Tag Archives: Noam Chomsky

How Infants learn language – V

Infants don’t learn language like neural nets do. Unlike nets, no feedback is involved, which amazingly, makes learning faster.

As is typical of research in psychology, the hard part is thinking of something clever to do, rather than actually carrying it out.

[ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 117 pp. 26548 – 26549 ’20 ] is a short interview with psychologist Richard N. Aslin. Here’s a link — hopefully not behind a paywall — https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/117/43/26548.full.pdf.

He was interested in how babies pull out words from a stream of speech.

He took a commonsense argument and ran with it.

“The learning that I studied as an undergrad was reinforcement learning—that is, you’re getting a reward for responding to certain kinds of input—but it seemed that that kind of learning, in language acquisition, didn’t make any sense. The mother is not saying, “listen to this word…no, that’s the wrong word, listen to this word,” and giving them feedback. It’s all done just by being exposed to the language without any obvious reward”

So they performed an experiment whose results surprised them. They made a ‘language’ of speech sounds which weren’t words and presented them 4 per second for a few minutes, to 8 month old infants. There was an underlying statistical structure, as certain sounds were more likely to follow another one, others were less likely. That’s it. No training. No feedback. No nothin’, just a sequence of sounds. Then they presented sequences (from the same library of sounds) which the baby hadn’t heard before and the baby recognized them as different. The interview didn’t say how they knew the baby was recognizing them, but my guess is that they used the mismatch negativity brain potential which automatically arises to novel stimuli.

Had you ever heard of this? I hadn’t but the references to the author’s papers go back to 1996 ! Time for someone to replicate this work.

So our brains have an innate ability to measure statistical probability of distinct events occurring. Even better we react to the unexpected event. This may be the ‘language facility’ Chomsky was talking about half a century ago. Perhaps this innate ability is the origin of music, the most abstract of the arts.

How infants learn language is likely inherently fascinating to many, not just neurologists.

Here are links to some other posts on the subject you might be interested in.

https://luysii.wordpress.com/2013/06/03/how-infants-learn-language-iv/

https://luysii.wordpress.com/2011/10/10/how-infants-learn-language-iii/

https://luysii.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/how-infants-learn-language-ii/

https://luysii.wordpress.com/2010/09/30/how-infants-learn-language/

Tom Wolfe R. I. P

Tom Wolfe has passed on.  It’s worth republishing an appreciation of him and how he changed writing in America. It contains links to a 3 part review of what was probably his last book “The Kingdom of Speech”

Tom Wolfe — an appreciation

Tom Wolfe’s writing style and the genre he created have been part of the intellectual wallpaper for so long, that it’s easy to forget how badly he was needed. The following is quite autobiographical, but it does put his emergence in context.

Intellectually isolated adolescents in the early 50s read books, lots of them (minimal TV of any intellectual content, no internet etc. etc.) I had plenty of time in high school, with two 16 mile rides on the school bus each day. So I managed to read a book a day my senior year in high school. I particularly loved Balzac and Dickens for the way they wrote about all levels of society.

So although I was fairly well read on entry into Princeton in the fall of 1956, I was a geographic naif, never really having travelled west of Philly. I was a social naif as well, with only 6/24 boys in my high school class going on to collage. The ones that didn’t went into the military, law enforcement or the trades. None of the 24 girls got further education, initially at least. This was not a high or wealthy social background. I was the first member of my family not to go to Rutgers (the state school of New Jersey).

The Princeton Triangle Club put on a rather sophomoric show each year which toured the east coast and midwest on Christmas break. Earlier famous members included Jimmy Stewart and Josh Logan. Later, after women were admitted, Brooke Shields. I was good enough to make pianist in the pit band for the show and did this for two years.  The incredibly creative guy writing the shows was Clark Gesner, who soon after wrote “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown” and essentially retired in his late 20s.

The class of 1959 was the first at Princeton to have more High School graduates than preppies. To the alums that put us up in their homes after the show, it was assumed that we were to the manor born (as many of them were).

Seeing upper class society was quite an education. After each show the performers (and band) were invited to debutante parties. I’d never seen anything like it, and none of the American novels I’d read dealt with it. The musicians in the band would listen to the society orchestras playing (Lester Lanin, Peter Duchin, Meyer Davis) and dance with the debs. In Chicago, I even was the male presenting one debutante, rather than a local — probably because she was Jewish and none of the locals would do it. In Grosse Point Michigan the following exchange occurred with a deb who seemed intelligent. Where do you go to school? Oh someplace back East. How do you like the party? Enough for me to decide not to attempt to become part of that world (not that it was ever possible).

Then in grad school at Harvard, I met extremely intelligent guys from the West Coast (Caltech, Berkeley, Brigham Young) who were reading “Road and Track” in all seriousness (camp hadn’t been invented yet). Road and track was for the guys back home who went to work in garages, and dragraced with each other.

No one in the 50s and early 60s was writing about this stuff — here’s a link to the best-sellers of the 50s — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Publishers_Weekly_list_of_bestselling_novels_in_the_United_States_in_the_1950s
if you don’t believe me. Some were good (To Kill a Mockingbird). A lot were by foreigners (Dr. Zhivago, Francois Sagan, Simone de Beauvoir).

