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2.2 From Child to Adult

The origin of language in individual members of our species is more accessible to study than the origin of language in our species as a whole. We can see language emerge here and now as we watch our children acquiring language.

Burrhus Frederick Skinner (1904-1990) attempted to explain the acquisition of language by children in terms of his behavioristic principles of instrumental conditioning. Finding himself sitting beside the distinguished philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, at a banquet, Skinner launched into an enthusiastic exposition of his project to explain all human behavior in terms of conditioning. The calm old philosopher listened benignly to the brash young scientist, conceded that he could perhaps explain all non-verbal behavior within his model, but could not explain verbal behavior. "How could you explain that I choose to say at this moment 'No black scorpion is falling on this table'?" Skinner began his book Verbal Behavior next morning and published it several decades later [SKINNER]. In that book, he presented the following argument in response to Whitehead's challenge.

Verbal behavior is behavior reinforced through the mediation of other people. At that famous dinner, Skinner could have got the salt either by non-verbal behavior (reaching for it himself) or by verbal behavior (asking Whitehead to pass the salt). We use language, then, to gain reinforcement through the mediation of other people. But how do we acquire language in the first place? Skinner proposed three mechanisms:

  • A child utters at imitation of a word in the presence of the word, and an adult voices approval (echoic response);

  • a child utters the name of an object in the presence of the object, and an adult hands over the object (tact - short for contact );

  • a child utters the name of a satisfier of a need while experiencing the need, and an adult provides the satisfier of the need (mand - short for demand ).

This argument would seem to fall far short of meeting Whitehead's challenge. However, Skinner argues that the scientist is not required to explain each specific event but only the general principles underlying specific events. The physicist is required not to explain the order in which leaves will fall off a tree and the pattern they will form on the ground but only the general principles underlying falling bodies.

In a review of Verbal Behavior, Noam Chomsky (1928- ) argued that the acquisition of language by children can not be explained in terms of instrumental conditioning [CHOMSKY 1959]. He argued that biological research demonstrated that there simply was not enough time for feedback from each response to get back in time to be linked to the next response. We speak much too fast for that to be possible. Skinner's theory was therefore inconsistent with the facts at the lower level of analysis and was thus incorrect [CHOMSKY 1966]. We need, as argued in Chapter 1, to anchor sociology in psychology and psychology, in turn, in biology. This does not mean that sociology is reduced to biology. It merely means that theories must be consistent with the facts at the next level down.

Grammatical mistakes by children provide further evidence against Skinner's theory. The fact that children initially use "goed" as the past tense of "go" and "foots" as the plural of "foot" could not be explained in terms of imitating adults. Such mistakes are better explained as an inappropriate application of rules that children have learned. They have learned to add "ed" for past tense and to add "s" for plural. Later they learn that crazy adults have weird exceptions to those rules, and agree to go along with this craziness.

Steven Pinker devotes most of his book, Words and Rules, to a discussion of regular and irregular verbs [PINKER 1999]. Learning a language involves learning words which are arbitrary and learning rules which are not. Words and rules are processed by different areas of the brain. The child begins to process irregular verbs as rules but learns that they should be processed as words. In English, we have arbitrarily decided to use "went" for past tense of "go" and "feet" for the plural of "foot".

Chomsky proposes an alternative theory for the acquisition of language. All children learn those grammatical rules so easily because they have a language-acquisition device (LAD) built into the genetic code. It is part of the conception-day gift mentioned above. However, it comes in a package, along with teeth and breasts, labeled "do not open until -- some appropriate date". It works only if fueled by input from the linguistic community to which the child belongs. Thus, the child will acquire the particular language of the community which will contribute to its survival. The LAD is genetically determined but it depends on input from the environment.17 Natural selection arranges that this LAD works best during a certain sensitive period in the development of the child, to enable the child to acquire the language of the community to which it belongs. Thus the acquisition of language is easy during this sensitive period.

