In the preface to his book Knowledge of Language (1986), Noam Chomsky writes,
“For many years I have been intrigued by two problems concerning human knowledge. The first is the problem of explaining how we can know so much given that we have such limited evidence. The second is the problem of explaining how we can know so little, given that we have so much evidence. The first problem we might call “Plato’s problem,” the second “Orwell’s problem,” an analogue in the domain of social and political life of what might be called “Freud’s problem”…
…Plato’s problem is deep and intellectually exciting; Orwell’s problem, in contrast, seems to me much less so. But unless we can come to understand Orwell’s problem and to recognize its significance in our own social and cultural life, and to overcome it, the chances are slim that the human species will survive long enough to discover the answer to Plato’s problem or others that challenge the intellect and the imagination” (Emphasis mine).
To contextualize this statement just a bit, it’s asking a profound question about human language and how we acquire it as a first language (with implications for second language learning).
It’s an illustration of what Chomsky has named ‘the poverty of the stimulus.’ That is, how do children figure out the grammatical or structural constraints of a particular language, so as to acquire a linguistic system (let’s say by the age of four) where they are creating new sentences they’ve never heard before, but which are ‘grammatically’ correct (in the linguist’s sense)?
Another way to think about it is How do children acquire a grammar so completely, so fast? Why do adults take longer, or if at all? And where do we draw the line between the two processes of child ‘acuqisition’ and adult ‘learning’? Is there a ‘fundamental difference between adults and children (Bley-Vroman)? Does our attention work differently at different stages of development (Schmidt)? Or is less more (Newport)? That is, because children have less cognitive resources available to them, they tend to start with the simple bits of language whereas adults dig right into all the complexity, and thus this helps children learn the combinatorial patterns of language much faster.
So how does universal grammar (UG) help to explain it all?
Personally, at least right now, I feel it’s fairly pointless to argue against such a thing as the existence of UG as (genertive) linguists argue for it, simply because it has become such a powerful explanation for how language is acquired (that we have an innate ability to learn language incredibly rapidly and completely as a child), so powerful in fact that it explains so much, it ends up not really explaining much at all. Or at least raises more questions than it answers.
Let me put it this way. It is very convincing to me that there is something special about the child’s brain that allows them to acquire a specific language so uniformly across all languages on earth, and it seems that there is something different about adult brains because there is such variation in their ability to learn another language. (I’m using fairly idealistic notions of ‘child’ and ‘adult’ here for the sake of argument, I know).
This raises questions like, “Do adults lose access to UG” after some period of time after childhood? (the critical period hypothesis). This would explain in part why it would be so difficult to learn another language when your UG ‘goes away.’
Or do I think that language acquisition is just a general cognitive learning process, the same kind of learning we do for everything else in our human brains, that allows children to acquire a language? Not so much.
Or does it comes mostly from social interaction (outside)? No, or at least not as a full explanation.
So do I think that children are born with an innate set of ‘constraints’ in their brain that allow them to figure out how the rules and structure of a new language work? Not really either.
Then is it a miracle?
No:) that wouldn’t be any more helpful either I think. My own view is that trying to tease apart what must be innate or ‘universal’ among all human beings and what must be the myriad variations in our languages, in the data ‘out-there’, or what has been called the classic ‘nature-nurture’ debate, is missing the point a bit.
Aliens and UG?
The perspectives I find most convincing are ones that attempt to take a broader and more integrated approach to understanding what language is, including what we understand from ‘core’ linguistics, neurolinguistics, anthropology, and evolution. Thomas Givón and Terry Deacon‘s approach (PDF) are two examples of this more integrative approach, where UG is neither about nature nor nurture but rather in the ‘semiotic constraints’ of language itself.
Semiotic constraints delimit the outside limits of the space of possibilities in which languages have evolved within our species, because they are the outside limits of the evolution of any symbolic form of communication. So perhaps the most astonishing implication of this hypothesis, is that we should expect that many of the core universals expressed in human languages will of necessity be embodied in any symbolic communication system, even one used by an alien race on some distant planet!
Now that is a pretty wild claim, but his argument is fairly convincing I think. Am I an expert in generative linguistics? Nope. Do linguists I’ve discussed this with think I’m a little nuts? Yup, sometimes. Linguists, both students and professors, I’ve had the pleasure of talking to are surprisingly more than just a little passionate about the positions that they take on the issue of UG. And I’ve actually witnessed some fairly intense, but brief, shouting matches between grown-ups on the issue.
So what about Orwell and Plato’s problems?
Plato’s problem is derived from the conversation between Meno and Socrates about ‘inborn knowledge.’
“And how will you inquire into a thing when you are wholly ignorant of what it is? Even if you happen to bump right into it, how will you know it is the thing you didn’t know?”
Orwell’s problem is derived from Orwell’s argument against totalitarian regimes that try to shove propaganda down our throats, ‘and often plainly at variance with obvious facts about the world around us.’
The two problems are crucially different from each other, but it does show how Chomsky dips into seemingly unrelated fields to explain different aspects of both. Or to make fairly convincing arguments of why we should be weary of ignoring certain questions, in trying to answer others.
…this post is starting to go off the rails a bit, but what can you take away from this as a language learner?
I would suggest to you to be highly skeptical of methods and approaches that equate second language learning to first language learning, the ‘learn just like a child’ approaches. If we’ve learned anything from second language acquisition research, it’s that first and second language learning, although still extremely complex and mysterious phenomena in many respects, are quite different from each other.
However, I would also suggest that you be highly skeptical of people who take this information to persuade you to think that adults cannot master another language fluently later on in life. This is patently false, people do it all the time, and in a variety of circumstances and with various methods.
I’ve left out quite a few other theories and approaches to understanding what language is,but I wasn’t meaning to be comprehensive here. Rather I just wanted to express the point that complex questions require either complex answers, or more difficult questions with more nuanced answers. The last thing SLA research needs to do is follow in the foot steps of the self-help, pop-psychology literature spawned from ‘surprising findings’ in the sciences.
As Ta-Nahesi Coates, writer for the Atlantic once put it,
“…a big part of all of us likes getting answers. But we now live in a world where counter-intuitive bullshitting is valorized, where the pose of argument is more important than the actual pursuit of truth, where clever answers take precedence over profound questions. We have no patience for mystery. We want the deciphering of gods. We want oracles. And we want them right now’
So when it comes to the questions of language, What is it? Where did it came from? How do we use it? and Where is it going? adopting a slower science approach, where we make room for a little patience in the face of a deeply mysterious aspect of life, shouldn’t be seen as such a bad thing. I just think all this is incredibly interesting, and for now, I have no problem just cruising on the shoulders of these wonderfully fascinating theories out there to see if I can get a bit better perspective on what this whole language thing is all about:)