March 7th, 2006

ozarque figure

How I Came Down With Bloggers' Block....

I'm grateful for your suggestions, and for your questions, and I'll be responding to all of them; thank you for your help. But before I tackle that, I think an explanation is in order; here goes.

I woke up furious yesterday. That's unusual; I usually wake up grateful. All my adult life, doctors have been looking at me and saying, piously, "One of these mornings you're going to wake up paralyzed from the waist down." I've listened to that sorry line so many times that my second thought every morning is "Thank God, I'm still not paralyzed from the waist down!" [My first thought is always "Thank God, I'm still alive, and so is George!"]

But yesterday was different. I woke up furious, and I stayed furious the whole day long.

Furious that the Republicans are well on the way to wrecking not just this country still called the United States of America, but the entire world.

Furious that the Democrats have just stood around with their thumbs in their mouths watching the wrecking process, too spineless and too cowardly and too lazy to even try to stop it. Furious that the Democrats haven't had brains enough to run somebody for President who would at least have a chance to win a race for ninth-grade class president. Furious that they don't understand that the only way to whip the Republican electoral machine is to get such an enormous majority of the popular vote that there's no way to make it disappear, and that getting that majority should be their vocation and their passion -- even if they lose their jobs in the process.

Furious that all the people I know who voted for George W. Bush only because "he's against abortion and he won't take away our guns" have decided that in 2008 they just won't vote at all. Furious that so many other people are telling me they don't have time to vote, and that only stupid people do vote, since it never makes any difference anyway. Furious that I really do understand why they're saying that, and am aware that a reasonably good case can be made for their hypothesis.

Furious that a Congress that hasn't raised the minimum wage in years always lets its own pay raise go through every single year and does nothing to interfere with the practice of corporations paying CEOs tens of millions of dollars a year. Furious that a Congress blessed with superb medical insurance can't be bothered to see to it that ordinary people in the U.S. are at least able to get basic medical care.

Furious that all the attention is going to the oncoming shortage of oil, instead of the far more dangerous oncoming shortage of water.

Furious that my children and my grandchildren, and all their peers, are going to have to try to find a way out of this unspeakable mess.

And on a smaller scale.....

Furious that there are a hundred things I should be doing with regard to my estate, and that every single one of them means taking time from my work, and I hate that, especially now that I can only get about half as much work done in a day as I could ten years ago.

Furious that the one thing I really want to do -- write science fiction novels -- is the one thing it makes absolutely no sense at all for me to do.

Furious because if I don't stop putting it off and learn to drive again I'm going to be in very serious trouble one of these days, and I don't want to take any time from my work for that, either.

Furious because although I'm in splendid health I'm definitely beginning to suffer from the dwindles, and that's normal and to be expected, but it infuriates me.

That's the short list; never mind the long one.

And with all that festering in my mind, I sat down at my computer at seven o'clock yesterday morning and thought: "Now what could I write about this morning that would be interesting and useful and might brighten somebody's day?"
ozarque figure

Linguistics; language acquisition....

In response to my call for questions, from fiveandfour:
"Good timing (for me)...I'm hoping you might be able to direct me to some good resources - if not discuss the subject yourself - about how the capacity for language (and other forms of communication) develops for humans. I don't need a lot of in depth detail on the topic, just a general understanding of how the human brain comes pre-wired to communicate via words and how we come to learn to communicate both verbally and non-verbally."

I think it's simplest to begin answering this question by posting an excerpt from my The Language Imperative, pp. 223-227, and then I'll add a bit more...


Human infants are born unable to speak or sign or understand any language. However, their brains and minds are in some sense prepared in advance to recognize languages and to work out their rules from raw language data. By "raw data" I mean data that come to the infant in the form of ordinary daily speech and experience rather than as systematic, organized language lessons or instruction. Except in the case of very severe mental retardation or trauma or physical incapacity, children go on to acquire native command of the language or languages they're exposed to in their language environment, whether those are sound languages or sign languages. Children do this in spite of the fact that the data provided to them are often limited or defective, and vary greatly from one environment to another. They go through a uniform series of stages that Steven Pinker has labeled, charmingly, "Syllable Babbling, Gibberish Babbling, One-Word Utterances, Two-Word Strings, and then All Hell Breaks Loose." (Pinker 1994, page 259).

Suppose that from birth you provide your infant with carefully designed daily English lessons taught by a well-qualified native speaker of English. You can then expect that by roughly the age of twelve months the child will begin to use a few words of English, and that by roughly the age of five years the child will speak English as an adult does. The child will be able to make statements, ask questions, issue commands and threats and promises and verbal attacks, carry on a conversation, argue with other people, indicate past and future time, specify singular and plural, indicate negatives -- all the basics. Suppose that from birth you provide your infant with carefully designed daily lessons in both English and Chinese, taught by well-qualified native speakers. The child who gets these lessons will have the same experience as the child discussed previously, but in both English and Chinese. However, in both cases -- English only, or English and Chinese -- if the idea of language lessons for an infant never enters your head and you simply use language around the child in the ordinary way, the same thing will happen.

The average timetable holds for all human children and for all languages, but there is a considerable amount of individual variation. There are children -- entirely normal children who go on to normal language competence and performance -- whose first words come as early as seven months or who don't master the basics until as late as age eight. There are, however, no children whose first words occur at two months or who don't master the basics until age twelve and who still go on to demonstrate normal language abilties. These facts are the same all over the world. There are no human languages for which the average timetable is different in any significant way. This is very different from what happens with other skills that we might want to teach to children. With very rare and unpredictable exceptions, children in our society who aren't given lessons won't be able to play the violin, or figure-skate, or play tennis, or do algebra -- even if the other people around them do those things every day. And when lessons are provided for those other skills, there will be extreme variation in what happens. Some children will become experts and others will do badly. The various subparts of the skills will be learned in different orders. And so on.

I think it's safe to say that newborn children already have available, as part of their mental equipment, a set of specifications for what human languages can contain and what human language can do. Some of these may be either/or specifications; others are specifications with a range of values from minimum to maximum. Children don't face the task of working out the grammar of the language spoken around them from scratch, therefore. Their task is instead the less difficult job of eliminating from the universal set of possible grammar specifications all those that don't belong in the grammar of the language or languages they're learning.

End of excerpt

Now I need to point out a few things...

First, the metaphor I use for the process I describe in the excerpt is a set of switches. Metaphorically speaking, the infant is born with on/off switches -- all of them in the "on" position -- for the things that happen in human languages, such as all the possible word orders of subject, verb, and object. The infant's task, based on observation of the raw language data all around her or him, is then to turn off all the switches that aren't used in producing that language data.

Second, there are many linguists who think the model I've presented is wrong. Roughly speaking, they believe that human infants have no innate ability unique to language learning, and that the patterns we observe in language acquisition result from the operation of more general cognitive abilities. I don't think that's true, but many distinguished scholars argue for that position.

Third, human infants learn nonverbal communication -- posture, gesture, facial expression, tone of voice, intonation, and more -- exactly as they learn verbal communication. By observing the raw data in their language environment and extracting from that data the rules and constraints that go with the language(s) they're acquiring.

Fourth, for additional information I'd suggest a Google search using the search phrase "language acquisition infants linguistics articles," plus a search at the Linguist List website [ ].