This sensitive period is also the best time to learn a second language. Wallace Lambert distinguishes between coordinate bilingualism, in which one acquires two separate language structures during this period, and piggy-back bilingualism in which we later acquire a second language by linking it word-by-word to our first language [LAMBERT]. Contrary to the simple-minded assumption that a second language takes up mind space which could better be used to improve the first language, he finds that coordinate bilinguals are clearer thinkers than monolinguals, because they learn very early that language is arbitrary. There's one label for a thing in one language and another label in the other language. Their thought is thus less determined by language. They use language as a tool. RenÈ LÈsvesque and Pierre Trudeau are two brilliant examples of clear-thinking coordinate bilinguals.18 Perhaps this helps explain why some of the great stylists in the English language are people, like Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, who acquired this tool as a second or third language.19

Darwin did not understand the mechanism underlying evolution.20 However, modern genetics has since demonstrated that information is passed from generation to generation in genes. As the genetic code is being decoded by thousands of scholars working together on the human genome project, we are beginning to understand the language in which we are written. One important feature of that language is that gaps are left in the genetic codes of various species to be filled in by the environment. Konrad Lorenz demonstrated the phenomenon of imprinting by arranging that the first large moving object baby ducklings saw when emerging from the egg is not mother duck but Konrad Lorenz [LORENZ]. By interfering with nature's plans, the useful-for-survival function of following mother duck is replaced by the useless function of following Lorenz.21

Nature's magnificent invention of speech is based on leaving a larger gap to be filled in by the language community. This permits our species to benefit from experience through learning to learn and, more important, to benefit from the experience of other people through teaching.22 It is speech which has enabled our relatively weak and slow species to dominate, for better or worse, other animals which are stronger and faster.

My neighbors in the Gatineau Hills, footnoted above, adopted an Inuit baby girl called Karina. She, of course, learned English, since that was the language she was exposed to by her adoptive parents, rather than Inuktituk, the language spoken by her biological parents. The same family also "adopted" a husky dog called Pattuk, who had spent the first half of his life in an Inuit community. Pattuk should have been a bilingual dog, but he learned neither Inuktituk nor English. Alas, he lacked a LAD, which is an exclusive feature of our species. Although she comes from a culture which was hunter-gatherer (until recently when their traditional life-style was screwed up by short-sighted policies of the Federal Government), she has become a very competent member of the emerging information society. Hence my argument that the dramatic changes during historical time are changes in culture not in the person. We need to explain how that same person adapted to dramatically different societies.

17   The LAD is, of course, not a discovery but an invention. No physical structure has yet been found which can be clearly identified as the LAD. It is a hypothetical construct invented by Chomsky to explain the facts of the acquisition of language by children. It's the best explanation so far. However, just as Skinner's explanation was superseded by that of Chomsky, so another explanation may displace Chomsky's. Beautiful big theories are always vulnerable to ugly little facts.

18   When acquiring two languages, it helps to keep them in separate contexts. When we mentioned this to Pierre Trudeau at a GAMMA meeting, he said: That's good. The boys speak English when they're with Margaret in Ottawa and French when they're with me here in Montreal.

19   It does not necessarily follow that three and more languages are better than two. We all know language junkies who keep adding more and more languages to their repertoire, rejoicing in the fact that each new language is progressively easier to acquire. They tend to emphasize media over message. I once met a man who spoke ten languages but had nothing to say.

20   Ironically, there was an uncut version of the book describing the principles of genetics by an obscure monk called Gregor Mendel in Charles Darwin's library.

21   When I first arrived to live in a farm in the Gatineau, I was amazed while crossing a field that two sheep within a flock ran towards me. In Scotland, for reasons I won't go into, sheep always run away from you. When I asked the farmer Diedrich about this, he said "Ah, they're Betty and Mabel. They lost their mothers at birth and were raised in our kitchen by my wife Joan". They had been imprinted on people.

22   Uncle Lefty tells the tale around the camp fire of how he entered a dark cave and disturbed a hibernating bear - hence his name. The children who hear this story have a better chance of survival.