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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

« The Utrecht Paradigm | Main | Neanderthal Genome »

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Paul Strand

The most striking recent advance in the study of language is not the empirical support against the necessity of language-specific structures or innate information for language production (see Newman et al., 2010 for the most recent neuroscience evidence; See Moerk, 1989 for the psychological evidence). After all, the support for that idea was always more philosophical than empirical (Chomsky, 1959). What is perhaps most stunning is the development of procedures for teaching language to humans who, because of neuro-developmental disorders such as autism, were previously thought to be incapable of it (Greer, 2008).

What is becoming clear from these efforts is that the dissection of language into functional rather than structural parts is necessary to achieve these successes. These studies reveal that language learning is intimately tied to its usefulness to the organism learning it (see any issue of The Analysis of Verbal Behavior at pubmed). Moreover, what constitutes an environment that is “rich” for language learning is different for different people.

In light of the Utrecht conference and recent neuroscience findings, perhaps the search for understanding the evolution of language might take as its starting point how it is that non-verbal repertoires are replaced by verbal ones. At the level of organisms, this happens when the verbal repertoire (however simple) is more effective than the prevailing non-verbal one. For this reason, the first step in teaching language skills to individuals does not involve teaching them to name things (nouns, verbs). Instead, the first steps usually involve teaching them to make requests. (This gateway skill constitutes a basic unit for functional but not structural accounts of language). Once language-less children can do this, they often can be taught to engage in naming, sentence construction, and all sorts of other verbal operations (see Hayes et al., 2001; Greer, 2008). Therefore, it may make sense to consider all language as an elaboration on the process of making requests. How this elaboration takes place might make for a fruitful line of inquiry.

References
Greer, D. (2007). Verbal behavior analysis. Allyn and Bacon.
Hayes et al. (2001). Relational frame theory. Kluwer.
Moerk E.L. (1989). The LAD was a lady and the tasks were III-defined. Developmental Review, 9, 21-57.
Newman, T. Supalla, P. Hauser, E. L. Newport, D. Bavelier. Dissociating neural subsystems for grammar by contrasting word order and inflection. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2010; 107 (16): 7539 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1003174107
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BLOGGER: Paul's posts are always pretty interesting. Thanks.

JanetK

I see the biological dimension as somewhat more extensive than outlined here. For example I think the root of what I would call 'the basic vocabulary' is biological. We would be surprised to find a language that did not have a word for 'arm'. This is probably because an arm is an object with 'natural boundaries'. In order to make perceptual sense of our own movements and those of others, our brains create objects and those objects have natural boundaries. So before we have a word for arm, we have a concept of arm because we need such a concept for rapid and accurate perception and movement. So I would guess that the ability to form concepts would pre-date the ability to use words and would result primarily from the biological ability to perceive and act. It is hard to conceive of a brain that works without breaking the world into objects and those objects are formed by using the natural boundaries of surfaces and discreet movement. Those objects have to be stored somewhere in the brain for reference and are therefore concepts of a type. As soon as the concepts are used for communication they will be become words.
I like the idea you have put forward many times, that words guide joint attention. But I think the joint attention is not so much focused directly on the world but is focused on shared concepts. Pointing is all that is needed to guide attention to something directly. Words are needed to guide attention to concepts.

Adrian Morgan

I do wince a bit at the choice of "dimension" as the word for describing the two aspects of language.

A characteristic of dimensions is that it doesn't matter how you combine them. Three paces east plus five paces south plus another three paces east is the same as six paces east plus five paces south is the same as five paces south plus six paces east.

Used metaphorically, "dimension" may be a suitable word to describe aspects that are essentially independent and can be described without reference to each other, but if you're talking about aspects that influence each other in complex ways (or have the potential to do so), then I think the word is better avoided.
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BLOGGER:I don't want to make you wince, but I did mean to use the term "dimension" fairly seriously. It's not like length and width, more like space and time. You can't run around at will in the temporal dimension either. But the two are glued together via the speed of light. That's the quality I was trying to get at. The biological and cultural dimensions can be discussed independently, but at any moment both dimensions define an utterance. It also has some analytical value because it helps keep the two sorted. What is the most common mistake in linguistic analysis? Treating the biological and cultural dimensions as though they were the same thing.

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