons ability to communicate coherently, involves skill. Am I close Peter?

12:10 PM

Blogger AndyT13 said...

I sure hope you have more to say on this topic. Obviously the bible thing is out and I see you are comparing Chomsky's to this, but I want to hear the counter argument.
That is to say, what better explanation then? Keeping silent in one's ignorance is one thing, but surely it would be OK to hypothesize, no?

2:14 PM

Blogger Philanthropist said...

Long winded. Get concise and to the point. And remember--But what are kings when regiment is gone, but perfect shadows in a sunshine day.

7:30 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Wittgenstein was my hero when I was a philosophy student. I read his "Philosophical Investigations" many times. His theory that the meaning of a word is its use cannot be the whole story. In my blog on "The Meaning of Meaning" I distinguish "conventional meaning" from "utterance significance." The latter depends critically on the context in which it is used. And increasingly semanticists are providing analyses of conventional meaning where context plays a role. But the notion of "utterance significance" is a way of making sense of Wittgensten's point of view.

7:27 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"As I suggested, when a scientist knows he can't answer a question, his best option is to stay silent." What a silly suggestion. Science would come to a complete halt. The scientist's best option is to ask more questions.

11:32 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Listen L. Guy, not all of us have time to go back and spend hrs. reading your posts. We are trying to stick w/ the subject here. Please clarify.

11:59 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

To thinking girl:
If Chomsky is hard to follow, but you'd like a wonderful explanation of the the theory of innateness of language, try The Language Instinct by Pinker. I prefer Words and Rules by the same author, but The Language Instinct really backs it up and explains more fundamental research and theory. While I agree with your intuition that children learn language by hearing it over and over and over, there are some instances which just cannot be explained by hearing a language spoken. As one small example, children of pidgin (not a real language, but a makeshift collection of agreed-upon words so that speakers of different languages can communicate) speakers spontaneously create a creole (a real language complete with grammatical rules) without any prompting from adults. In fact, the adults are unable to communicate with the resulting creole.

Sorry Language Guy, I don't mean to promote on your blog a theory you clearly reject, but I have been convinced that some innateness exists. Surely, the truth lies somewhere in between.

9:56 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

language guy, I have decided things are getting a little dull here. No fault of yours. So, I've posted some thing just for you on my site 'The World of L.Tart" Enjoy!
P.S. I promise it's not nasty, well mabe a little. Luv from L>T

12:12 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Sabrina is right about Pinker. He is a better source than Chomsky himself.

Copernicus Now speaks to the very interesting and vexing issues of pidgins and creoles. A lot of things have been said about creolization of pidgins that I believe to be false but I won't go into these. One of the more interesting issues is how African American Vernacular English (wrongly called "Ebonics") arose. Is it just another Southern dialect or dud it began as a pidgin, turne into a creole and then morph increasingly in the direction of standard Southern English or some combination of the two, namely a blend of the two. Certainly there have been creoles spoken by African Americans and they were exposed to Southern American English.

9:18 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Sorry about my spelling. I find writing in these tiny boxes awful. I just now experimented and discovered (duh!) that they can be made big. All glory to Google and Mozilla Firefox.

9:20 AM

Blogger The MetaKong said...

" Later on children become more adept in the language for the purpose of advancing themselves in the social hierarchy. "
The above is false; there isn't one teenager, nor twenty-something, in the world who thinks that if they expand and refine their vocabulary, they will climb the social ladder. A more accurate reflection relating to social hierarchy would be:

" Later on children become more adept in the symbolic subjugation of others for the purpose of advancing themselves in the social hierarchy."

There, now we have an accurate picture of American society.

11:52 AM

Blogger demondoll said...

Thank you for the fascinating post. I can't claim to understand it all, but it is wonderful(literally).

2:02 AM

Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

Okay, I'm coming into this discussion a bit late. Here's a few thoughts.

Thinking girl said a "highly intricate, rule-laden thing such as language"
That depends on how you look at it. It is intricate, but the seeming rules stemp from a relatively limited number of principles. If we start with the point of view that the primordial unit of language is the word, and not the sentence, as is often the case in linguistics, things get a little bit simpler. Words in a way tell us how to use them to construct sentences.
Yes, "the meaning of a word is its use cannot be the whole story", because words are more their mere semantic sense, they also have a grammatical one. They cannont be reduced to actual meanings in specific sentences.

