An article in the Arts section of The New York Times this morning, “How Do You Say ‘Disagreement’ in the Pirahã tongue?” points up the gulf between the soft science of Linguistics and ordinary mortals. Since there is no whiff of this science discernible in high school courses (at least in the U.S.), students do not know its basic principles. As a professor of freshman writing courses at a university, I know that terms used in the article, such as “universal grammar” and “recursion,” would meet with blank stares.
“Universal grammar” refers to the concept, first used by Noam Chomsky, that certain elements of language are genetically programmed. All human languages therefore have certain things in common (among them, “recursion”). While observing language usage, Chomsky had noted certain facts. Young children learn their native language so quickly that there must be something beyond normal learning channels at work. When we learn other languages later in life the pace is much slower. Chomsky noticed that children do not learn by imitation, as they hear all sorts of ungrammatical speech, including baby talk, yet still master grammatical forms. Even people with severe mental challenges can speak grammatically, though they may be unable to master other advanced knowledge. Chomsky became convinced that we, like blue birds who sing in bluebird instinctively, are somehow programmed to learn language.
“Recursion” is the proces of embedding one sentence within another by using clauses and other phrases. In his book, The Unfolding of Language, author Guy Deutscher gives an example of multiple recursions, “The lion running after the fox chasing the rabbit sniffing the dandelion blowing in the wind coming from the east.”
This morning’s article deals with a controversy about whether the Pirahã language spoken in Brazil is a language without recursion. One researcher claims it is, and if so, it would undermine the universality of grammar and therefore undermine the status of Noam Chomsky who, much like Albert Einstein in Physics, stands as the genius in the field.
The linguists are battling in ivory towers. No wonder, as Dr. Ted Gibson, a professor of cognitive science at M.I.T., opined,”Chomskians and non-Chomskians are weirdly illogical at times…It’s like they just don’t want to have a cogent argument. They just want to contradict what the other guy is saying.” The article notes the “strangely calcified state of the recursion debate.” Science kept separate from life will calcify, like arguing how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. There is no answer to the “so what?”
If linguistic knowledge were allowed to trickle out of the ivory towers, the linguists might come down to earth, which could benefit them as well. Our students should be learning about linguistics, the same way they learn about quantum physics, Keynesian economics, or the Oedipus Complex, yet they do not. They should know how language is constructed, how meaning is made, and what the role of language is in our daily lives and in our communities. This knowledge will facilitate the acquisition of other languages and, for even mildly assiduous students, improve their ability to express themselves both orally and in writing. It would provide someone for the isolated linguists to talk to, which could make them less weird.
Educators in the U.S. are hesitant to introduce it into our common curriculum for fear that it will rob our students of their creativity and self esteem. What do you think?
An article in The New York Times today makes the case that not only does bilingualism make us smarter as children, it also wards off mental deterioration in older people.
I might add my own two cents on this subject. There is no time in life when bilingualism is anything less than a great bonus (except when memorizing vocabulary lists, that’s just the price you pay). Traveling, watching television, reading newspapers in another language, speaking with the local hardware store owner or taxi driver or musician in his or her native language is a kick which opens your social life and sprinkles glitter on our everyday activities.
Max Markham, a recent Stanford graduate with some impressive international experience, even at his young age, has written an article which appeared on the blog policymic and presents some of the compelling arguments against having English-only legislation passed in the U.S., whether on the state or national level. It was written five months ago, and refers to Jon Huntsman as the only presidential candidate who speaks a language other than English fluently (Chinese), and Huntsman is no longer a candidate, but the points made in the article remain true. (I believe that Romney speaks pretty good French, but perhaps he was excluded because he isn’t fluent.)
One factoid teachers can use to introduce this subject is that, counting immigrant enclaves, there are around 337 languages spoken or signed in the U.S. One hundred seventy-six are indigenous, such as Athabaskan, Chinookan, Iroquoian, Uto-Aztecan, and many more. Fifty-two are now extinct, with others falling into extinction as native speakers die out. Some of these are Delaware, Jersey Dutch, Iowa-Oto, Narragansett, Shinnecock, Wyandot, and many more.
My favorite historical anecdotes on this subject concern the debate which occurred in Revolutionary War times. There were a number of Americans who objected to adopting the language of their enemies, the British, though most people in the fledgling U.S. spoke English. Some wanted the official language to be either Hebrew, French, or Greek (the languages of God, rationality, and democracy), and some suggested Latin, which was universally taught in upper class schools. There were so many German speakers at that time that a bill was introduced to print official documents in German. It failed.
Exercise: As with other language policy-related issues that have been discussed on this blog in the past, have students find out what the language policy of their state, town, or school is, and hold a class discussion of the findings, which includes a pro- and con- dialogue about declaring an official state or national language.
This weekend I saw Dr. Andrew Weil speak about mental health at the Book Fair in Tucson, Arizona. Dr. Weil is a well known author and doctor who advocates integrated health care, using both traditional and modern medical techniques.
Among the many elements of maintaining mental health, he mentioned gratitude. We should be grateful, he said, for the good things that happen to and around us. He went one step further — we should, he said, keep a “gratitude journal,” writing down the things we are grateful for.
This brought to mind one of the most interesting aspects of literacy; writing things down gives them power. We generally tend to believe what we read more than what we hear. “Give it to me in writing.” (Perhaps in pre-literate societies, of which some still exist, hearing is as powerful as the written word. That would be interesting to know, and I have not personally seen research on that issue.)
Students can test the power of the written word in with the exercise below.
Exercise: Take 5-10 minutes for students to summarize what has happened in their lives over the previous week.
Then ask the students to keep a journal for a week, writing down each evening the things which impressed them that day. At the end of the week, ask them to bring the journals to class, and ask them, again, to summarize their week, using the journals for reference.
A class discussion should reveal some of the benefits and disadvantages of the written word, revealing an important lesson about literacy. I don’t know what your students will say, but some possibilities might be: the journal helps them to remember, the journal limits their imagination, the journal reveals a personal philosophy or pattern of behavior, and so on…
I learned something new today — yes, our genetic makeup influences how we behave, but our behavior also changes or enhances our genetic makeup. It’s a two-way street. That is somehow hopeful.
As reported in the journal Neuron, a UCLA team of researchers “discovered that some 2,000 genes in a region of the male zebra finch’s brain known as “Area X” are significantly linked to singing. More than 1,500 genes in this region, a critical part of the bird’s song circuitry, are being reported for the first time.”
The researchers believe that “the 2,000 genes — which are also shared by humans — are likely important for human speech.” Some disorders, such as autism, are believed to have a genetic component, and this is a step toward understanding how that works.
The cool thing about the research, to me anyway, is that yes, our speech is regulated by genes, but when we speak, the genes are energized and changed — that is, our behavior can change the way our brains work. The researchers write that ”If you’re a professional pianist, for example, you actually expand the territory in your brain that is devoted to playing the piano. When you practice the piano, a suite of genes gets turned on. When you practice hitting a tennis serve or a baseball, a suite of genes gets turned on. Our findings suggest different suites of genes get activated for different behaviors.”
How are “suites of genes” influenced by learning new languages, and speaking them? There is evidence that learning other languages affects many parts of the brain, but so far the mechanisms which cause these beneficial results have not been clearly understood.
Research like this makes me wonder what world our grandchildren will live in.