What Chomsky said about “native speakers” in 1985

This is taken from a rambling but fascinating project by lexicographer Thomas M. Paikeday titled The Native Speaker is Dead published in 1985. He sent a 10 point memo to some linguists on the question of what is a native speaker.  I thought it would be useful to put this up here, since notable ELT bods such as Scott Thornbury used a recent native speaker debate to critique Chomsky (see Geoff Jordan’s response). As to whether Chomsky answered the memo is up for grabs. Personally I think, like David Crystal who also responded to the Paikeday memo, that Chomsky deftly sidesteps the import of the initial memo. The Paikeday book is available on the net but takes some searching, let me know and I can email it to anyone interested.

I marked one passage in orange as it is not clear if this was a response to a specific and separate question asked by Paikeday (on what Chomsky meant by “grammaticalness” from his book Aspects of the theory of syntax) or whether it was excerpted from the response Chomsky gave to the Paikeday memo. In Paikeday’s book this passage is the first one but it seems to be oddly placed to me.

Chomsky:

I read your comments on the concept “native speaker” with interest. In my view, questions of this sort arise because they presuppose a somewhat misleading conception of the nature of language and of knowledge of language. Essentially, they begin with what seem to me incorrect metaphysical assumptions: in particular, the assumption that among the things in the world there are languages or dialects, and that individuals come to acquire them.

And then we ask, is an individual who has acquired the dialect D a native speaker of it or not, the question for which you request an “acid test” at the end of your letter.

In the real world, however, what we find is something rather different, though for the usual purposes of ordinary communication it is sufficient to work with a rather gross approximation to the facts, just as we refer freely to water, knowing, however, that the various things we call “water” have a wide range of variation including pollutants, etc.

To see what’s wrong with the question, let’s consider a similar one (which no one asks). Each human being has developed a visual system, and in fact visual systems differ from individual to individual depending on accidents of personal history and maybe even genetic differences. Suppose we go on (absurdly) to assume that among the things in the world, independently of people, there are visual systems, and particular individuals acquire one or the other of them (in analogy to the way we think of languages).

Then we could ask, who has a “native” visual system V, and what is the acid test for distinguishing such a person from someone who has in some more complex or roundabout way come to be “highly proficient” in the use of V (say, by surgery, or by training after having “natively” acquired a different visual system, etc.). Of course, all of this is nonsense.

But I think uncritical acceptance of the apparent ontological implications of ordinary talk about language leads to similar nonsense.

What we would say in the case of the visual system is this. There is a genetically determined human faculty V, with its specific properties, which we can refer to as “the organ of vision.” There may be differences among individuals in their genetic endowment, but for the sake of discussion, let’s put these aside and assume identity across the species, so we can now speak of the visual organ V with its fixed initial state V-0 common to humans, but different from monkeys, cats, insects, etc. In the course of early experience, V-0 undergoes changes and soon reaches a fairly steady state V-s which then remains essentially unchanged apart from minor modifications (putting aside pathology, injury, etc.). That’s the way biological systems behave, and to a very good first approximation, this description is adequate. The things in the real world are V-0 and the various states V-s attained by various individuals, or more broadly, the class of potential states V-s that could be attained in principle as experience varies.

We then see that the question about “native” acquisition is silly, as is the assumption that visual systems exist in some Platonic heaven and are acquired by humans.

Suppose now that we look at language in essentially the same way – as, I think, we should – extricating ourselves from much misleading historical and philosophical baggage. Each human has a faculty L, call it “the language faculty” or, if you like, “the language organ,” which is genetically-determined.

Again, we may assume to a very good first approximation that [the language faculty or language organ] is identical across the species (gross pathology aside), so that we can speak of the initial state L-0 of this organ, common to humans, and as far as is known, unique in the universe to the human species (in fact, with no known homologous systems in closely related or other species, in contrast now to V). In early childhood, the organ undergoes changes through experience and reaches a relatively stable steady state L-s, probably before puberty; afterwards, it normally undergoes only marginal changes, like adding vocabulary. There could be more radical modifications of a complex sort, as in late second language learning, but in fact the same is very likely true of the visual system and others.

Putting these complications aside, what is a “language” or “dialect”? Keeping to the real world, what we have is the various states L-s attained by various individuals, or more generally, the set of potential states L-s attained that could in principle be attained by various individuals as experience varies. Again, we see that the question of what are the “languages” or “dialects” attained, and what is the difference between “native” or “non-native” acquisition, is just pointless.