We had this fascinating diverse society, and our literature wasn’t dealing with it — that is until Tom Wolfe came along. He wrote about car customizers, astronauts, high society, low society, enjoying it all. These weren’t thought to be the stuff of serious literature until then. Some of the best sellers back then bore the same relationship to reality (Marjorie Morningstar, Not as a Stranger) as the Doris Day Rock Hudson movies of the time bore to the sexual interactions of male and female.

So hats off to Tom Wolfe. He’s still writing — I recommend his latest – “The Kingdom of Speech” about which I wrote 3 posts. Although the book starts in Victorian England, it winds up in the USA with Chomsky and company and the social high jinks of the left, which Wolfe has been skewering for decades. Here’s a link to one of the posts — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2016/10/16/book-review-the-kingdom-of-speech-part-iii/

Book Review — The Kingdom of Speech — Part III

The last half of Wolfe’s book is concerned with Chomsky and Linguistics. Neurologists still think they have something to say about how the brain produces language, something roundly ignored by the professional linguistics field. Almost at the beginning of the specialty, various types of loss of speech (aphasias) were catalogued and correlated with where in the brain the problem was. Some people could understand but not speak (motor aphasia). Most turned out to have lesions in the left frontal lobe. Others could speak but not understand what was said to them (receptive aphasia). They usually had lesions in the left temporal lobe (e.g. just behind the ear amazingly enough).

Back in the day this approach was justifiably criticized as follows — yes you can turn off a lightbulb by flicking a switch, but the switch isn’t producing the light, but is just something necessary for its production. Nowadays not so much, because we see these areas lighting up with increased blood  flow (by functional MRI) when speech is produced or listened to.

I first met Chomsky’s ideas, not about linguistics, but when I was trying to understand how a compiler of a high level computer language worked. This was so long ago that Basic and Pascal were considered high level languages. Compilers worked with formal rules, and Chomsky categorized them into a hierarchy which you can read about here — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chomsky_hierarchy

The book describes the rise of Chomsky as the enfant terrible, the adult terrible, then the eminence grise of linguistics. Wolfe has great fun skewering him, particularly for his left wing posturing (something he did at length in “Radical Chic”). I think most of the description is accurate, but if you have the time and the interest, there’s a much better book — “The Linguistics Wars” by Randy Allen Harris — although it’s old (1993), Chomsky and linguistics had enough history even then that the book contains 356 pages (including index).

Chomsky actually did use the term language organ meaning a facility of the human brain responsible for our production of language of speech. Neuroscience never uses such a term, and Chomsky never tried to localize it in the brain, but work on the aphasias made this at least plausible. If you’ve never heard of ‘universal grammar, language acquisition device, deep structure of language, the book is a reasonably accurate (and very snarky) introduction.

As the years passed, for everything that Chomsky claimed was a universal of all languages, a language was found that didn’t have it. The last universal left standing was recursion (e.g. the ability the pack phrase within phrase — the example given “He assumed that now that her bulbs had burned out, he could shine and achieve the celebrity he had always longed for” — thought within thought within thought.

Then a missionary turned linguist (Daniel Everett) found a tribe in the Amazon (the Piraha) with a language which not only lacked recursion, but tenses as well. It makes fascinating reading, including the linguist W. Tecumseh Fitch (yes Tecumseh) who travelled up the Amazon to prove that they did have recursion (especially as he had collaborated with Chomsky and the (now disgraced) Marc Hauser on an article in 2002 saying that recursion was the true essence of human language — how’s this horrible sentence for recursion ?

The book ends with a discussion of the quote Wolfe began the book with — “Understanding the evolution of language requires evidence regarding origins and processes that led to change. In the last 40 years, there has been an explosion of research on this problem as well as a sense that considerable progress has been made. We argue instead that the richness of ideas is accompanied by a poverty of evidence, with essentially no explanation of how and why our linguistic computations and representations evolved. We show that, to date, (1) studies of nonhuman animals provide virtually no relevant parallels to human linguistic communication, and none to the underlying biological capacity; (2) the fossil and archaeological evidence does not inform our understanding of the computations and representations of our earliest ancestors, leaving details of origins and selective pressure unresolved; (3) our understanding of the genetics of language is so impoverished that there is little hope of connecting genes to linguistic processes any time soon; (4) all modeling attempts have made unfounded assumptions, and have provided no empirical tests, thus leaving any insights into language’s origins unverifiable. Based on the current state of evidence, we submit that the most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever, with considerable uncertainty about the discovery of either relevant or conclusive evidence that can adjudicate among the many open hypotheses. We conclude by presenting some suggestions about possible paths forward.”

One of the authors is Chomsky himself.

You can read the whole article at http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00401/full

I think, that Wolfe is right — language is just a tool (like the wheel or the axe) which humans developed to help them. That our brain size is at least 3 times the size of our nearest evolutionary cousin (the Chimpanzee) probably had something to do with it. If language is a tool, then, like the axe, it didn’t have to evolve from anything.

All in all a fascinating and enjoyable book. There’s much more in it than I’ve had time to cover.  The prose will pick you up and carry you along.