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Re: [ontolog-forum] language and thinking

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From: John Bottoms <john@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Tue, 31 Aug 2010 14:04:19 -0400
Message-id: <4C7D4423.2030104@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
et al passim,    (01)

The responses to my statement have gone a bit astray. I very carefully 
said, "...learning speech...", not language.    (02)

Serena DuBois writes in "Feral Children in Fiction and Fact":
"Almost all of factual literature regarding feral children indicates 
that if children do not learn human speech at an early age, and if they 
are not living in the vicinity of human beings that have speech and talk 
to them, they never learn to talk. As we shall see, the ability to speak 
is critical to a feral child’s living as a functioning adult member of a 
human community—the usual definition of "human." This lack of speech in 
most feral children appears to have nothing to do with lack of 
intelligence, autism or neurological impairment. Rather, speech is 
learned, and learned at a certain time in a child’s life, with 
repetition being a good part of the learning process.2, 3    (03)

2. Peter Hobson. The Cradle of Thought: Exploring the Origins of 
Thinking, Oxford University Press, USA, 2004.    (04)

3. Jonah Weston. Wild Child: The Story of Feral Children, Optomen TV, 
2002, an interesting documentary on isolated children and also how all 
children learn language. This film is often shown on the Learning 
Channel [TLC], and deals with several modern feral children, including 
Genie, a 20th century child tied down and isolated by her parents for 13 
years. It is not available in VHS or DVD at the present time.    (05)

And, while I agree with Everett's valuation of the learning abilities of 
the Piraha˜ being incommensurate with that of outsiders, it appears to 
conflate the cultural causes with those of early learning. To refute my 
notion with a statement on language acquisition does not, in my opinion, 
address my statement concerning speech acquisition.    (06)

It appears that ascribing linguistic learning differences to a cultural 
difference overlooks temporal and age considerations that should be 
included. Maybe we should leave the issue to the anthropologists.    (07)

-John Bottoms
  Concord, MA
  T: 978-505-9878    (08)

On 8/31/2010 12:44 PM, Ed Barkmeyer wrote:
> John Bottoms wrote:
>> We know that the window for learning speech closes pretty tightly
>> by 15 years of age.
> I wrote:
>>> This is a bit oversimplified.  The window that closes in most
>>> individuals is the ability to learn to hear, distinguish and create
>>> language _sounds_.  The Army Language School and diplomatic schools
>>> have been quite successful teaching persons as old as 40 new
>>> languages ...
> Randall Schulz wrote:
>> 40 seems like an oddly arbitrary age, to me. My understanding of our
>> brains is that from the mid 20s on (when development of our frontal
>> cortex is complete) there are no real developmental or senescence
>> boundaries or inflection points in any performance metric, just very
>> slow shifts in some parameters of neurological function (pathologies
>> aside, of course).
> I only mentioned age 40 because the Army Language School has very few
> students older than that.  Most of the trainees are Special Ops
> personnel.  I expect that the State Department schools have a much wider
> range of ages.
> Chris wrote:
>> It's just empirically false.  Many people become reasonably fluent in
>> languages they are only first exposed to in college.
> Chris takes the logician's view that John Bottoms' thesis is
> demonstrably false, because there are common counterexamples.  And I
> agree with "reasonably fluent".
> Nonetheless, the ability to learn new languages at age 20 or 30 is not
> general; it is a "talent", possessed by some minority of the
> population.  The Language School folk screen their candidates before
> investing in them and take less than 1 in 3, and still wash out some
> percentage of their students.  Many college students learn only to read
> a foreign language and write it adequately, and do both by thinking in
> their native tongue and translating to/from the foreign language.  That
> is a distinct skill from hear/speak, which involves the connection of
> concept with utterance without an intermediate alternative
> verbalization.  Conversely, I know a number of tradesmen who have
> learned to speak Spanish out of workplace necessity, mostly by exposure
> and perhaps some Berlitz CD.  So the 'talent' may be broader-based than
> is apparent, and "social/cultural value" as the driver  may really be
> what distinguishes the successes and failures.
> John Sowa may well be right that the "talent" is influenced by nurture
> -- early encounters with non-native phonemes -- as well as nature.
> Certainly that view has been offered by many 'amateur linguists' to
> explain the ability of British and Americans to speak their language
> without recognizable accent:  "You must have been exposed to<language
> (group)>  when you were small."  But I also know several individuals who
> were not exposed to the specific language in question, e.g., Japanese or
> Russian, before age 20, although they were exposed to French or German
> or Spanish in their community.  So John's generalization to "foreign
> phonemes" is more likely to be true.  What is created in the young mind
> is the experience of hearing, interpreting and producing non-native sounds.
> -Ed
>    (09)

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