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<< A few things have remained pretty constant. One is that at the core of language there must be some generative procedure: recursive, compositional procedure >> Noam Chomsky tells us about the scientific endeavour over the last sixty years aiming to understand the nature of human language.
<< The second is that the field ought to be framed within a biological context. So we're interested in what's come to be called i-Language, internal individual language, viewed intentionally, we care about the actual system of rules, not just some class of objects you might enumerate. .. In the background is a concern to try to show how this biological system could have originated. What's misleadingly called 'evolution of language'. Of course it's misleading because languages don't evolve, but the language capacity, U.G. (universal grammar), does evolve, or must have evolved .. you can derive some surprising conclusions: one of them is that the output of the generative system yields the proper forms for semantic interpretation in quite complex structures .. so that means that what's generated is essentially a language of thought, maybe, I suspect, the only language of thought. The second conclusion is that externalisation .. is just an ancillary process, it's not part of the core of language. .. (these externalisations are) reflexes of the sensory motor system and the nature of the externalisation depends on which sensory motor system you're using .. the sensory motor system is not specifically adapted to language, it was apparently around hundreds of thousands of years before language suddenly emerged and there are many ways to map one to the other and it's a hard process and in fact what we find is that the complexity of language which you have to learn when you learn a language is almost entirely externalisation .. >>
<< A third conclusion is that most of the doctrines about the nature of language and related fields .. most of them are just flat wrong. There's a doctrine which is held virtually at the level of dogma. The way it's put is the function of language is communication. It's a kind of a curious notion because biological systems don't have functions. .. the dogma is that language, uniquely among biological systems, has a function and the function is communication, but if these first two conclusions are correct that has to be false because communication is based on externalisation and if externalisation is an ancillary property of language then communication is even more so. >>
CHOMSKY: Well the reason was that this picture of the nature of language and the way in which language is acquired was of such enormous prevalence over quite a wide spectrum of thought including not simply psychology but philosophy and linguistics as well, the view that was dominant say at the time when I was a student say 25, 30 years ago, the dominant picture of language was that it is essentially a system of habits or skills or dispositions to act and that it is acquired through extensive training, overtraining, through repetition, perhaps through procedures of induction or generalisation or association, and that the system of habits that one develops simply grows through accretion, incrementally, as experience is subjected to these processes of generalisation and analogy.
And in fact, this picture, which plainly is a factual assumption, was presented as if it were virtually an a priori truth, which it certainly is not. I mean, it's obviously not necessary that language is a system of that sort or that it's acquired in anything like that way.
I think it's certainly the case that language is, in only the most marginal sense, taught and the teaching is in no sense essential to the acquisition of language. But in a certain sense, I think we might even go on to say that language isn't even learned, at least if by learning we mean any process that has those characteristics that are generally associated with learning, for example, the characteristics that I mentioned. It seems to me that if want a reasonable metaphor, we should talk about growth.
Language seems to me to grow in the mind, rather in the way that familiar physical systems of the body grow. We begin our interchange with the world with our mind in a certain genetically determined state. And through an interaction with experience, with an environment, this state changes until it reaches a mature state which we call a state of knowledge of language.
This sequence of changes, from the genetically determined initial state to the final state in which we really have a quite complex system of mental computations, the series of changes seems to me very much analogous to growth of organs. And in fact, I think it's not inappropriate to regard the mind as a system of mental organs -- the language faculty being one -- each of a structure determined by our biological endowment, with interactions also generally determined by the nature of our biological endowment, growing through the triggering of active experience which shapes and articulates the organs as they develop in the individual through the relevant period of his life. So, as I say, it seems to me that not only is it wrong to think of language as being taught, but it's at least very misleading to think of it as being learned if we carry with the notion of learning the associations that generally go along with it.
Language and other cognitive processes. (2011)
The title has some presuppositions which I want to say something about. (1) It's talking about other cognitive processes so it's assuming that the mental systems of mind-brain are like everything else in the body - it's a modular system with subcomponents, dedicated subcomponents which have their own particular properties, their own properties of growth and development and of functioning and which integrate with each other in the life of the organism. And the modular approach to the mind assumes that mental systems are the same. I think that's pretty uncontroversial.
The other presupposition is controversial. It's that (2) Language is one of those systems. When I talk about language and other cognitive systems we're assuming that language exists as a separate system, not just some kind of accidental interaction of other systems. That's highly controversial. In fact that language exists in the sense that it can be an independent object of serious study is distinctly a minority position and in fact has been for a century - which is kind of strange when you think about it because on the surface it seems entirely obvious if you consider a newborn infant let's say.
The infant is faced with the famous blooming, buzzing confusion of William James and somehow - and how, incidentally, is not known, in fact barely studied because it hasn't been recognised to be a problem though it is - the infant somehow picks out of this complex collection of unorganised data some sub-parts which are language related. It's not easy to figure out how that happens. As I say it's barely been studied, just beginning to be studied now.
So the infant picks this out of the environment, reflexively of course, in fact we now know that that's going on even intra-uteran, to a certain extent, and then continues, again pretty much reflexively, to pick up the capacities which you and I are now using. And there's very little evidence, not only is the evidence scattered among other data, but from much of what anyone knows there's almost no evidence at all.