Languages and dialects don’t exist in a Platonic heaven any more than visual systems do. In both cases, there is a fixed genetic endowment that determines the initial state of some faculty or organ (putting aside possible genetic variation), and there are the various states attained by these systems in the course of maturation, triggered by external stimuli and to some rather limited extent shaped by them. In both cases, there is overwhelming reason to believe that the character of the steady state attained is largely determined by the genetic endowment, which provides a highly structured and organized system which does, however, have certain options that can be fixed by experience.

We could think of the initial state of the language faculty, for example, as being something like an intricately wired system with fixed and complex properties, but with some connections left open, to be fixed in one or another way on the basis of experience (e.g., do the heads of constructions precede their complements as in English, or follow them as in Japanese?). Experience completes the connections, yielding the steady state, though as in the case of vision, or the heart, or the liver, etc., various other complications can take place. So then what is a language and who is a native speaker? Answer, a language is a system L-s, it is the steady state attained by the language organ. And everyone is a native speaker of the particular L-s that that person has “grown” in his / her mind / brain. In the real world, that is all there is to say.

Now as in the case of water, etc., the scientific description is too precise to be useful for ordinary purposes, so we abstract from it and speak of “languages,” “dialects,” etc., when people are “close enough” in the steady states attained to be regarded as identical for practical purposes (in fact, our ordinary usage of the term “language” is much more abstract and complex, in fact hardly coherent, since it involves colors on maps, political systems, etc.). All of that is fine for ordinary usage. Troubles arise, however, when ordinary usage is uncritically understood as having ontological implications; the same problems would arise if we were to make the same moves in the case of visual systems, hearts, water, etc.

About the term “grammaticalness,” I purposely chose a neologism in the hope that it would be understood that the term was to be regarded as a technical term, with exactly the meaning that was given to it, and not assimilated to some term of ordinary discourse with a sense and connotations not to the point in this context.

Such questions as “how many languages are there” have no clear meaning; we could say that there is only one language, namely, L-0 with its various modifications, or that there are as many languages as there are states of mind/brain L-s, or potential states L-s. Or anything in between. These are questions of convenience for certain purposes, not factual questions, like the question of “how many (kinds of) human visual system are there?”

Apparent problems about the number of languages, native speakers, etc. arise when we make the kind of philosophical error that Wittgenstein and others warned against.

I think that looked at [my] way, the questions you raise no longer seem puzzling, and in fact dissolve.

References:

Paikeday, T. M. (1985). The native speaker is dead! An informal discussion of a linguistic myth with Noam Chomsky and other linguists, philosophers, psychologists, and lexicographers. Toronto and New York: Paikeday Publishing

How many words do scholars have for “How many words do Eskimos have for snow”?

The photos above were taken from a book on mountains (the title of which I had forgotten to note) whilst on a winter break. I remember feeling vaguely superior to the author of the mountain book as I vaguely recalled the “debunking” of the Eskimo-languages-have-so-many-words-for-snow myth. Then I promptly forgot about the issue till @EngliciousUCL tweeted a study by Regier et. al. (2016) called “Languages Support Efficient Communication about the Environment: Words for Snow Revisited”.

This study makes the point that in all the fuss about the status of the Eskimo words for snow an underlying principle has not been tested, that is “language is shaped by the need for efficient communication”. The authors go on to demonstrate the support for this principle.

This post is a limited attempt to list interesting articles written by scholars on the Eskimo snow words topic either for the public or more specialist audiences.

So back to the question – How many words do scholars have for “How many words do Eskimos have for snow”? There are at least 40000 words using the following references:

As mentioned the above is a limited list as this does not include texts with a passing mention of “Eskimo words for snow” and/or that use it as a prompt for other related examples (many of which you can find by doing a search in Language Log). For texts before Martin (1986), Cichocki and Marcin (2010) provide a comprehensive history.

The Language Log blog is also the stomping ground of the author of one of the most popular descriptions of the refutation of the “How many words do Eskimos have for snow” – Geoffrey Pullum.

To recap Pullum (1991) following Martin (1986) points out that the number of distinct words, defined as root forms, that Eskimo/Inuit languages have for snow is four. This number is taken from the text published by the anthropologist Franz Boas in 1911. The problems of identifying what are words is compounded in Inuit languages as they often add bases together to form whatever description they need. Hence the number of words for snow or for seals or for ice is unbounded. The number of sentences in English to describe say a wintry scene is similarly infinite.

