Field of Science

Why languages can't be learned

One of the most basic, essentially undisputed scientific facts about language -- and the one that tends to get the most interest from laypeople -- is that while learning a foreign language as an adult is very difficult, children learn their native languages with as much ease and proficiency as they learn to walk. This has led researchers such as Steven Pinker to call language learning an "instinct." In fact, this "instinct" is more than remarkable -- it's miraculous. On careful reflection it seems impossible to learn just a single word in any language, much less an entire vocabulary (and thus figuring out how we nonetheless all learned a language is a major area of research).

The paradox goes back to W. V. O. Quine (who, I'm proud to say, is a fellow Obie), who suggested this thought experiment: Suppose you are an anthropologist trying to learn the language of a new, previously undiscovered tribe. You are out in the field with a member of the tribe. Suddenly, a rabbit runs by. The tribesperson points and says, "Gavagai!"

What do you make of this? Most of us assume that "gavagai" means "rabbit," but consider the possibilities: "white," "moving whiteness," "Lo, food", "Let's go hunting", or even "there will be a storm tonight" (suppose this tribesperson is very superstitious). Of course, there are even more exotic possibilities: "Lo, a momentary rabbit-stage" or "Lo, undetached rabbit parts." Upon reflection, there are an infinite number of possibilities. Upon further reflection (trust me on this), you could never winnow away the possibilites and arrive at the meaning of "gavagai" ... that is, never unless you are making some assumptions about what the tribesman could mean (that is, if you assume definitions involving undetached rabbit parts are too unlikely to even consider).

Quine offered this thought experiment in a discussion about translation, but it clearly applies to the problems faced by any infant. To make matters worse, people rarely name objects in isolation -- parents don't say "bunny," they say "Look, see the bunny?" or "Look at that bunny go!"

Generally, it should be very clear that infants could not learn a language if they didn't make certain assumptions about which words meant what. One of the major areas of modern psycholinguistics is figuring out what those assumptions are and where do they come from (that is, are they innate or are they learned?).

Long-time readers know that the major focus of my research is on how people resolve ambiguity in language. My first web-based experiment on this topic has been running for a while. Last week I posted a new experiment. Participants hear sentences like "Show me the dax" and try to guess which of several new objects might be the "dax." As usual, I can't say much about the purpose of the experiment while it's still running, but participants who finish the experiment will get an explanation of the experiment and also will get to see their own results. You can try it by clicking here.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps you might find it entertaining to take a look at Tork, a game about the acquisition of a (very simple) alien language.

Dana Watson said...

Autism researchers, particularly speech language pathologists and psycholinguists focusing on language development in individuals with autism, run into situations like this a lot, as many people with autism truly do not have the same ability to make generalizations and assumptions that neurotypical people do. The intersections of autism, first language acquisition, and second language acquisition research are fascinating.

Interrobang said...

I think the thing about infants learning languages easily is kind of a myth, personally. It takes a couple of years of full-time immersion and constant encouragement for an infant to learn their first language as well as an adult can learn a language in a couple of years of part-time study. Of course, an adult already has a language on which to hang another language -- being able to spot cognates and similarities to one's other language(s) makes language-learning a lot easier. I presume you're roughly familiar with the concept of analogical hooks?

On the other hand, I'm more the exception than the rule, being quite an experienced adult second- and foreign-language learner -- I can get by in five languages. On the third hand, I think more people in North America could do roughly the same if the prevailing cultural attitudes were different -- people in India and South Asia and Europe are not really much different than people here, but they live in an environment that isn't actively or passively hostile to second- or foreign-language learning.

I can't count the number of times someone has said to me, "What do you want to learn [language] for? Everyone speaks English anyway." (Which is a bigoted lie, but...)

Dana Watson said...

Interrobang, a couple of points for you:

It's generally accepted in the language acquisition community that first language acquisition (FLA) and second language acquisition (SLA) are actually quite different processes. (The study of bilingualism/multilingualism ends up somewhere in the middle, with lots of arguments about whether the term "bilingual" can only be applied to people who spoke two languages from birth, or who acquired a second one very early on, or who acquired a second one later in life, etc.) Many attempts at immersive, "natural" SLA teaching experiments have turned out amazingly incompetent second language speakers, who clearly were not learning this 2L as they did their childhood 1L.

Additionally, many linguists point to other cultures in which children are not constantly cajoled to speak and/or speak correctly as evidence that parental encouragement has little to do with FLA. What's more, many childhood regularizing "mistakes" (ie, "holded" for "held") are very resistant to correction until the child's mental grammar develops to a stage where it allows for irregularities.

And it's also kind of unfair to compare the amount of multilingualism to be found in India, South Asia, and Europe (and Africa, I would add) to that in the US, because people in those areas are far more likely to find themselves in regular contact with people who speak other languages simply based on geography. Countries and other linguistically defined groups are more numerous and closer together there, and people become multilingual out of necessity and convenience. It is much harder to get even enthusiastic language students in the US to maintain their foreign language skills when, once they get out of high school, college, or other language classes, they have no one to speak to in the target language. (I say this, as a former language teacher and as a passable speaker of multiple languages who is sadly losing the fight against attrition.)

josh said...

I removed the links from this blatant attempt at guerilla advertising (though I'm leaving the comment itself):

Anonymous: I recently decided to broaden my horizons and decided to learn a new language; the question is what should I learn? I’ve asked a few friends and they were useless! Everyone was telling me something different, in the end I have decided to attempt to learn French. I studied French a bit during my time at school but have forgotten most of it! Does anybody know of any reasonably priced but high-quality language learning software?