Monday, June 1, 2009

The Social Brain Speaks: Lessons in Language

There is no doubt that language offers both demonstrations of and a special window into the social brain, and human nature in general. Watching Dr. Paul Bloom's lecture on language at Open Yale Courses, I learned a number of intriguing facts about our linguistic faculty:

(1) Babies who are not spoken to directly (though are around speaking) seem to develop the same capacity for language as those babies who are addressed on a regular basis. There appears to be no interesting influence of parental speech-rearing on the ability for babies to normally develop the miracle of speech. (But, why would anyone not talk to their babies? Some cultures see this as senseless because 'what does the baby have to say?')

(2) In Nicaragua, there are documented cases of children who have created their own individual sign language out of the need for better means of communication because their parents, who do not know sign language, possess a broken form of spoken language.

(3) All neurologically normal humans, who at least hear language or have another person to communicate to, can develop normal speech abilities.

(4) There has never been a human culture discovered that does not possess and use language.

(5) Children of slaves who spoke "pidgin," or a broken-up mishmash of different languages which is not a fully developed language (created by the desire to communicate between slaves with different tongues), were able to produce a full-blown linguistic system (often called "creole") with phonology, morphology, and syntax. The ability to manufacture a language in a single generation from parents with an incomplete one, seems to suggest that humans have some inborn capacity for language. For, how else do we satisfactorily explain this phenomenon?

(6) There are a number of completely intelligent children who are social beings with a strong desire to communicate, who simply cannot learn language. This can be attributed, perhaps, to genetic defects, as one could have a genetic defect that might cause one to see the world differently as in color blindness.

(7) The number of possible sentences one can produce with a finite set of characters is infinite. The reason for this is "recursion." That is although there are a finite number of letters, words, and morphemes (sounds clusters, syllables) in each language they can be repeated and interchanged in a never-ending sequence. This is also the case with the infinite possibilities of music composition despite the finite number of musical notes.

(8) Even after just 4 days, babies already show preference to their native languages. That is, they will suck on a bottle, or perform another indicated task so to hear their indigenous language as opposed to a foreign one. French children preferred French to Russian, and vice versa.

(9) There are cases where deaf twins or siblings develop their own totally unique forms of sign language to communicate with one another despite no training, cues, or observations of signing.

(10) Studies show that babies learn sign language in the same way and at about the same rate as spoken language. That is, they babble, use first words, sentences, and complex linguistic structure concomitantly.

(11) Babies do not need to be taught grammar or syntax, for few parents ever speak to their babies in a systemic and grammatically sound manner, it is usually "goo goo gaa gaa." Yet, syntax emerges, no problem.

(12) The average person knows on average, 80,000 words (the lower limit is about 60,000 and the higher limit is about 100,000 words). However, most of our acquisition of words is done as babies and young children. Therefore, the average baby learns about 9 new words a day.

For a copy of the transcript from Dr. Bloom's lecture click here.


No comments:

Post a Comment