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  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 10:11 am on December 19, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , english teachers, , , language evolution, ,   

    Speaking with precision 

    (posted by John)

    My first semester of law school is drawing to a close, so I thought I would write about something I heard on my very first day. I’ve been mulling it over since then, partially because at first blush it runs so against my beliefs about prescriptivism and the ‘rightness’ of one person’s language over another’s. Professor John Langbein finished his riveting orientation talk on the history of law schools in America with a lament about the debasement of the English language my generation is committing. My immediate reaction, as you might guess, was a bit of haughty “This old fogey just doesn’t get it. Prescriptivism is dumb!”

    But on at least some level, he was right. Professor Langbein’s point was not that language shouldn’t change because change is bad. His point was that it’s easy to lose some of the aspects of language most valuable—especially to someone trying to become a lawyer. To me his most potent example was the loss of precision in language, which he blamed on the overlarge number of outlets for spewing our thoughts to others. Cell phone, text, facebook, twitter—you catch the drift I’m sure. It seems every major newspaper has a bi-monthly requirement for an editorial talking about the over-share phenomenon of Facebook status and twitter updates.

    Langbein wasn’t quite talking about this, though. Think about a recent conversation you’ve had, in which you related the contents of an interaction with another person. Did it run something along the lines of “I was like . . .Then he was like . . . Then I was just like whatever and left.” It may not have, but if you do some good ol’ eavesdropping on the street you’re sure to hear something like it. (Or if you’re lucky you might get “And I was all . . . Then she was all . . . Then I was all . . . .” ). This is one of the things (<– there’s another one of them) that dismayed Professor Langbein. “Is that really what you were like?” He asked us. He gave other examples, too. Overusing “thing” was one of them. Another was prefacing a point we haven’t fully thought out and can’t very well express with “You know, uh, . . . ,” and then proceeding on our muddled way. Another was compensating for a poorly-thought-out sentence by ending it with an “. . . or whatever.”

    We can all get our point across using imprecise language, and the linguist in me recoils at the thought of saying it’s actually ‘wrong’ to do so. But you can be sure that being imprecise is the one of the quickest routes to becoming an inept law student (not to mention a bad lawyer).

    So I’ll cede the point: it is worthwhile to attempt to be precise in language. If we don’t use linguistic vagaries like “or whatever” and if we avoid saying “thing” whenever the right word doesn’t immediately come to mind, it forces us to organize our thoughts more clearly. Using precise language makes us think more precisely. I tried spending a day saying precisely what I meant every time I spoke. It was exceedingly difficult, but it seemed helpful in terms of my mental organization.

    Based on our knowledge of how language allows us to think complex thoughts in the first place, it makes sense that being more precise in our speech would make us more precise in our thinking. I wrote a post a while back looking at some of Liz Spelke’s experiments that suggest language lets otherwise distinct, insulated modules of intelligence interact, thereby making us ‘smart’ compared to other species. One experiment I didn’t discuss there shows that language allows us to grasp the concept of “sets of individuals.” Babies and monkeys can distinguish “individuals” and they can distinguish “sets,” and when the set is less than four items large, they recognize that adding or subtracting an individual changes the size of the set. But when the set is larger than four, they cannot combine the representations of ‘set’ and ‘individual’ to understand that it is a “set of individuals” such that adding or subtracting one changes the quantity. Only once we have language is this possible.

    There are also sad but interesting cases of so-called ‘feral children‘ who have been deprived of exposure to language from a very young age.  These people never fully learn a language. They also are unable to perform tasks indicative of ‘higher’ human intelligence—for example distinguishing which of two massed quantities is larger.  According to still more research by Spelke and others, children without language and other animals like monkeys can distinguish between larger and smaller quantities at a ratio of about 2:1. If the quantitates get much closer in number, it becomes difficult for them to guess correctly. Humans with language can do this at a considerably better rate.

    Finally, the emergence of language, some have argued, is associated with a cultural explosion of sorts; more complex tools, recursive patterns on bits of pottery, even materials that look like they could be used to go fishing. The idea is that language allowed us to do the ‘higher thought’ necessary to develop culture.

    All of this evidence suggests that we are able to think complex, highly structured thoughts in large part because we have language. It also suggests I should take Professor Langbein’s advice: you know, try not to be like, “Let’s speak more clearly or whatever.”

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 2:12 pm on September 6, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , language evolution,   

    Why are humans smart? Language and LEGOs 

    posted by John

    In her absolutely awesome paper “What Makes Us Smart? Core knowledge and natural language,” Elizabeth Spelke writes

    When we compare the cognitive achievements of humans to those of nonhuman primates we see striking differences. All animals have to find and recognize food…but only humans develop the art and science of cooking. Many juvenile animals engage in play fighting, but only humans organize their competitive play into structured games with elaborate rules. All animals need to understand something about the behavior of the material world to avoid falling off cliffs…but only humans systematize their knowledge as science and extend it to…entities that are too far away or too small to perceive or act upon. (Elizabeth Spelke, “What Makes Us Smart? Core knowledge and natural language.” In Language in Mind. Gentner and Goldin-Meadow (eds.). 2003.)

    So, Spelke asks, “What is it about human cognition that makes us capable of these feats?”

