Thursday, April 19, 2012

Ranting in the shade of Chomsky’s tree

I found a nice catchy sentence in the last chapter of my SLA textbook: “Language is the most pervasive and powerful cultural artifact that humans possess to mediate their connection to the world, to each other, and to themselves” (Lantof and Thorne, 2006, p.205). Language exists to let us communicate with others so that we can get connected to each other. Very nicely put, and you’d have a hard time finding anyone who doubted that statement—it’s almost common sense. But there are some places where common sense sometimes doesn’t seem to apply, like the world of Second Language Acquisition.

              Before I took this SLA course, I didn’t have the slightest doubt in my mind that language exists to help us communicate with other people. Then I met with other linguists in class whose views are more inclined toward generative linguistics, and I came to realize that not everybody shares that view about the purpose of language. I came to realize that there are many linguists who treat language somewhat similar to mathematics, which is wired up by numbers and by common patterns with some predictable rules (formulas). They spend time drawing trees to analyze sentences that nobody will ever utter or hear in the real world. They also like to draw trees for all kinds of things. General problem solving? Draw a tree. Pattern finding? Defining errors? Draw another tree. It seems like for them, language exists so that they can draw trees, and the more roots of the tree they can draw, the more satisfied they become. (Okay, I maybe overstating things—but to some extent, that’s the honest impression I get from generative linguistics point of view.)

             To the generative linguists, Chomsky is God. Whatever he says, no matter how inconsistent his views are, for he always speaks the Gospel Truth. Chomsky’s Universal Grammar is their Bible. Of course not everyone shares their views; some fifty years after its debut, the topic of Universal Grammar often leads to heated discussions. Some even view it as the cause of a linguistic “war.” The recent article Angry Words by Tom Bartlett goes into some details about that war. The topic of the article relates to the work of Daniel Everett, a linguist who studied the indigenous language called Pirahã, and his controversial findings that, if true, would seem to undermine Universal Grammar. The article describes the fury with which Chomsky’s camp has reacted to Everett, and the wider ongoing linguistic war between those who question Universal Grammar and those who seem unable to. The “war” has gotten pretty nasty at times; it’s another of those things that make us realize that everything really is political. In this article Bartlett mostly seems to take a balanced view, though in the end it comes across as being quite critical of the Chomsky’s Camp; it closes with a pair of quotes from Ted Gibson and from Chomsky. The first is the following from Gibson about Universal Grammar: “The question is, ‘What is it?’ How much is built-in and what does it do? There are no details… It's crazy to say it's dead. It was never alive.” And the last is the final sentence of the article; in paragraph that Bartlett begins by noting that Chomsky “has a history of outmaneuvering and outlasting his adversaries”. Bartlett closes the article with these words from Chomsky: “I probably do, despite my best intentions, hope that I turn out to be right… I know that it is not scientific. But I would be a hypocrite if I didn't admit it.”

           After reading the article, my mind became busy sorting out a list of questions: Does Universal Grammar really exist after all? Do we really have a unique, innate language ability wired up in our brains, one that is supposed to separate us human beings from animals? What if some animals also have a highly complicated language system that has recursions and all, but we have just not observed it yet? Why do we assume that Pirahã people are living in the present only due do the lack of past or future tenses? Why are we deciding they are a “happy” people because of that? Isn’t it imposing Western ideology? Why does Universal Grammar, after all these controversies, retain such a firm hold on many linguists’ mind, to the point that some seem to have made a religion of it? What, after all, is Universal Grammar anyway?

           As you might have guessed already, I am not religious about Universal Grammar.  I remain skeptical. (I am not crazy about drawing trees, either…) I understand that Universal Grammar is relevant to native speakers’ inherent competence in their native languages, and is not really applicable (and not intended to be applicable) for L2 learners. But some SLA researchers seem so overly fascinated with UG to the point that they want to have SLA make some use of. As a result of that, UG seems to have found its way into the SLA literature, despite it not being applicable. In fact, our textbook devotes a whole chapter to discussing Universal Grammar. What grates on me the most is the assumption of researchers working on SLA from the generative perspective that Universal Grammar should play a role in SLA in some way—for example, to achieve so-called “interlanguage competence”, with another assumption behind that being that L2 learners will never attain “native-like” competence. Some researchers even talk about “Universal Grammar Surrogate”, so that L2 learners can enjoy the benefits of some second-rate knock-off of Universal Grammar designed especially for L2 learners. I think that the concept of Universal Grammar has the side effect of contributing to notions of the mightiness of “native speakers”, because UG feeds into the whole paradigm of an idealized speaker-listener relationship that places being a native speaker as an ultimate goal—but that ideal automatically forces L2 learners to remain learners forever, always reaching in vain toward an unrealistic and unachievable goal. If that whole native speaker-hearer paradigm remains a dogmatic ideal, the future of SLA is looking pretty bleak. In order to see the light of day, we should climb up on a tree to view what really is happening out there, instead of digging a hole around the tree in search of its roots…

Bartlett, T. (2012). Angry Words. The Chronicle. Retrieved from

VanPattern, B. & Williams, J. (2006). Theories in Second Language Acquisition. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

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