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We Sign-Wielding Primates. Mark Heyne “That the principles of language and natural logic are known unconsciously and are a precondition for language acquisition is the general supposition of Cartesian Linguistics.” Chomsky 1966. Noam Chomsky, in his book ‘Cartesian Linguistics’ states clearly the rationalist heritage from Descartes to Kant that supports his view of language acquisition and development. A ‘deep structure’ of syntax underlies the forms of language the child comes to use. This has become a commonplace in language teaching in recent decades, but it is an unexamined one. Firstly, what use is the hypothesis of an innate structuring of language if this deep structure is so malleable and indefinite as to allow transformation into whatever structure applies in the child’s environment? If it can be triggered by any actual language in any direction, then it is as vague a concept as a ‘language instinct’, or predisposition. Many of the observations that lead one to suppose pre-existent mental structures, such as the rapidity of acquisition and ‘creativity’ of children’s language use, have been exaggerated. They can be equally explained by the ten years of exposure to adult verbalisations that an average child needs to become fluent, and by an appeal to factors of general intelligence. I keep coming back to the idea that the growth in general intelligence in infants around 3 to 6 years leads to a growth in the ability to think metaphorically and symbolically. It is this new ability that is expressed phonetically in language.
Generalisation, abstraction and analogy are the processes that other linguists such as Bloomfield, Sassure, Jesperson and others claim provide the mechanisms for the creativity of language use. I would note here a common definition of learning, that data should be classified first, then reapplied in a new context to demonstrate that it has been understood in the abstract, and not only in its original sense. This is what language learning means too, not just rote memorizing of lexical items, but the reapplication of words and phrases to new situations. And it is the meaning of those phrases more than their form that is picked up and repositioned in new discourse. One of Chomsky’s arguments against behaviorist reinforcement as a means to the learning of usage is that parents will often approve utterances that are grammatically incorrect, such as ‘doggy sleep’ which would only be corrected if the dog were in fact not asleep. Chomsky says this shows that the child ‘knows’ the correct form from an innate syntax despite the reinforcement of a mistake. This however might more simply point to meaning being the prime aim of the communication.When we think of those earliest signwielding primates it is the semantics of their signing, rather than the syntax, that was of primary importance to them. We are the inheritors of that semantic ability.
Posted by Medway at 2:14