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Language acquisition

The scientific approach 04.04.2017 at 16:43

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Many of the once revolutionary discoveries of Noam Chomsky in linguistics, including the concept of how we learn languages, now have to make room.

For nearly half a century, linguistics was dominated by the idea of a famous Professor of mit Noam Chomsky about the fact that our brain learns the grammar of a kind of inherent in him from birth mental patterns. Recently, however, scientists and linguists cognitivist one by one abandon the theory of universal grammar Chomsky, after a number of recent studies of various languages, including a study of the ways in which young children learn to understand their native language and speak it, refuted his concept.

In these studies expressed a fundamentally different view, according to which to learn your first language the child is not an innate grammatical module, and a variety of mechanisms of thinking, which may not be at all related to language, such as the ability to distribute objects and phenomena of the world into categories (people, objects, etc.) and understand how they relate to each other. Thanks to these abilities, combined with the unique human ability to understand communicative intention of the interlocutor, laid the first language skills. Recent studies clearly indicate that an understanding of how children (and not only they) learn languages, lies outside the theory of Chomsky.

the Importance of this conclusion is corroborated by the fact that the study of human language plays a key role in a variety of disciplines — from poetry to artificial intelligence — and, in fact, in the linguistics, and by the wrong methods lead to questionable results. Say more in how a person uses language, he is unique compared to all other living entities, respectively, if we will be able to comprehend what the language, we understand a little more about human nature.

the First version of the theory of Chomsky, launched in the mid-twentieth century, is quite consistent with the spirit of its time because of its obvious connection with the two emerging trends of intellectual life of the West. Chomsky claimed that languages which people use to communicate in everyday life, basically behave the same as built on mathematical algorithms programming languages used in the young at that time, industry computer science. Out to find the basis of human language algorithmic structure, he proposed the hypothesis of the existence of a certain system of actions with which you can create "well-formed" sentences. Revolutionary ideas was the assumption that the human brain is from birth equipped with a program similar to a computer, which can produce a proposal that meets all the laws "live" of grammar, and this program perhaps provides the key to understanding how a man puts words into sentences. Such a manner of reasoning about the language was very in tune with the desire of many scientists to use computer approach to anything.

Developing your "computer" theory, Chomsky at the same time expressed the hypothesis that they are caused biologically. In the second half of the XX century, it became increasingly clear that many aspects of our unique psychology, we owe that to our unique evolutionary history, and reflections Chomsky is well resonated with the insights. Chomsky has positioned his universal innate grammar that exists as a given component of the human mind, the study of which promised to discover the underlying biological basis more than 6 thousand languages in the world. The most powerful (and definitely the most beautiful) scientific theories are theories that reveal the unity of phenomena, hidden under their surface diversity, so the concept of universal grammar immediately attracted attention.

But Chomsky's theory has not stood the test of time and has for many years consistently losing ground. This die it is very slow because, as once noted Max Planck, obsolete scientists tend to cling to obsolete methods: "Science is moving forward at a speed of one funeral at a time".

it was in the beginning

In their initial incarnations of the universal grammar in the 1960s started from the basic structure of the so-called middle Eastern languages standard (SES), that is, languages spoken by most people working on them linguists. Thus, the universal grammar program built on the fundamental fragments of the language: nominative ("good dog") and verb ("like cats") groups. Pretty soon, however, one after another began to appear the results of the linguistic comparison between the different languages that were clearly behind this smooth scheme. In some languages of the Australian aborigines, for example in the language walbiri, grammatical elements scattered throughout the sentence: nominal and verbal groups do not have the usual "packages" in which they could be introduced in the universal grammar of Chomsky, and some phrases of the verbal element is not at all.

These so-called anomalies was not linked to universal grammar, is based on examples from European languages. Soon there were other exceptions from the theory of Chomsky discovered in the course of the study ergative languages such as Basque or Urdu, in which the characteristics of the subject of the sentence differ from the characteristics of the subject of the sentence in European languages, which again did not fit into the idea of a universal grammar of Chomsky.

