Language Evolution: The Windows Approach addresses the question: "How can we unravel the evolution of language, given that there is no direct evidence about it?"
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Date: Sat, 11 Jun 2005 10:12:04 +0800 (CST) From: xuelin he Subject: Language, Mind and Brain
AUTHOR: Dabrowska, Ewa TITLE: Language, Mind and Brain PUBLISHERS: Georgetown University Press (USA) & Edinburgh University Press (ROW) YEAR: 2004
Xuelin He, Foreign Language Institute, Fujian Normal University
This slim book, as its title indicates, unfolds the author's ambition to reconsider the theory of grammar on a platform incorporating linguistic language, psychological mind and neurological brain into one framework. The first chapter serves much like a preface, consisting of a statement of purpose and motivation for the making of such a book and a brief account of recurrent themes. Chapters 2 to 6 make up of the first part, each chapter specifically dealing with either psychological or neurological aspects on language processing. The remaining chapters are the second part with a focus on linguistic devices of grammar.
Part I The Basic Specifications The second chapter begins with an illustration of speech recognition and lexical disambiguation involved in processing even a simple sentence to show the complexity of language processing which contrasts with the quickness of human responses to utterance they hear. Yet human brains are not fast processors as expected to speed up the computation of complicated tasks. A plausible explanation is to assume that humans employ shortcuts in language processing. One of them are ready-made word strings in memory for easy retrieval if necessary. Shallow processing is another shortcut that makes it easy to arrive at the semantic interpretation without fully lexical or syntactical parsing. Lastly, a person may resort to his/her knowledge about probabilistic information of word choice in a context.
Chapter 3 raises doubt about the innate universal grammar in children language development. It is argued that the similarities of linguistic behavior in children could also be well explained in terms of concept, salience and frequency without appealing to the hypothesized uniformity from the nativism perspective; and on the other hand that individual differences in the pattern of language growth are too significant to ignore the possibility of genetic divergence in language program. The role of input is also revalued by quoting the latest research results about language acquisition. Another blow on innate factors is from the virtual discrepancy of linguistic construction between blind children and sighted children. The conclusive section argues for the flexibility of language learning system.
Chapter 4 questions the claim that linguistic knowledge is hardwired in some specific areas of the brain. Recent findings from brain damage recovery in children and plasticity of linguistic organization in hemispherectomised persons revolutionize the relationship between the lesion location and language impairment: brain damage does not always lead to linguistic dysfunction. Persons suffering from Broca's aphasia were found to partly preserve their grammatical knowledge. The fact that lexical and grammatical deficits co-occur in aphasic patients undermines the traditional division of a speaker's linguistic knowledge into Wernicke's and Broca's areas. This chapter ends with the conclusion that language faculty is flexible.
Chapter 5 deals with whether or not linguistic abilities depend upon other cognitive capacities. The modularity hypothesis holds the autonomy of language processing in a specialized cognitive module. It seems especially justifiable in the cases of language impairment without having other cognitive processes being affected. However, some recent researches suggest the qualitative difference of language processing by mentally retarded individuals as the evidence of brain's self adjustment for language.
Chapter 6 discusses various biological endowments of language. Genetically specified language module is challenged from several aspects: first, the neuroanatomical similarity between human brain and that of primates; second, huge number disparity between genes and neurons; third, the observed plasticity of cortical tissues. Instead, the current conjecture on the origin of language entails prelinguistic abilities from other existing biological organs evolved for non-linguistic purposes, cortical control over the ways humans articulate and act, and cumulative cultural evolution which may incarnate human excellent capacities to learn by imitation and to identify with his/her conspecifics. However, this may not be a complete picture of language emergence. Linguistic universals or conventions may be the result of the adaptive process language adjusts to humans. The final section of this chapter not only examines the validity of Universal Grammar by reconsidering the argument of input poverty but also criticizes the innateness of UG.
Part II The Building Blocks of Language Chapter 7 is an attempt to justify the invalidity of overstated innateness in lexical knowledge. It starts with an systematic analysis to highlight three features of spatial expressions: first, conventional basis of mapping limited number of locative terms into infinite number of spatial relationships an object holds in the real world; second, abundance of senses some prepositions may designate; third, cross-linguistic diversity of directional expressions. Followed is a brief survey over the acquisition patterns of location terms in children from different language groups. The final sections of this chapter consist of the discussion on the innate structure as conceptual atomism or as perceptual experience and the introduction of connectionist lexical learning
Chapter 8 offers an insightful discussion on grammatical rules and regularity in language use through comparing the connectionist model with the generative approach to inflection systems. The bulk of this chapter are concerned with three test cases individually for German plural ending, Polish genitive and dative. Here the psychologically technical theme concentrates on the underlying mental process for regular and irregular inflections. In the dual-mechanism model, the regular inflection is regarded as a default to any stem while irregulars are stored in memory for retrieve. Against the list of occasions for applying regular inflections by Pinker and Marcus, the author provides her counterargument for such a default usage from the perspective of the connectionist network. The ending summarizes the general problems and possible solutions for the connectionist account.
