Thinker Speaker

All humans of normal intelligence can learn any language, provided they start at a young age.  After the age of five or six, a child can almost never become perfectly fluent in a language, and the ability to learn it can completely disappear soon after that.  After puberty, it is almost impossible to perfect the pronunciation of a second language.” Gene, Peoples, and Languages, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza.

Do we speak because we think, or do we think because we speak?  How does our thinking depend on our language?  Did we become smart because we can talk, or can we talk because we are smart?

To Noam Chomsky, we speak because we think, and we think . . . linguistically . . .not because it helps us speak, but because it helps us think.  Life is about characters and  events, situated in the past, present, and future, and so is our thinking.  We function in social groups, with goals of survival, children, cooperation, and deception.  We live stories, and so we think stories.  Our minds are literary.  We are playwrights, and we are one of our characters.

For Chomsky, speech came later, an output of thinking, like a printer is to a computer.  Unlike for thinking, there are physical constraints on  speech delivery, so for Chomsky, speech is less than thinking.  By speaking our minds with others, we expand our knowledge.  Thinking and speaking feedback to enlarge our intelligence and our scope of  collective action.  The rest is history.  We vanquished the bigger and stronger Neanderthal.   We have taken over the planet.

Noam Chomsky started linguistics in the 1950’s, when the human mind was a blank slate, to be filled up with culture and learning.  He noted, however, how easily and fast children acquire language without specific instruction.  They acquire the skills of language fare faster than can be taught.  He wrote a ground-breaking work, Syntactic Structures, in 1957, and suggested that there must be a ‘language acquisition device’ in the human mind, a universal, innate and hard-wired brain system that unfolds a language ability, in a child, as it is activated by  exposure to speech in the early years of childhood.

This was at last a theory of nature and nurture in human development, not one or the other.  Chomsky’s theory up-ended the foundations of social science, and launched the field of modern brain science.  He is, today, the sixth most cited person in scientific literature . . . of all time . . . just behind William Shakespeare.

People vary in their ability to convert thought into speech.  Chomsky, himself, is a master.  No one can speak more clearly, more comprehensively, more spontaneously,  his very complex thinking about very complex ideas,  or enunciate streams of information as they support reasoned conclusions and opinions, than he.

Politics is a different matter.

This great linguist theorist of biological human language is a . . .  radical socialist anarchist. Famous for repudiating behaviorism, the theory that psychology is all about learning, he strangely applies behaviorist rationality to human political nature.  Blind to the biology of tribalism and political behavior, he forever condemns illogical politics as immoral.

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