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Language and the brain

Bear with me on this. I'm quoting at length from Jared Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee, a book that i highly recommend to lay people interested in human development (Diamond also wrote Guns, Germs, and Steel, another book i recommend). But the subject of language often comes up in conversation and i wanted this as a reference for people too lazy busy to read the book. All emphasis (and typos) below are mine.

Linguists distinguish two stages in the emergence of the new languages: initially, the crude languages termed pidgins, then later the more complex ones referred to as creoles. Pidgins arise as a second language for colonists and workers who speak different native (first) languages and need to communicate with each other. Each group (colonists or workers) retains its native language for use within its own group; each group uses the pidgin to communicate with the other group, and in addition workers on a polyglot plantation may use pidgin to communicate with other groups of workers.


As for grammar, early-stage pidgin discourse typically consists of short strings of words with little phrase construction, no regularity in word order , no subordinate clauses, and no inflection endings on words. Along with that impoverishment, variability of speech within and between individuals is a hallmark of early-stage pidgins, which approximate an anarchic linguistic free-for-all.

...pidgins evolve rapidly into creoles whenever a generation of the groups contributing to a pidgin begins to adopt the pidgin itself as the native language... Compared to pidgins, creoles have a larger vocabulary, much more complex grammar, and consistency within and between individuals. Creoles can express virtually any thought expressively in a normal language, whereas trying to say anything even slightly complex is a desperate struggle in pidgin. Somehow, without any equivalent of the Academie Fancaise to lay down explicit rules, a pidgin expands and stabilizes to become a uniform and fuller language.

...What is striking is that the linguistic outcomes of all these independent natural experiments share so many similarities, both in what they lack and in what they possess. On the negative side, creoles are simpler than normal languages in mostly lacking conjugations of verbs for tense and person, declensions of nouns for case and number, most prepositions, and agreement of words for gender. On the positive side, creoles are advanced over pidgins in many respect: consistent word order, singular and plural pronouns for the first, second, and third person, relative clauses [etc.]...

The factors responsible for this remarkable convergence are still controversial amongst linguists... The interpretation I find most convincing is that of linguist Derek Bickerton, who views many of the similarities among creoles as resulting from our possessing a genetic blueprint for language...

These similarities among creoles seem likely to stem from a genetic blueprint that the human brain possesses for learning language during childhood. Such a blueprint has been widely assumed ever since the linguist Noam Chomsky argued that the structure of human language is far too complex for a child to learn within just a few years, in the absence of any hard-wired instructions.

...Such difficulties convinced Chomsky that children learning their first language would face an impossible task unless much of language's structure was already preprogrammed into them. Chomsky concluded that we are born with a "universal grammar" already wired into our brains to give us a spectrum of grammatical models encompassing the range of grammars in actual languages. This prewired universal grammar would be like a set of switches, each with various alternative positions. The switch positions would then become fixed to match the grammar of the local language that the growing child hears.

However, Bickerton goes further than Chomsky and concludes that we are preprogrammed not just to a universal grammar with adjustable switches, but to a particular set of switch settings: the settings that surface again and again in creole grammars. The preprogrammed settings can be overridden if they turn out to conflict with what a child hears in the local language around it...

If Bickerton is correct that we really are preprogrammed at birth with creole settings that can be overridden by later experience, then one would expect children to learn creolelike features of their local languages earlier and more easily than features conflicting with creole grammar. This reasoning might explain the notorious difficulty of English-speaking children in learning how to express negatives: they insist on creolelike double negatives such as "Nobody don't have this." The same reasoning could explain the difficulties of English-speaking children with word order in questions.

To pursue this latter example, English happens to be among the languages that uses the creloe order of subject, verb, and object for statement: for instance, "I want juice." Many languages, including creoles, preserve this word order in questions, which are merely distinguished by an altered tone of voice ("You want juice?"). However, the English language does not treat questions in this way. Instead, our questions deviate from creole word order by inverting the subject and verb ("Where are you?," not "You are where?"), or by placing the subject between an auxiliary verb (such as "do") and the main verb ("Do you want juice?"). My wife and I have been barraging our sons from early infancy onward with grammatically correct English questions and statements. My sons quickly picked up the correct order for statements, but both of them are still persisting in the incorrect creolelike order for questions... It's as if they're still convinced that their preprogrammed creolelike rules are correct.

A related topic is about raising kids to be multi-lingual. While you can derive theories from things quoted above, i'll also reference this Noam Chomsky interview with Forbes on Why Kids Learn Languages Easily, which is annoyingly audio-only, so i'll quote from an eHow article summarizing it:

Total Acceptance

Many young children who speak several languages have no or little awareness of speaking multiple languages but can easily transition from one to another. When asked to voice their thoughts, these children often comment with something like, "This is how I talk to Aunt Mary," or "This is how I talk to Daddy," according to a Forbes interview with Noam Chomsky, not (for example) "This is Swahili and this is English." This is also true of children raised in homes with one deaf parent that signs and one that speaks. These children speak both languages with no preference for either one. With total acceptance, there are fewer barriers to learning different languages.

Harder with Age

After the age of 1, linguists theorize it is progressively harder to pick up new words, though it is still much easier for toddlers than adults. After age 10, the difficulty level becomes more noticeable, making it harder to learn a second language. The theory is that the older a person gets, the more that person's native language dominates the "brain map" responsible for language. At this point, the brain begins to train itself to not pay attention to foreign sounds.

Learning the Third Language May Be Easier

According to the Forbes interview with Noam Chomsky, Chomsky and many other colleagues believe that if a young child learns a second language during the critical period of learning, it will be easier for that child to later learn more languages--even after the age of 10. It may be more difficult than if it was done before that critical period, and that child may learn the language in a different way than the first ones, but it will still be easier than for someone who did not learn a second language early in life. It is not yet entirely clear why this happens, but the earlier critical period of learning and development plays a role.

I should note that (as with all science), Chomsky and Bickerton's theories have their detractors, and Diamond is what i'll call a "universal explainer", not a linguist. So don't take anything here as definitive fact.

By fnord12 | November 26, 2012, 9:49 AM | Boooooks & Science | Link

Mebbe ESPN Sportscasters Can Be Likeable

I know what you're thinking. Inconceivable! But just watch!

Anybody who makes Princess Bride references can't be all bad.

By min | November 14, 2012, 4:55 PM | Boooooks & Movies | Link

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