These findings, coupled with results of theoretical linguistic research in the 1980s led Chomsky and his followers to revise the concept of universal grammar. To replace one universal grammar for all languages of the world came a new theory of principles and parameters, with its set of "universal" principles that specify the structure of the language, and in each language, these principles manifest themselves in different ways. You can draw an analogy with the fact that we are all born with a basic set of taste sensations (sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami); from the complex interplay of these basic tastes with the cultural, historical and geographical peculiarities of different regions of the world are born of the national cuisine. Principles and parameters Chomsky represent a linguistic analogy to the tastes under the influence of the cultural characteristics of the region (depending on which language you have to learn baby — Japanese or English), they form a unique language picture of the world and in General determine the set of all "possible" human languages.

the Spanish language enables you to form grammatically correct sentences without isolation of the subject, for example, zapatos Tengo ("I Have [literally: "I have"] shoes"), where the owner of the shoes is defined not with the individual words "I" and a verb ending -o Chomsky argued that, few times faced with such proposals, a child's brain learns that the subject of the sentence should be deleted, and moves the corresponding lever in the "on" position. Now the child will know that in other sentences the subject can be omitted. It was assumed that the parameter "lowering of the subject" also defines other structural features of the language. Formulated a new theory the notion of universal principles pretty well describes the structure of many European languages, however, these studies non-European languages entered with it the conflict and any attempt to identify in these languages, generic parameters, such as the "lowering of the subject", led to the necessity of abandoning the second embodiment of a universal grammar due to its inconsistencies of reality upon closer inspection.

Then came a sensational article Chomsky and co-authors in the journal Science in 2002 In this article, they describe a universal grammar, which is based on a single principle — recursion (although many proponents of universal grammar still prefer to say that there are many universal principles and parameters). The revised concept proposed algorithm, which allows a limited number of words and rules to create an unlimited number of proposals.

, Recursion opens up the endless possibilities of constructing sentences by embedding each other structurally similar syntagm. For example, in the English language, additional words can be attached to the right of the same phrase: John hopes Mary knows Peter is lying ("John hopes that Mary knows that Peter is lying") or insert them in the middle of a sentence: The dog that the cat that chased the boy saw barked ("the Dog that chased the cat that saw the boy, barked"). In theory, the phrase can be strung indefinitely.

In practice, such a conglomeration as in the last example, it is difficult to see. Explaining this difficulty, Chomsky argued that it is not a language as such, but in a limited capacity of human memory. Moreover, Chomsky suggested that it recursively separates the process of learning human language from other cognitive processes, such as categorization and establishing the relationships between objects and concepts. Not long ago, it has been hypothesized that the ability to learn the language through recursion was the result of a genetic mutation somewhere in the 50-100 thousand years ago.

In this case, as happened before, when faced with the diversity of languages in practice, linguists have found examples that contradict the statement about the fundamental role of recursion in language. Some languages, like the language of the Amazonian piraha Indians, well do without recursion Chomsky. As with all linguistic theory, universal grammar Chomsky works wonders gymnastics in an attempt to keep his balance. Every theory must be sufficiently simple to beforehand to explain what it itself is not included (otherwise it will be just a listing of facts), but it should be simple enough to not be able to explain things it was designed to explain. Take, for example, the assertion of Chomsky that all languages of the world offers are subject. The problem is that the notion "subject" is rather a "family hell", rather than a specific category. Characteristics of the subject define more than 30 different grammatical features. Different languages use different sets of such signs, and coincidences are extremely rare.

Chomsky tried to define a basic "Toolkit" of language — the mental mechanisms responsible for the manifestation of linguistic skills in humans. If there is a discrepancy with reality some supporters of Chomsky stated that the absence of a specific language, any tool, such as recursion, does not mean that this tool is missing in the core set. Doesn't mean a lack in the culture of salt to food sabriana that the representatives of this culture in a set of possible taste sensations is no salty taste. This argument, however, complicates the practical test hypotheses Chomsky and sometimes makes them unprovable.

