Here’s my cognitive science forum discussion piece this week

Children learn to understand speech and engage in speech themselves very easily (in most instances) simply through mere exposure.  However, visual word recognition is something that begins with the child being explicitly taught the symbols (e.g., letters…and eventually words) that will later be recognized.  Given that these statements are true, what implications might this have for children with vastly different parental, educational, and social backgrounds?

UoN MSc Psychology forum discussion November 2021

I have spent the evening with our lectures for this week on language. Principally, focused on the theories of how we bring the written word into our mind. Before answering the above, I was minded to revisit a few old sources again. I was in an audio visual frame of mind so reminded myself of the content of a classic piece by Steven Pinker. My opening discussion has therefore cited this at length. I conclude my initial observations with a detailed summary of his Big Think piece, but I recommend watching the whole thing.


Children from the axial revolution

Forgive the word play on a T-Rex song but it serves a point of sorts.  It is the first of three shameless retrievals of information from other sources.  This first recalled from song.

My second is from the written word.  In the excellent book “The Great Transformation: The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah” by Karen Armstrong 2006, the connectivity of the world is reflected upon around 500 BCE.  Her underlying point being that many of the world’s belief systems became more interchangeable at this time.  The reasons include transit freedoms as new metals were forged and animals tamed.  But also the transitory nature of information.  The mobility of the word and the interactions of ideas.  Language had stored story long before written down. Indeed the 10,000 year history of Hindu teachings attest to the longevity of word across time.  It is however time consuming to remember verbatim from one generation to the next.  Less accurate?  Perhaps not if tradition and word are both retaining context of both.

My third source is audio visual.  I quote at length Steven Pinker in what follows.  Please note the key point of the form of information exchange here. He did not use written language to convey this complexed message – only as a presentation aid.  Instead, he used a video camera and a production team, via YouTube. Much as children do not learn language from a book, nor do we as adults have to read to learn.  But good luck getting acquainted with technology without the written word.  My point (well that of Pinker et al) is, written language is a construct and a subset of a wider phenomenon.  We are less without it.  But it is language, not writing, that sets us apart as a species. Our society needs us to read and write.  At least until something better comes along.

My final point is this – all the rest is Steven Pinker – you may choose to watch the 50 mins of footage here or read the five minutes of written summary below. Such is the efficiency of written language – enabling you to pick and choose in temporal freedoms beyond the spoken word. We have choice. Much more in 2021 when it comes to choosing the format of information download. With choice comes compromise. Longevity, accessibility, interest, and influence, are all tied up within. Need and options are evolving through technological means, and these are 21st Century challenges that are already beginning to change us all.

Steven Pinker: Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain | Big Think 6th October 2012

Pinker tells us that language is distinctive, essential, mysterious, practical, and central to human life.  It is also the means by which we exert a power to exchange knowledge and intentions that no other species on earth has ever achieved.  And not by any one off fluke of one culture.  Every culture has been shown to have developed a language, and today 6,000 languages are still spoken on Earth.  He quotes Charles Darwin “man has an instinctive tendency to speak as we see in the babble of our young children while no child has an instinctive tendency to … write”

The complexity of grammar, phonology, semantics, and pragmatics are collectively the science of language.  The processes, acquisition, and computation all forming subsets therein.  Pinker’s key point in the context of our forum discussion is his distinction between language and a number of items which he argues are not language study per se – including written language.  He advises that writing has only been invented a small number of times (from around 5,000 years ago).  Crucially, he argues that an alphabetic language has only been invented once in the history of language – by the Canaanites – about 3,700 years ago.  He further argues that proper grammar (i.e., prescriptive) is also not language – distinctive grammar is a study of language – prescriptive grammar is a study of rules (and rules we generally make-up and break at will).  Further arguing that dialects can provide explanations beyond the standard form e.g., “he be working” denotes employment not just graft.  Pinker also argues that our thoughts are not in themselves language –  because there is plenty of cognitive ability in visual imagery that never approaches language – and that memory is more gist than detailed sentence structure.  Our meaning is derived from more abstract ability to interpret and contextualise intent of the transmitter.  Language effects thoughts, but is not itself thought (cf. Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis). Words, rules (syntax, morphology, phonology) and interfaces; these are the three elements of language, according to Steven Pinker.

Still quoting Pinker, 60,000 words is the average individuals vocabulary.  If this were learnt as meaning of word by word, that would require a new word learnt every two hours from the age of one.  Each word phrase is somewhat arbitrary, and per Noam Chomsky is almost unique in its combination of gramma rules – which gives insight into psychology.  Sentences are placed in hierarchical structure, and not associated word by word, but anticipated against these rules.  Rules will be different from one language to the next. This presents the open-ended creativity of language; it enables expressions of unfamiliar meanings and new combinations of the nuanced; thereby creating an infinite possible structure of sentence form.

As to learning, Pinker brings this argument to us as follows.  Children are showing this in experimentation of learning as soon as two words are able to be combined – from around 18 months old.  They are demonstrating combinatory experimentation as soon as they begin speaking.  Evidenced by the experimenting and making error in expanding irregular verbs using regular verb past tense rules.  This is all audio-verbal but can also be symbolic in other ways.  Chomsky argues this point via his “poverty of input” argument, which states a non-linear restructuring occurs even before any such rule dependency can be learnt.  Chomsky argues we are pre-programmed to structure language universally. Not that his argument is without critics – particularly the lack of evidence or nuanced demonstration that only language has this pre-built disposition – other critical perspective emerging from modern neural network concepts where language could be part of this same complex learning.

Phonology.  Formation rules offer indications that a language allows a word or not.  These can also be represented in the nuances of a language (e.g., the sounds of “ed” in walked, jogged, or patted) as is sometimes betrayed by accent or as taken by an author’s advantage in comedic word play.

Language interfaces as the process of hearing and replying.  Production from the vocal tract, via the larynx across two cartilage flaps in the voice box. These produce a vibration with harmonics.  From here it passes through the chambers of the throat, above the tongue, the cavity formed via the lips, or by blocking off the airflow and into the cavity through the nasal passage.  Each cavity shaped to enable amplification or suppression of particular harmonics. All vowels are produced with the back and forth or up and down motions of the tongue.  The temporary stopping or restricting the air flow is more typically that of a consonant.   Our brain is perceiving a qualitative difference in each of these sounds.  In receiving these sounds it is then our brain that artificially punctuates the words to break them up into understandable forms – best heard when listening to foreign language where no such breaks will be heard.

Pragmatics is the context adding.  The cooperative principle is what is used to reference the assumed two-way working relationship being attempted by both parties to a dialogue.  It requires innate understanding beyond the information being presented.

Written language does however offer more than this.  Computers are programmed.  When learning the nuances of language the written form gives clarity.  It enables understanding and record of law, politics, or literary precision.  My counter-question to frame the forum discussion, “is written word essential to learning at all?”  I would say not.  However, a second question emerges therein. In modern society, is written word essential to advancing? Unless or until we find more advanced forms of record and retrieval of information, I would say so. Any denial of this learning is therefore a denial of some basic gifts of truth.

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