The idea that we have brains hardwired with a mental template for learning grammar—famously espoused by Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—has dominated linguistics for almost half a century. Recently, though, cognitive scientists and linguists have abandoned Chomsky’s “universal grammar” theory in droves because of new research examining many different languages—and the way young children learn to understand and speak the tongues of their communities. That work fails to support Chomsky’s assertions.
The research suggests a radically different view, in which learning of a child’s first language does not rely on an innate grammar module. Instead the new research shows that young children use various types of thinking that may not be specific to language at all—such as the ability to classify the world into categories (people or objects, for instance) and to understand the relations among things. These capabilities, coupled with a unique human ability to grasp what others intend to communicate, allow language to happen. The new findings indicate that if researchers truly want to understand how children, and others, learn languages, they need to look outside of Chomsky’s theory for guidance.
In this often personal interview, renowned linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky outlines a libertarian perspective on work and education, arguing that freedom is the root of creativity and fulfilment.
The question I would like to ask is what is really wanted work? Maybe we could start with your personal life and your double career in linguistics and political activism? Do you like that kind of work?
If I had the time I would spend far more time doing work on language, philosophy, cognitive science, topics that are intellectually very interesting. But a large part of my life is given to one or another form of political activity: reading, writing, organising, activism and so on. Which is worth doing, it’s necessary but it’s not really intellectually challenging. Regarding human affairs we either understand nothing, or it’s pretty superficial. It’s hard work to get the data and put it all together but it’s not terribly challenging intellectually. But I do it because it’s necessary. The kind of work that should be the main part of life is the kind of work you would want to do if you weren’t being paid for it. It’s work that comes out of your own internal needs, interests and concerns.
Excerpt from an interview between Noam Chomsky and Michael Kasenbacher, New Left Project. Continue HERE
Moderator: Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology, Harvard University
* Emilio Bizzi, MIT Institute Professor; Founding Member, McGovern Institute for Brain Research
* Sydney Brenner, Senior Distinguished Fellow, Crick-Jacobs Center, Salk Institute? for Biological Studies
* Noam Chomsky, MIT Institute Professor, Emeritus; Department of Linguistics and Philosophy
* Marvin Minsky, Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, Emeritus, MIT?
* Barbara H. Partee PhD ’65, Distinguished University Professor Emerita of Linguistics and Philosophy, University of Massachusetts
* Patrick H. Winston ’65 SM ’67 PhD ’70, Ford Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science, MIT?; Principal Investigator, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; Chairman and Co-founder, Ascent Technology
See this panel HERE. Photo above via
Why can everyone learn Portuguese? Are some aspects of our nature unknowable? Can you imagine Richard Nixon as a radical? Is Twitter a trivializer? New Scientist takes a whistle-stop tour of our modern intellectual landscape in the company of Noam Chomsky.
Let’s start with the idea that everyone connects you with from the 1950s and ’60s—a “universal grammar” underlying all languages. How is that idea holding up in 2012?
It’s virtually a truism. There are people who misunderstand the term but I can’t deal with that. It’s perfectly obvious that there is some genetic factor that distinguishes humans from other animals and that it is language-specific. The theory of that genetic component, whatever it turns out to be, is what is called universal grammar.
But there are critics such as Daniel Everett, who says the language of the Amazonian people he worked with seems to challenge important aspects of universal grammar.
It can’t be true. These people are genetically identical to all other humans with regard to language. They can learn Portuguese perfectly easily, just as Portuguese children do. So they have the same universal grammar the rest of us have. What Everett claims is that the resources of the language do not permit the use of the principles of universal grammar.
That’s conceivable. You could imagine a language exactly like English except it doesn’t have connectives like “and” that allow you to make longer expressions. An infant learning truncated English would have no idea about this: They would just pick it up as they would standard English. At some point, the child would discover the resources are so limited you can’t say very much, but that doesn’t say anything about universal grammar, or about language acquisition. Actually, I doubt very much that a language like that could exist.
Excerpt of the interview with Graham Lawton for SLATE. Continue HERE
Significant anniversaries are solemnly commemorated—Japan’s attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, for example. Others are ignored, and we can often learn valuable lessons from them about what is likely to lie ahead. Right now, in fact.
At the moment, we are failing to commemorate the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s decision to launch the most destructive and murderous act of aggression of the post-World War II period: the invasion of South Vietnam, later all of Indochina, leaving millions dead and four countries devastated, with casualties still mounting from the long-term effects of drenching South Vietnam with some of the most lethal carcinogens known, undertaken to destroy ground cover and food crops.
The prime target was South Vietnam. The aggression later spread to the North, then to the remote peasant society of northern Laos, and finally to rural Cambodia, which was bombed at the stunning level of all allied air operations in the Pacific region during World War II, including the two atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In this, Henry Kissinger’s orders were being carried out—“anything that flies on anything that moves”—a call for genocide that is rare in the historical record. Little of this is remembered. Most was scarcely known beyond narrow circles of activists.
Noam Chomsky speaks about the history of linguistics in the 20th century and the role played by the MIT Linguistics department.
From “50 Years of Linguistics at MIT: a Scientific Reunion” (December 9-11, 2011)