"Nomenklatura" and the new linguistics

Noam Chomsky won the linguistic community of his theory more than half a century ago. The essence of the theory was simple: language is a derivative of data of the little man with the birth of grammar rules that are activated when it comes time to put words into sentences. Chomsky took the trouble to define these terms and to reveal the principles of their functioning. Without this "universal grammar", he believed, the child is not able to master any language. But time does not stand still, and the theory of Chomsky already pushed a new hypothesis, according to which children learn language, and recognizing the speech of others, certain generic structure.

the Universal grammar of Chomsky

Chomsky argued that children are born with the knowledge of the rules for preparation and transformation of phrases ("good dog" and "good dogs like cats"). These rules he called universal grammar. During its existence, the theory is repeatedly revised, but its essence has always remained the same: every child has an innate ability to form correct grammatical structures.

the Usual theory of language acquisition

Making a universal grammar to make room for innovative approaches in linguistics and psychology at the forefront of the natural ability of children to intuitively guess the intentions of others, combined with powerful learning mechanisms operating in the developing brain. Perceiving the speech of others, the child learns the standard scheme of constructing phrases and sentences. So, after "the dog asks" can put a "meal" and "ball". Empirical studies show that this theory is really able to shed some light on how two - and three-year-olds learn the language.

the Harbinger of the end

the theory of Chomsky finds its main shortcomings, when trying to explain the process of language acquisition. It is assumed that young children's ability to formulate proposals by abstract grammatical rules are born with (specific rules should apply to variations of the theory). However, numerous studies prove that a little person learns their first language differently: children begin with the development of simple grammatical schemes, and then gradually, step by step comprehend behind these schemes rules.

So, the first sentences of small children is extremely simple grammar, compiled according to certain patterns: "Where is Z?", "I want Z", "Z", "Z Is", "I Z-Yu", "Lay Z here", "Mama Z-em's", "Let's Z-eat this", "Throw Z", "Z", "Mama Z-t", "Get Z", "Open Z", "Z here", "Here Z", "Z broke". Subsequently, the children combine these simple schemes into more complex ones: "Where Z, mother Z-La?"

This characterization of early language development in children is accepted by many supporters of universal grammar without objection. However, they further state that the transition to more complex structures is not that other, as the maturation of cognitive abilities based on the universal grammar and its abstract grammatical categories and principles.

So, universal grammar in most of its incarnations says that the child formulates the question in accordance with defined rules of usage of grammatical categories: "What (object) you (subject) lost (verb)?". Answer: "I (subject) lost (verb) something (object)". If this is true, in a certain period of development, children are mastering English, should prevent the same error in all special questions beginning with question words in wh-. However, the real errors of children did not confirm this hypothesis. In the early stages of development children are often incorrectly put words in interrogative sentences: Why he can't come? instead Why can't he come? ("Why can't he come?"), but at the same time, confusing and sometimes he can't, they correctly formulate other special questions with question words in wh - and properly using auxiliary verbs: What does he want? ("What does he want?")

Experimental studies in the English language confirm that children usually don't make mistakes in interrogative sentences, in which there are certain combinations of words in wh - and auxiliary verbs (usually combinations of which they are very familiar, for example, What does...), while they continue to make mistakes in interrogative sentences with other (not so familiar) combinations: Why he can't come?

Proponents of universal grammar retort that fluency grammar inherent in every child from birth, but different factors such as inadequate memory, attention and social skills prevent children to use it, distorting its true nature, that raises an obstacle to the study of "pure" grammar, preached linguistics Chomsky. However, there are other interpretations of child behavior. There is an assumption that it is not in that memory, attention and social skills interfere with the expression of grammar, and that they are essential to the construction of language.

Recently conducted a study where one of us (Paul Ibbotson) was a sponsor, and it showed that the child's ability to remember the correct form of the past tense of irregular verb, for example: Every day I fly, I flew yesterday (not flyed) ("I fly every day, I flew yesterday"), directly depends on its ability to inhibit the obvious response that violates the rules of grammar (the same effort is required when you need to say the word "moon", looking at the image of the sun). It turns out that memory, the ability to draw analogies, attention, and assessment of social situations not to interfere with the child realize innate skill to "clean" the grammar of the Chomsky — they are likely to be decisive factors in the implementation language according to the laws which we observe in life.

