Some months back I remember reading about The Minimalist Program. What I read was really more like a pamphlet called The Architecture of Language, which was just a transcript of one of Chomsky’s introductory lectures on the subject. After reading it I found that something that I had thought to be true, or at least took for granted to be true, just wasn’t. I thought that the language you spoke framed/shaped your thoughts to the extent that if someone else spoke a language that was sufficiently different from your own, that these two people could have totally different experiences of reality…or very little in shared reality.
Maybe some of you are familiar with this. Seeing this for the first time really blew my mind. Language actually shaping perception…
What the Minimalist Program posits is that there is something called universal language, and this is more of a physiological system–or set of systems–that allow the generation of language. It’s really fascinating. Thought/language formation is separate from interface, and it’s a goddamn miracle that we should be able to hear someone else’s sounds and process them the way they do. It is no less a mystery how these systems are hooked up within our own heads, or how they could evolve. It’s so complex!
So what I found so positive was that in this theory (and they’re working to work out more and more of it) is that with that universal language you start with a syntactic structure to your thoughts that places things like nouns and verbs redundantly to begin with, then at a separate step redundancies are omitted to fit the language you know.
If you’re multilingual you understand firsthand the changes in the rules of grammar that are possible from language to language.
So there’s that: that it begins with all the things.
Next was this: That at peak language acquisition, a toddler can learn up to 50 new words a day (or something like that). That’s astounding. Think about what it would take you to learn 50 new words today as an adult. What this implies is that they/we already have a context for the word. Or rather, that the reality is there, and understood (it’s not amorphous just because there isn’t a word to it yet. It’s not like the object perceived is “floor and chair” and it needed the word chair to make those two things distinct), and it’s waiting for a word to be matched up to it. So you know the object chair already, and then finally you can call it something when you find out what that word is. They know it’s something like this because toddlers might only need to hear a word once in order to learn it…That is also astounding!
So these systems are hardwired. Biologically. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve grown up in China or in Texas, the systems are the same. You just throw a different “skin” over the underlying architecture.
That’s a beautiful concept, because it’s our thoughts that makes us, us. And HUMAN thought is formed in the same way for every human everywhere (unless there is something that goes wrong during development, which unfortunately does happen).
A few things Chomsky said…
That language isn’t primarily for communication. It’s primarily for thought. Most language you generate is “heard” by you only because you never articulate it. It is just your thinking mode.
He also said that there are no languages.