More About the Scary Science: Linguistics

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?

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