As in the case of the argument against these cross-linguistic studies and in favor of the existence of a basic set of tools in the human language, the hypothesis that own undeveloped skills hinder the child to manifest his innate ability, unprovable. It is a sign of agony fading scientific paradigms that lack a solid empirical basis: such was at the time, Freudian psychology and Marxist theory of historical development.

Even if not to take into account putting a universal grammar into question the empirical facts, the psycholinguists working with children, it is difficult even in theory to imagine a phenomenon, when children are born with a ready set of the same abstract grammatical rules for all languages and then suffer, as their native language, whether English or Swahili, fits into this scheme. Linguists call this paradox the problem of communication (between the innate universal grammar and of the living language. — Note. TRANS.). One of the few attempts to resolve this paradox in regard to the subjects of proposals was undertaken by a Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker (Steven Pinker), but his findings did not agree with the data of development studies children and were not applicable to others than the subject, of grammatical categories. Thus, the problem of communication — a core issue in the application of universal grammar to language acquisition — is still not solved and nobody seriously disputed.

an Alternative view

the conclusion is that the notion of universal grammar is fundamentally wrong. Of course, it is impossible, even in the face of contradictory evidence, to force the scientist to abandon his favorite theory, until a reasonable alternative. And this alternative, called "spontaneous theory of language acquisition", has finally appeared. This theory, taking many forms, believes that the grammatical structure of the language is not an innate feature of human cognition. On the contrary, grammar is a variation of historical processes (those that are responsible for the transmission of languages from generation to generation) and human psychology (social and cognitive capabilities, allowing a new generation to learn their native language). Moreover, according to this theory, in the process of language acquisition involves brain systems, originally for this purpose is not intended that refutes Chomsky on genetic mutations that shaped the capacity for recursion.

Combining the position of functional linguistics, cognitive linguistics and constructive grammar, language usage theory of language acquisition States that an innate universal tool specifically designed for mastering grammar doesn't exist. Instead, the child inherits from previous generations mental equivalent multifunctional folding knife tool kit a wide range of applications, such as categorization, building analogies, the ability to "read" the communicative intention of the speaker, who helps him to reconstruct the grammatical rules of the language they hear around them.

So, child, mastering the English language understand the sentence "the Cat ate the rabbit", and similarly it is clear the sentence "the Goat tickled the fairy". Children hear the same phrase structure and conduct between them the analogy. After a sufficient number of examples of this sort they will even be able to guess who did what to whom in the phrase "Kuzdra bodenusa bokra", despite the fact that it lacks meaning. That is, the child "guesses" the grammar behind the structure of words in a sentence, no matter what vocabulary level between these proposals have little in common.

the Semantic content of language — it is the result of interaction between the potential meanings of the words themselves (for example, all the possible meanings of the word "ate") and the values of the grammatical constructions in which these words are inserted. So, the verb "to sneeze" in the dictionary is represented as intransitive, not attaching add-ons. But if it is intentionally inserted into dvuhobektnoe construction that allows the verb to have both a direct and indirect object, succeed the phrase "She sneezed him the napkin," in which the predicate is "sneezed" means the action of moving a subject (that is, it took action through which the cloth passed to it). This example shows that the grammatical structure of a sentence plays a lesser role in shaping the meaning of a statement, than words. Now recall the statement about Chomsky that there are levels of grammar, completely devoid of meaning.

the Concept of a multipurpose folding knife also allows you to explain the process of language acquisition without the help of the two mandatory from the point of view of universal grammar phenomena: a set of abstract rules of combination of symbols (called grammar fundamental, "hardwired" in the human brain) and so-called lexicon — the list of exceptions that are designed to integrate the theory of Chomsky all the idiomatic expressions and the specific features of natural human languages. The problem with these two phenomena is that not all of the correct grammatical structures are constructed according to the rules. For example: Him a presidential candidate?! ("He is the President?!"). In this phrase the subject of him take the form of direct object and the sentence are in the wrong order. A native speaker can generate an infinite number of sentences on the same principle: Her go to ballet?! ("She's in ballet?!") or That guy a doctor?! ("This man is a doctor?!"). There is a fair question: where to put these statements to the fundamental grammar or the exceptions? If they fall out the fundamental grammar, so each of them need to memorize separately. But once children are able to master such boundary construction, which prevents them in the same way to learn the whole language? In other words, why do they need universal grammar?

it is also Interesting that the idea of the existence of universal grammar is contrary to the evidence that children learn language in social interactions and are gradually improving their language skills, developing design proposals, historically in language communities. In some cases it is possible to trace how this is happening. Take, for example, quite common in many languages relative clauses are formed by attaching one sentence to another.