Bearing the above in mind, specialists in Eskimo/Inuit languages such as Kaplan (2003) say the number of root forms amount to 3. Whilst other specialists like Woodbury (1991) gives 15 lexeme meanings, where a lexeme is similar to a root.

One study of several Eskimo dictionaries by Krupnik & Müller-Will (2010) argues that independent words that are derived from roots represent “a meaningful and clearly distinguishable phenomenon to indigenous speakers”. Hence the number of ways Eskimo languages describe snow is quite rich, even more so for words to describe ice. They add if you really want a language with a 100 words for snow look to the Norwegian Sámi.

This shallow trek into the Eskimo words for snow trope brings up a couple of points – 1) how various factoids one learns about language often hides more interesting principles as Regier et. el. (2016) show; 2) how using English as a comparison language as well as the metalanguage of comparison may result in erroneous native speaker intuitions projected onto a language with a very different classification system (Silverstein 1991).

I’ll leave you with a question asked to Michael Silverstein one of the players in the early drama:

I asked Silverstein if he had ever thought about popularizing the field of linguistics in the way academics in other disciplines have.

 

He recoiled. “That’s an ethical question,” he said. “There are people who are scientific evangelists, who are no different in kind than any other evangelist. I’m enough of a Menckenite to be a skeptic–that is to say, to realize that my claim to systematic knowledge of a social phenomenon is just one more thing that might go into the hopper of whatever the phenomenon happened to be. One might say that that’s just not the kind of phenomenon that responds to that sort of treatment. ‘You just think you’re studying it, you’re not really studying it; what the phenomenon is is exactly what John Simon says it is, and pooh-pooh on all of your stuff.’ Because, remember, the phenomena are us.”

(Watch Your Language! Anthropological Linguist Michael Silverstein on Australian Aborigines, Wine Nuts, Dear Abby, and the Language Police by Bill Wyman, February 14 1991)

Thanks for reading.

TaWSIG and teacher experience design

Teachers as workers, TaWSIG, is here for one simple reason, there is very little public discussion of working conditions in English Language Teaching, ELT. To a large extent this is understandable given the dominance of private business concerns running the industry. We try not to be anti this-that-whatever, rather we want to promote discussion of the reality of our working lives. If you agree please do consider sharing your opinions and experiences.

On the website blog we have so far posted on why you should join, everyday hassles, re-claiming our teaching identity, re-thinking professional development and raising mental health issues.

We do not want you to go back to your scheduled programming, we want you to help push ELT into thinking about designing teacher experiences we can be proud of. We want our learners to be proud of their achievements knowing their teachers are working in the best possible circumstances. We want to change things. We can change things.

Thanks for reading.

ELT Research Bites, saving time is necessary but not sufficient

I am delighted to be involved, along with other English language teachers, in a new initiative called ELT Research Bites founded by Anthony Schmidt.

One of the major reasons teachers give for not reading research articles is lack of time. Another reason is the difficulty of reading research articles (Nassaji, 2012). Research bites hopes to help with the time issue. And to some extent with the difficulty issue by filtering articles through language we understand hence we hope other teachers do too. Also contributions to the site are open to all.

At the time of writing we have posts on note-taking instruction, offline and online written feedback, corpus use and writing, extensive reading, teacher’s L1 and L2 use, and translation tasks.

However, the problem of applying research knowledge into the classroom remains. This is due to the cognitive demands placed on the teacher. Bartels (2009) when talking about applying knowledge about language (KAL) recommends focusing on tasks with similar constraints to actual teaching , using specific teaching situations to link KAL to classroom knowledge, and deliberate practice using case studies and hyper-media.

Thanks for reading and hope to see your writing on ELT Research Bites.

References:

Bartels, N. (2009) Knowledge about language. In: J. Richards & A. Burns (Eds.) Cambridge Guide to Second Language Teacher Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nassaji, H. (2012). The relationship between SLA research and language pedagogy: Teachers’ perspectives. Language Teaching Research, 16(3), 337-365. DOI: 10.1177/1362168812436903

C’est compliqué: TESOL France 2016, Fractals and things

TESOL France Colloquium 2016 starts this Friday 19 November and no doubt the star attraction is linguist Diane Larsen-Freeman who will be doing a plenary and a Q&A session on the Saturday.