J_G: "the French were a very noble and refined society in" the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Yes, as the Terreur has shown us. Seriously, one thing I find interesting, language-wise, is that not all people in French spoke French (many spoke local dialects or languages), while in Quebec at the same time, French had already been unified.

Dancing Crow said: "Might explain Chomsky's current view." Actually, his view has changed a lot in the course of time, but when he posited some sort of Language Acquisition Device, he was simply admitting that he couldn't figure out children's abilities.

J_G: "I often question how each one of the different languages i.e German, French, Spainish, Italian and especially Portuguese are so different in such a small geographical area." That's noting, Cameroun actually has 300 languages (not dialects) in a much smaller area. People there all speak at least three different languages, often more.

Sabrina: "the theory of innateness of language, try The Language Instinct by Pinker." The theory presented there is flawed, especially when it comes to the "language gene" (FOXP2), see http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002456.html As for the pidgin-to-creole phenomenon, it simply shows that children need to organize things in a coherent fashion (hence the "invention" of grammar).

9:26 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

I'm sorry if my sense of humor is irritating you. I'll stop. I have a serious question envolving a word & I feel you are the only one who can answer it.
Long story short: The other day a policeman came to the door looking for my daughter. I said she wasn't home(her car was in the driveway). He accused me of being surly & said, "Why are you like this, blah, blah...the several times I've been over."
I said with a sneer, "Oh' several. You mean the Three times you've been over.
He said, "Yeah, several."
well an argument insued over the meaning of the word 'several.'
After he left I looked up 'several' in my giant dictionary and sure anuff, he was right!
My problem is I cannot reconcile in my mind this seeming contradiction.
I have always thought of several as more then a person can count at a glance. For instance if I was walking down the beach and saw 3 birds I would never go & tell you I saw several. Why would I not just say 3? If there were 6, 7, or 8 birds or even five and I wasn't sure then I might say several.
Does this make sense to you or am I a moron missing something?
P.S. I really am serious. This is bugg'n the heck out of me. Also I'd like to tell that smartass cop that he used the word improperly, somehow.

9:50 AM

Blogger The MetaKong said...

J_G said...

"What a gray and dismal world it must be to see things in this manner."

Actually, my world is quite the mixture of pachyderm grey, pine tree green, sunshine golden yellow, and orange sparkle beams cascading across gleaming turquoise seas. The only dismal part of the scene is the self righteousness and pride slowly eating away like a cancer on the human being.

But, if you must, you can keep your illusion if its needed for you to feel as though you're better than somebody. I don't at all mind helping you to live in a happy state, even if part of your picture is pure fantasy.

Good Day,


2:44 PM

Blogger The MetaKong said...

I'm holding you in as high regard as possible, all things considered. Please, stop trying to point out others' faults in order to make yourself feel good. As it stands, you're now 0 for 2 in attempts to make truthful observations about someone you don't know.



12:51 PM

Blogger uglygirl said...

J_G said...
Sean this is LG's blog please be respectful. I'm sure the public education system taught you what that word meant.

WOW! Here YOU are being disrespectful to sean, the public education system, and in some ways to the language guy. cos he can handle his own business.

9:24 AM

Blogger The MetaKong said...

grrr...i deleted my somewhat lashing reply after a visit to j_g's blog and a greater understanding of her filters here's the dog unshaven:

the goodness of god, untouched,
crouches inside his heart
holds bits n parts of
every thing light n dark
necessarily contrarily
abated by his touch
bold n contagious n
some forever bowl

peace n whatnot,

sean, life artist

3:58 PM

Blogger The MetaKong said...

oh...P.S. one part of the deleted post read as such: "I've no need nor compulsion to justify self to anyone but self and, to appease the heavenly, that thing you call god."

4:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post and thank you for the BBC interview. Pretty interesting.

9:54 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

You are welcome, Jim.

10:12 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ever since I finished school I didn’t think I would want to have anymore lessons ever again, however recently I have wanted to learn a foreign language, maybe become fluent in one and basic in a couple of others. I did a bit of research and found there were loads of different packages available I went with one that claims you teach yourself French and I was impressed it was a computer program that helped with pronunciation and speaks back to you so you can hear it too.

5:45 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Such programs can be used with great effect. I would vote for Rosetta Stone. Expensive. Buy it on Ebay if you can.

8:30 AM

Blogger Julz said...

Well, expensive thing are really good. You will really know what the effect.

spanish translation services

8:41 AM


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