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The Other Side of Noam Chomsky's Brilliant Mind

An excerpt from the new book "Power Systems" explore's Chomsky's contributions to the raging academic debate on linguistics and how children learn to speak.

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Either this is a miracle or it’s biologically driven. There are just no other choices. There are attempts to claim that language acquisition is a matter of pattern recognition or memorization, but even a superficial look at those proposals shows that they collapse very quickly. It doesn’t mean that they’re not being pursued. In fact, those lines of inquiry are very popular. In my view, though, they’re just an utter waste of time.

There are some very strange ideas out there. For instance, a lot of quite fashionable work claims that children acquire language because humans have the capacity to understand the perspective of another person, according to what’s called theory of mind. The capacity to tell that another person is intending to do something develops in normal children at roughly age three or four. But, in fact, if you look at the autism spectrum, one of the classic syndromes is failure to develop theory of mind. That’s why autistic kids, or adults for that matter, don’t seem to understand what other people’s intentions are. Nevertheless, their language can be absolutely perfect. Furthermore, this capacity to understand the intention of others develops long after the child has mastered almost all the basic character of the language, maybe all of it. So that can’t be the explanation.

There are other proposals which also just can’t be true, but are still pursued very actively. You read about them in the press, just as you read things about other organ- isms having language capacity. There’s a lot of mythology about language, which is very popular. I really don’t want to sound too dismissive, but I feel dismissive. I think these ideas can’t be considered seriously.

Whatever our language faculty is, humans develop it very quickly, on very little data. In some domains, like the meaning of expressions, there’s virtually no data. Nevertheless it’s picked up very quickly and very precisely, in complex ways. Even with sound structure, where there’s a lot of data—there are sounds around, you hear them—it’s still a regular process and it’s distinctively human. Which is striking, because it’s now known that the auditory systems of higher apes, say chimpanzees, appear to be very similar to the human auditory system, even picking out the kinds of sounds that play a distinctive role in human language. Nevertheless, it’s just noise for the ape—they can’t do anything with it. They don’t have the analytical capacities, whatever they are.

What’s the biological basis for these human capacities? That’s a very difficult problem. We know a lot, for example, about the human visual system, partly through experimentation. At the neural level, we know about it primarily from invasive experiments with other species. If you conduct invasive experiments on other mammals, cats or monkeys, you can find the actual neurons in the visual system that are responding to a light moving in a certain direction. But you can’t do that with language. There is no comparative evidence, because other species don’t have the capacity and you can’t do invasive experiments with humans. Therefore, you have to find much more complex and sophisticated ways to try to tease out some evidence about how the brain is handling all this. There’s been some progress in this extremely difficult problem, but it’s very far from yielding the kind of information you could get from experimentation.

If you could experiment with humans, say, isolating a child and controlling carefully the data presented to it, you could learn quite a lot about language. But obviously you can’t do that. The closest we’ve come is looking at children with sensory deprivation, blind children, for example. What you find is pretty amazing. For example, a very careful study of the language of the blind found that the blind understand the visual words look, see, glare, gaze, and so on quite precisely, even though they have zero visual experience. That’s astonishing. The most extreme case is actually material that my wife, Carol, worked on, adults who were both deaf and blind. There are techniques for teaching language to the deaf-blind. Actually, Helen Keller, who is the most famous case, invented them for herself. It involves putting your hand on somebody’s face, with your fingers on the cheeks and thumb on the vocal cords. You get some data from that, which is extremely limited. But that’s the data available to the deaf-blind, and they have pretty remarkable language capacity. Helen Keller was incredible, a great writer, very lucid. She’s an extreme case.

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