Her talk is titled “Patterns in Language: Why are they the way that they are?”

From her abstract:

Drawing on my contention that language is a complex, dynamic system, I will demonstrate that the shape of patterns in language are fractal.

Larsen-Freeman, 2016:15

The claim that language is a “complex, dynamic system” has been critiqued by Kevin Gregg (2010) and supported, albeit with important caveats, by William A Kretschmar (2011) when both reviewed the book Complex systems and applied linguistics by Diane Larsen-Freeman and Lynne Cameron.

Gregg thinks it is false that language, when seen from a narrow viewpoint, as linguistic competence, is dynamical. Everyone learning their first language reaches a steady state and for second language learners there is also the state of fossilisation. He also argues that seeing language in more general terms as an entity in a complex dynamic system is incoherent as language is not a thing but rather an abstraction.

Possible question to Larsen-Freeman 1 – How are you demarcating language when applying dynamic systems theory (DST)?

Kretzschmar who has his own, more plausible, account of DST for speech or language in use, takes issue with Larson-Freeman-Cameron (LFC) for conflating complex systems  and chaotic systems. Chaotic systems cycle through a very large number of states whereas complex systems are on the edge between fixed states and chaos. This can be seen in the difference between Mandelbrot Koch Island fractals and Mandelbrot San Marco Dragon fractals. The former are well-ordered and are a simple collection of basic patterns which form self-similarly at different scales, whereas the latter goes through a series of many states, tracing a “long orbit of successive positions” (Kretzschmar, 2010).

Possible question to Larsen-Freeman 2 – What kind of fractals are you talking about?

Kretzschmar points out that Larson-Freeman’s study of individuals using DST breaks an assumption that complex systems needs numerous interacting elements. Apart from one example given by LFC which does seem to use a DST term appropriately Kretzschmar is highly critical of the general uses of terms from the DST field made by LFC.

I said earlier that in my (very) shallow reading of Kretzschmar I found his account of applying DST to speech much more plausible. One of the reasons is that he keeps with the linguistic tradition of Saussure’s notion of langue and parole, or Chomsky’s concept of competence and performance. He comments on the Five Graces Group which promotes DST in second language acquisition, of which prominent members include Larson-Freeman and Nick Ellis:

…the Five Graces Group is right to insist on usage as what builds a speaker’s cognitive sense of a language, but are not credible in their assertion of a direct connection between speech and grammar as a network of categories…Grammar…when it is defined as a network or hierarchy of categories or rules is something essentially different from the output of the complex system of speech, something only indirectly related to language in use.

Kretzschmar, 2015:91

Possible question to Larsen-Freeman 3 – How does your application of DST to language compare to Kretzschmar?

I hope attendees to the colloquium will find these three suggested questions of use. All errors and omissions mine. Do pop further questions in the comments.

For more info on the critical side have a read of https://criticalelt.wordpress.com/2016/03/20/larsen-freeman-lost-in-complexity-bullshit-baffles-brains/.

Edit: Thanks to Geoff Jordan for reminding me of another one of his essential posts a review of Larsen-Freeman’s talk at IATEFL 2016 https://criticalelt.wordpress.com/2016/04/19/larsen-freemans-iatefl-2016-plenary-shifting-metaphors-from-computer-input-to-ecological-affordances/

Enjoy the conference and thanks for reading.

References:

Gregg, K. R. (2010). Review article: Shallow draughts: Larsen-Freeman and Cameron on complexity. Second Language Research, 26(4), 549-560. DOI: 10.1177/0267658310366582

Kretzschmar, W. A. (2010). Language variation and complex systems. American speech, 85(3), 263-286. DOI: 10.1215/00031283-2010-016

Kretzschmar, W. A. (2011). Book Review: Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics. By Diane Larsen-Freeman & Lynne Cameron. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008. xi+ 287. ISBN 978-0-19-442244-4. Journal of English Linguistics, 39(1), 89-95. DOI: 10.1177/0075424210366194

Kretzschmar Jr, W. A. (2015). Language and complex systems. Cambridge University Press. https://books.google.fr/books?id=r5fwCAAAQBAJ&lpg=PR9&ots=jtFmWnsRQB&dq=Language%20and%20Complex%20Systems%20By%20William%20A.%20Kretzschmar%2C%20Jr&lr&pg=PA91#v=snippet&q=graces%20group%20is%20right&f=false