Chapter 9 elaborates the syntactic development in children to manifest how the syntactic construction is possible to begin with a repertoire of word strings paired with meaning. The first section describes the close ties between lexical and grammatical knowledge, and then it is expounded in the cases of various lexical patterns and acquisition styles occurred in the early stage of children, to cite a few, rote-learned chunks, filler syllables, pronoun reversals, U-curve, mosaic acquisition. The case study of question construction in the final section supports the hypothesis that the lexically specific learning is much more likely to happen than argument structure construction.
Chapter 10 may be, measured with others in Part Two, thinner in pages, but weightier in theoretical value. It carries more than an appealing call for a psychologically realistic grammar with the exemplification of the author's efforts to describe language production within a cognitive grammar (CG) framework. Section 2 provides a quite concise yet accurate description of main ideas held by cognitive grammarians such as Langacker, Fillmore, Goldberg and Croft. The ending section kindles hope for CG being able to substitute for UG in the accounts of such linguistic aspects as extraction, binding, control, etc., and it also points out the challenge to develop CG accounts of language acquisition and processing.
Any psycholinguistic book with a coverage of language, mind and brain would be expected to be a tome at least twice as long as this one. So a potential reader would find every sentence on each page extremely informative to the effect that it sets up index to abundance of empirical findings from psychological and neurological research relative to linguistic theory and provides a quick pick for those who are ready to adopt a multidisciplinary stance in career. And this friendly reading results partially from the lack of rhetoric whitewash in rejecting the Chomskyan nativism and the narrative straightness of her own opinions to avoid the redundancy of balanced comments which is easily induced in a controversial topic assumed with breadth of argument.
The aim of the book calls for a combined effort between psychologists and linguists towards a theory of grammar with psychological reality in terms of flexibility and speed in language processing, or perhaps even with biological reality in terms of low-tech, general-purpose mental mechanism for language learning. Such a grammar is now riding piggyback on cognitive grammar, and more important, most evidence comes from developmental data. The psychological reality in the adult world of linguistic communication means more than what can be measured and manipulated in laboratory as Part I does, and it is involved in more intricate mental phenomenon such as intention, belief, desire, consciousness, etc.. However, a theory in budding should not be expected to meet every requirement.
It is argued that lexical concepts are based on the perceptual primitives which emerge from sensorimotor experience(Chapter 8.3.2). An example is quoted as follows to further the argument that even abstract concept might well possibly be the result of perceptual experience. The abstract term "anger" is accessible in terms of metaphor "ANGER IS THE HEAT OF A FLUID IN A CONTAINER"(p.110). Besides the English expressions like "chilly anger or icy anger", two different metaphors about ANGER in Chinese (I use Pinyin for the exact Chinese characters): (1) nu huo anger flame 'flame-like anger' (2) nu qi anger air 'air-like anger'
Despite the qualitative difference in the substance of two metaphors, they are relative to different perceptual parts of body. The flame-like anger extends into formulaic expressions in Chinese like "nu huo xin(xiong) zhong ran shao" 'The anger flames within one's chest or heart', whereas the air-like anger stuffs one's abdomen as in "yi du zi nu qi" 'a stomach full of anger'. Furthermore, the air-like anger could also be perceived through one's hair as shown below. (3) nu fa chong guan anger hair push hat 'Anger makes hair straighten and push up the hat.'
From the above description, ANGER in Chinese at least possesses two perceptual primitives. Perhaps more intensive research is necessary for any speculation on the starting point of lexical knowledge.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Xuelin He is now pursuing her PhD degree in the National Applied Linguistic Center, Guangdong University of Foreign Studies. Her curiosity about meaningfulness of language lead her a journey beginning from semantic truth, then pragmatic relevance and finally to language-based mental activity. Her unfinished dissertation is about meme in meaning construction, surveyed from two aspects: one about meme in enriching referential relations between name and reference, the other about meme- induced change on content and form of a linguistic expression from evolutionary perspective.