Saturday, July 15, 2006

Why Speak?

Back in the 70s when I was in graduate school studying linguistics, I thought Chomsky had it all wrong. He emphasized the uniqueness of human language and the deep structure of grammar and syntax programmed into our brains. He calculated that this structure wafts up to our mind's surface to become language, innate only to us humans. He hypothesized this predisposition to innate structure as the driving force behind expression.

I studied linguistics, the science of language, in graduate school not long after I returned from a stint in the Peace Corps in Africa where I had to learn new languages--French and Arabic-- to communicate enough to live on a daily basis, buying food, finding transportation and housing, and dealing with the other critical basics of life. I was forced into situations that were so different from where I grew up in rural Georgia that everyday made me wonder about and examine the links between culture and language, religion, food, among many other topics. Which comes first--the cultural meaning or the language. how do they shape each other, how can the syntax of languages be so different and so conceptually the same, why do the people of the world speak so many different languages, what really makes us want to communicate? Is it really possible, as Chomsky said, that syntax and grammar programmed into our brains make us want to speak? I didn't think so then and I don't now. I was motivated to learn to speak in a strange, new situation and language because I wanted to fit into the social fabric of my town. I wanted people to think I had a brain--communicating does that for us--and that I could live independently and responsibly.

It occured to me that we are all driven by intent--don't we just need to get things done? I know that was a big motivation for me. I just needed to buy food or get my hair cut or pay the water bill. And knowing the language made it all much easier and more efficient. And I got the respect of others in the process. Few others spoke English then so being mute or considered stupid was not an option I liked.

So when I heard a recent NPR piece on the research advances made in working with apes, it rang a bell in my memory. Researchers at the Great Ape Trust near Des Moines, Iowa, have observed that apes can learn to understand oral language and express themselves, if given tools that are suitable to them. Furthermore, they make the effort because they need to be understood. In other words, they want something and the easiest and most efficient way to get it is to use language. They also want to be part of the human social network, since there aren't many apes in Iowa. From this work, it's beginning to look like meaning and intent drive language acquisition and use. Grammar and syntax may just be part of our capacity for fluid intelligence, logic we need to make the rules of language so that everyone uses those rules and the social network wheels are greased. It seems logical. If this latest research is correct, then meaning may be the driver of the whole communication thing. We communicate because we need to. I like it. Makes sense to me.

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