So, we could say: "My brother... He lives in Arkansas... He loves to play the piano." Through various cognitive mechanisms (schematization, addictive, decontextualization and automation) similar phrases over the centuries evolved into a more complicated structure: "My brother, who lives in Arkansas, likes to play the piano." These mechanisms gradually transformed sentences like: "I pulled the door and it slammed shut" in "shut the door".

in addition, man is endowed with the unique ability to decode the communicative intentions of other people, that is, to guess what the speaker is referring to. For example, I might say, "She gave/bequeathed/passed/lent/sold a few library books" but not "She took the library some books". The latest research has shown that there are mechanisms that allow the child to avoid inappropriate analogies and to build an analogy, devoid of meaning. The child will never come to mind to say, "She ate several library books." In addition, if children hear often enough: "She brought to the library a few books", they will be able to resist the to say wrong, "She brought the library a few books."

Due to such restrictive arrangements, the child learns from the infinite number of possible analogies to build only those that can help to understand communicative intentions of others. This is the "reading" of intentions. We all use this tactic when you perceive the question: "could You open the door for me?" as a request, not a desire to inquire about our abilities to open the doors. This "pragmatics" — how we use language in context — is present in the General theory of the functioning of language Chomsky. Given the fact that language is extremely ambiguous, Chomsky had no way out. However, he assigned a secondary role pragmatics, arguing that the language runs the grammar. The usual theory of learning the language over again in a way accents and raises the question of how much of the language allows you to learn pragmatics, before the speaker will have to resort to the rules of syntax.

the Usual theory is still far from being able to give a comprehensive explanation of the functioning of language. The design process of children's sentences can not be reduced only to the descriptive generalizations that children make based on what he heard them in oral speech sentences and phrases, because it is possible to formulate countless quite meaningful generalizations to be grammatically incorrect (e.g. "He disappeared the rabbit"). Practical studies show that such errors children make are not as often as I could. Maybe it's all in the sensitivity of the child to the fact that the linguistic community to which he belongs, is subject to certain rules, under which all say "so".

While children's speech is always teetering on the fine line between creative ingenuity ("I spy") and grammatical correctness ("I sleep"). Supporters of the theory of language usage is still a lot of work to explain how in early childhood, various factors interact and through this interaction is a process of learning the language of a small child.

Look forward

the Paradigm of Chomsky at the time was a radical breakaway from the prevailing then a more informal theories. She first turned to challenging the specifics of the cognitive processes involved in developing the skill of understanding language and speaking it. But there are theories (and the theory of Chomsky is no exception), which, shedding light on some important things simultaneously obscure others equally important. Not only in linguistics but also in related areas of science is increasingly heard sighs of frustration over the too formal approach to language that imposes a universal grammar, not to mention the empirical failure of the theory. In addition, many modern researchers are not willing to settle for dry and divorced from reality theoretical analysis, considering that there are a wealth of linguistic data buildings (and many of them are already available online) that can be analyzed to expose the theses of the theory test.

of Course, the paradigm shift has not yet implemented, but many have called it a breath of fresh air in linguistics. Scientists have opened new avenues of exploration of the world's languages: how they are similar how are they different, how they changed over time and how little children master their native and other languages.

A universal grammar, it seems, living out their last days. In her place comes a new concept — the usual theory of language acquisition — paving the way the latest empirical dives into the mysteries of the development, use and historical development of more than 6 thousand languages in the world.


Paul Ibbotson — a teacher at the British Open University.

Michael Tomasello, co — Director of the Institute of evolutionary anthropology of max Planck in Leipzig. This year published his book "Natural history of human morality".

Translation: A. S. Grigorieva

Source: the Magazine "world of science" 2017 No. 03

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