Re: "Learning" Language

Subject: Re: "Learning" Language
From: "Susan W. Gallagher" <sgallagher -at- EXPERSOFT -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 7 Dec 1995 11:10:49 -0800

Karen Mayer wrote (in response to Arlen, who said that language rules are
hardwired into our brains):

> The current research by *some individuals* does not necessarily mean the
> theory is fact. Have they isolated a gene for this "hardwiring?" If so,
> can they distinguish which language the gene is hardcoded for? Do Chinese
> people have a gene for a Chinese "dialect", whereas French people have a
> gene for learning French? Since the grammar of Chinese is so different
> from French, one would suspect, based on the hardwiring theory, that the
> genes would be easily distinguishable.

> I suggest that in this case, as in many others, the theory that the
> grammar for a given language came first, and the research is attempting
> to prove the theory. I'd really like to know the scientific basis for the
> "fact" that a particular language's grammar is hard-coded into the brain
> (since the native language isn't determined until after birth). Take a
> Russian woman who gives her baby up for adoption to a Chinese family,
> which raises the baby in China and speaks nothing but Chinese to the
> baby. Does the baby have trouble learning Chinese because he/she was
> prewired for Russian? I would think it confusing if all we learn is
> vocabulary -- Russian grammar is extremely complex, whereas Chinese is
> very simple. Does the little 2 year old build Russian sentences with
> Chinese vocabulary?

From what I know of Chomsky's (sp?) work (and that's not enough by any
means), he's divided all languages into two specific grammar types -- those
that add suffixes and those that use modifying words (*and* a language can
evolve from one to another and back again over time). We're born knowing
*all* the grammar rules and we spend our "learning" years filtering out
those rules we (in our native language), don't use. So, Karen, your
hypothetical Russian baby won't have the *wrong* gene but will "learn" to
filter out the grammatical constructions his adoptive language does not
use. Chomsky goes on to point out that the grammatical errors that young
children make equate to rules that are valid in other languages but not in
their own. (And, as Mark L. pointed out, once we've filtered out the rules
we don't use, they're gone for good <sigh> and learning a language becomes
real work.)

There's an interesting tv series on Chomsky's theories of language --
Colorless Green Clouds Sleep Loudly (or something to that effect). One
segment of it uses the title as an example. If you recite an ordinary
nonsense sentence to a child, one in which words are used ungrammatically,
the child will giggle or give some other response that indicates you've
just spoken nonsense. The "Colorless green clouds..." sentence throws them
-- no giggles -- because it's grammatically correct. It uses all the right
parts of speech in all the right places, so it *should* make sense -- and
the children are all taken aback -- they *try* to make sense of it.
Fascinating stuff! Watch for it on your local PBS station.

*************************** NOTE NEW ADDRESS
******************************Sue Sue Gallagher
Expersoft Corporation
San Diego, CA
sgallagher -at- expersoft -dot- com

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