    The answer to this question is a complicated one, even if you already know I’m going to say it is language. Why is it complicated? Because it’s not just language itself, but the ability, associated with language, to combine otherwise separate “core knowledge” systems. Whereas lots of animals have our same basic cognitive senses of spatial relations, object mechanics, number sense, geometric sense, and navigation, humans (once they develop language) are uniquely able to combine them and make them work in conjunction.

    How do we know this? Basically, it has been demonstrated that both infant humans and many other animals have extremely similar core knowledge systems. Babies and monkeys, for example, have essentially the same ability to understand how objects move and interact, whether one group of objects is larger than another, and how basic geometry allows you to walk a room in specific, novel paths.

    Each of these tasks represents a separate “core knowledge” system (you could also call them ‘modules’). Crucially, these modules in both babies and other animals are isolatedencapsulated, and unable to interface(representations from one are incomprehensible to the other).

    Rats and babies—all that (cognitively) different?

    To understand in what way these modules are isolated, let’s look at just one example (simplified slightly for reasons of space): Say you put a rat in a rectangular room and show him that a bit of food is located in the northeastern corner. You then disorient the rat (cruel, I know), and set him loose. Immediately, with no trouble, he will go to the northeastern corner and find the food. The rat has the cognitive ability to search using some sort of ‘directional’ or “geocentric” sense.

    Similarly, if you then put a little chair in the room, show the rat that there is some food on the chair, disorient it, then set it free, it goes directly to the chair and finds the food. The rat can also do navigation by landmark.

    These are two separate systems of spatial relationships and navigation: navigation by direction and by landmark. Crucially, then, if you put a piece of food northeast of the chair, the rat will search at random somewhere near the chair. This is evidence that he cannot navigate using both “northeast” and “the chair.” Combining the two systems—each of which works fine on its own—leads to problems.

    Infants have the exact same problem: when directed to find something at a chair, it’s easy. When directed to find something in the northeastern part of a room, it’s fine. But northeast of the chair doesn’t work. Again, the separate modules are not able to interface effectively with each other.

    Adults, of course, have no trouble going northeast of the chair. They have an ability to combine and communicate between these two cognitive systems that infants and other animals do not. The emergence of these combinatorial abilities is directly associated with the development of language. Once you can talk, you can do things like this too. How intelligent of us!

    The LEGO Analogy

    There’s a really nice way to think about how this whole business might work: Consider each individual module as a LEGO, but without the little raised dots on top. Each does it’s own thing pretty well—and maybe you can make a basic stack of them to do slightly complex things. But once you try anything more than the most basic of interactions between modules (LEGO blocks), your structure collapses. So when you try to combine navigational capacities to go to the left of the chair, things get confusing.

    Language, then, is the little raised dots on top of the LEGO (and I guess the little holes they fit into). Once you have those, everything changes. Structures unimaginably complex from the point of view of bump-less Lego blocks now become possible. We go from a basic stack of unconnected blocks to things like a full-on LEGO arena.

    Now maybe we’re not that smart—not yet at least—but that’s the basic idea. The reason that humans are smart is precisely because we have language on our side. The language capacity, Spelke and others have suggested, allows the most basic building blocks of cognitive ability to communicate and interact. So, like LEGOs with connectors, we can now build structures of near infinite complexity (remember The girl the cake the baker the owner fired baked hit screamed) and combine the faculties that previously could only work alone.

    Other linguists, like Noam Chomsky or my former professor Cedric Boeckx, have taken this even further. They have theorized it’s not language, per se, that allows for communication between modules, but rather some other relatively small, yet crucial, cognitive development. Part of the core reasoning behind this is evidence that advanced cognitive abilities, like language and culture (and also the sorts of actions discussed above), developed remarkably fast by evolutionary standards. The first evidence of language goes back only some 30,000 years! Because of the relative speed with which language evolved, it’s been supposed that the critical upgrade was actually only a tiny little change, albeit with massive consequences.

    Well, what if that change was, very simply, the ability to take all of the separate human cognitive faculties and allow them to work together? What if the only change was the development of a cognitive ‘connector’? We would then have the ability to take discrete modules and concepts and place them in communication with each other; the ability to build more complex structures using the most basic of building blocks. This would not only explain how our separate core knowledge systems could start to be combined, but also how we came to put words together into syntactic structures.

    This theory has been influential in the linguistics world (though it’s not without its detractors). It makes some sense, too. Not only would the combination of northeast and chair be possible, we could also create structures made up of concepts based in the real world.  We could take concepts (eventually words) that previously existed as individual, non-interfacing ideas (animal, food, run), and put them together into complex thought patterns and, eventually, sentences (There is an animal that we could eat, so let’s run after it). What were previously non-connecting LEGO blocks can now be combined in majorly complex ways.

    Once this ‘connector’ mechanism is sufficiently developed in human infants, they, like adults, can combine cognitive modules and, importantly, combine concepts into sentences.

    As far-fetched as this might sound, it’s actually not so different from the LEGO example. You had all the blocks before, and nothing changed but the addition of connectors. That’s the only difference between the technologies, and yet it has huge consequences.

    Our minds work in complex and fascinating ways, and of course there’s no way we can yet know for sure this idea is correct. But isn’t it exciting that there could be so simple and elegant an answer for why humans are smart? And you can’t deny that we are—we did, after all, invent the LEGO.

     
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