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?  The superiority of the human mind is wrapped up in the mystery of human 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 events, with characters and actions situated in the past, present, and future, and so is our thinking.  We function in networks of social connection, with goals of survival, reproduction, cooperation, and deceit.  We live stories, and so we think stories.  Our minds are literary.  We are playwrights, with ourselves always one of the characters.

For Chomsky, speech came later, an output of thinking, like a printer to a computer.  Unlike for thinking, there are physical constraints on  how speech can be delivered, so for Chomsky, speech is less than thinking.  By allowing sharing in the thinking with others, speech increased the power of thinking, and the two –  thinking and speaking  – then mutually reinforced each other, enlarging our intelligence, and our scope of  collective action.  We vanquished the Neanderthal, who were bigger and stronger.   They probably had less thinking and therefore less speaking.

Noam Chomsky started linguistics in the 1950’s, when the human mind was thought to be essentially cultural, and development was learned.  He noted the ease and speed with which children acquire language without specific instruction, and how they accumulated words far faster than memory could explain.  In his ground-breaking work, Syntactic Structures, he suggested that there must be a ‘language acquisition device’ in the human mind, a universal, innate and hard-wired brain module that gets primed into function by  exposure to speakers in the early years of childhood.

This was at last a scientific theory of nature and nurture in human nature.  It launched the field of brain science, and up-ended the foundations of social science. He is the sixth most cited person in scientific literature, of all time, just behind William Shakespeare.

There is variability in converting thought into speech.  Noam Chomsky, himself, is a master.  No one can speak more clearly, more comprehensively, or more spontaneously his very complex thinking about very complex ideas,  or enunciate streams of information as they support reasoned conclusions and opinions than Noam Chomsky.

Politics is a different matter.

This great linguist theorist of  innate human nature is a . . .  radical socialist anarchist. Famous for his ruthless repudiation of behaviorism, he believes in a completely rationalist . . . indeed behaviorist . . . notion of human political nature!

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