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2016). Patterns in Language: Why are they the way that they are? Paper presented at TESOL France Colloquium, Paris, France. Retrieved from http://www.tesol-france.org/uploaded_files/files/Full%20TF%20Colloquium%20Programme.pdf

Chomsky, he’s not the messiah, he’s a very misquoted linguist

Sean Wallis runs a great corpus linguistics blog. So I was intrigued as to a recent click bait post titled Why Chomsky was wrong about Corpus Linguistics. I thought initially he was going to go over the history that has been rightly critiqued by Jacqueline Léon in Claimed and Unclaimed Sources of Corpus Linguistics (pdf). In fact he uses an interview given by Chomsky in 2001. Further in developing his first point he takes as given Christina Behme’s assertion that Chomsky “acts now as if no data can challenge his own proposals”.

I think Wallis’ article about some major issues in corpus linguistics stands on its own well and does not need the Chomsky angle.

The part Behme quotes to the question What kind of empirical discovery would lead to the rejection of the strong minimalist thesis? is All the phenomena of language appear to refute it, she even emphasises the All!

I looked up the fuller quote she uses to make her claim about Chomsky dismissing any data that goes against his theory:

AB&LR:: What kind of empirical discovery would lead to the rejection of the strong minimalist thesis?

NC: All the phenomena of language appear to refute it, just as the phenomena of the world appeared to refute the Copernican thesis. The question is whether it is a real refutation. At every stage of every science most phenomena seem to refute it. People talk about Popper’s concept of falsification as if it were a meaningful proposal to get rid of a theory: the scientist tries to find refuting evidence and if refuting evidence is found then the theory is given up. But nothing works like that. If researchers kept to those conditions, we wouldn’t have any theories at all, because every theory, down to basic physics, is refuted by tons of evidence, apparently. So, in this case, what would refute the strong minimalist thesis is anything you look at. The question is, as in all these cases, is there some other way of looking at the apparently refuting phenomena, so as to preserve or preferably enhance explanatory power, where parts of the phenomena fall into place and others turn out to be irrelevant, like most of the phenomena of the world, because they are just the results of the interactions of too many factors?

Chomsky (2002), On Nature and Language, pg. 124

Looking at it one can clearly see Chomsky is expounding on the nature of scientific enquiry not denying data to his own theories. This pattern of Chomsky critics misquoting him for their own polemic appears often. I was still surprised that this one was so blatant. I did leave a comment on the Behme post so will update this post in the event of a response.

Thanks for reading and remember, Chomsky, he’s not the…ah you get the point.

Update:

Christina Behme responds, I think she accepts she was misquoting (if it makes me happy). You can read responses and decide for yourself, do comment either here or there should you wish to.

References:

Chomsky, N. (2002). On Nature and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clinton conditional conundrum

This is a short post that sparked my curiosity about conditionals. Take it as you want.

Recently a story has emerged about Hilary Clinton. The popular quote is this:

And if we were going to push for an election, then we should have made sure that we did something to determine who was going to win.

[http://observer.com/2016/10/2006-audio-emerges-of-hillary-clinton-proposing-rigging-palestine-election/]

A more extended quote is this:

First, I don’t think we should have pushed for an election in the Palestinian territories. I think that was a big mistake. If we were going to push for an election, we should have made sure we did something to determine who was going to win instead of signing off on an electoral system that advantaged Hamas.

[http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1725828/posts]

According to the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, CGEL (Huddleston & Pullum, 2002) there are two kinds of conditionals – open and remote. Open refers to something that may or may not be the case, remote refers to something being unlikely or remote.

Remote conditionals must have a modal auxiliary in the main clause (e.g. should) and a modal past form were in the if part.

For the first Clinton quote we have these two features hence this is a remote conditional.

If we look at the fuller quote we can argue that Clinton wanted to emphasize to this particular audience that the Bush administration at that time made a mistake. She uses the conditional to highlight this by imagining an alternative world where she was involved in making the decision. In this world she would have done something more than “signing off on an electoral system that advantaged Hamas” and “did something to determine who was going to win”.

Now as to whether this means she would have rigged the election is up for anyone to speculate and whether that applies to election rigging in the US is similarly up for grabs.

I’d be very interested to get your opinion, thanks for reading.

References:

Huddleston, R., & Pullum, G. K. (2002). The Cambridge grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.