Sunday, March 20, 2011

On "Mother Tongue" by Joel Davis ****

Joel Davis's Mother Tongue covers much the same ground as Pinker's Language Instinct, at least to start, but without as much of a clearly defined or argued thesis. In that sense, I found myself wanting back into Pinker's book; I liked that he had an agenda, that he was about to make a point and prove it. And yet, despite that, Davis, for me, seemed the better, more entertaining writer. Mother Tongue seemed aimed toward a popular audience; The Language Instinct seemed aimed toward a scholarly audience and then somewhat weakly (or superficially) adapted to appeal to a wider range.

Part of what bored me with the early portions of Davis's book was that I'd read so much of this before. He starts by trying to define language, which, while not covered in the previous book, was not the most exciting discussion to me. I understand that he has to establish his terminology, but language--you know, yes, that's right, we know. We know it when we hear it. Or do we? That comes up later, so these early discussions actually come to be of some importance.

Next, we have a history of languages, some of which was interesting, but again much of which was covered in Pinker. Essentially, Davis goes into theories about proto-languages, the supposed languages that might have broken down in our various language families, how, for example, we can trace French to Latin and Latin is probably from a larger family called Indo-European because it shares many traits with Sanskrit, and on and on back. Then comes a discussion of phonemes, of morphemes, of grammar. And so it goes.

But the book really got interesting to me in its second (of three) parts, when Davis delves into the brain. Some of this was covered in Pinker's book, but much of it was not. Davis gets down to detail here, focusing on how exactly the brain works and how language may interact with it. He talks about the scientists doing research in this field and the techniques they use.

Early on (like 150 years ago), one researcher would cut open the skulls of dogs and tear out parts of the brain to see how they'd react. This was essential research to our early understanding, but obviously it wouldn't today. Early twentieth-century researchers and even some today do experiments, by consent, with some who are having brain surgery. Here's the thing: the brain doesn't have nerves that feel pain, so researchers who are in there anyway can probe around, hitting this or that with a little electric stimulation and seeing what happens. You can be awake for this, simply on local anesthesia, since you can't feel it. That means, you can also be asked questions as the work is done. Pretty cool, eh?

Now, add into that sophisticated machinery--CT scans, MRI scans, PET scans--and researchers can check out what parts of the brain are reacting during different events. And that brings us to language. Two particular areas, discovered early in research on the brain, seemed to have much to do with language. The reason these conclusions were reached were that certain patients--World War I vets hit in the back of the head, for example--couldn't speak or couldn't speak certain groups of words. They might lose the ability to create syntax or the ability to say words related to musical instruments. (Other things also can go wrong in the brain--the ability, for example, to recognize faces. You might still be able to recognize a voice but a face means nothing to you--very trippy, I'd say.)

But further research is showing that it isn't just two regions where language is stored. It's really all over, but most especially in the left hemisphere of the brain (only a few oddballs have language more in the right hemisphere, usually because of an early childhood accident). Theory, now, is that rather than the brain moving language laterally from back to front, the brain has all these little sectors in which information is stored. That information is all sent to a single gateway where it is processed and put into form. Davis does a lot of comparisons to computers, and his example here seems to help. If you've ever run disk defragmenter on Windows, you know that information gets piled on to the hard disk wherever there's space. Your computer gathers all that info up to run its various programs. So too does our brain--but at a much quicker speed and with multiple processors (so that more can go on at once).

(I'm reminded a bit about something Pinker had written that I didn't mention--namely, how complex grammar is that attempts to get computers to listen, analyze, and respond to human languages have proven near impossible. One of the interesting things is that computers might be able to learn to understand one person's voice, but each person's voice is so unique that the computer can't manage to understand many different voices. And yet, we somehow learn to be able to separate that stream of phonemes and morphemes coming from peoples lips into actual words.)

And that in turn brings me to the third section of Davis's book, which focuses on babies and on how they acquire language. Davis seems to be in the Pinker school here, with more of a leaning toward an instinct than just learning--though neither, I think, are saying that environment has nothing to do with language acquisition. The key thing is that language acquisition is wired into the brain as something unique to our species.

So children, up to puberty, can learn languages easier than adults. But what Davis also brings out is that babies actually can pick up on differences between phonemes that even adults can't. Before one year of age, a child is pretty open to any phoneme, but as the kid becomes accustomed to the mother tongue, it loses the ability to distinguish between phonemes that aren't used in the particular language. The classic example is how difficult it is for Japanese to pronounce L and R because those two letters are essentially one "in-between" letter in the native tongue. And really, what is the difference between B and V or some of our other phonemes--it can be pretty subtle. Experiments show, however, that though babies can pick up the phonemes more easily, children can still pick them up, in short time, if placed into another language context, while adults have much more difficulty. Moreover, adults exposed to certain phonemes through second languages as adults, even if they no longer speak the language, have an easier time distinguishing those phonemes than those adults who had not be exposed, though a harder time than those who still use the language.

There's also a discussion of consciousness, which Davis claims is unique to humans because language is unique to us. It's not that animals don't have consciousness, but they don't have it at the same level. Without language, there isn't as clear of a distinction between the me and the world out there. Both Davis and Pinker think animal language is dubious. They may communicate, but it's not language as we know it. Davis raises an excellent point about various animal studies into language--in almost all cases, the researcher is beside the animal, more or less pushing the animal to use the language. (Want candy? Ask for it. Say, Yes.) It's not as if the language is really conveying anything the researcher doesn't know--it's not true linguistic communication. That is saved for us humans, with our special brains and childhood development.

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