>So, what is the relevance of feral children to the Whorf thesis? (01)
I am quibbling about what I view as an act of omission. It is this; that
the inability of a speech-isolated child to learn speech, after age 5,
is accepted. Yet, both Whorf and Everett ascribe the inability to learn
a given concept to the community, without considering possible learning
constraints of the individual. The difficulty here is that a community
with its culture can enforce language constraints that may be a
rationalization of a priori learning problems. The positive cyclical
reinforcements of the opinions of those in positions of authority in the
community make it nearly impossible to analyze the question of language
constrains on concept learning for a community. Shouldn't we, at a
minimum consider the individual? (02)
Here I differ with the NYTimes article's view that: "SINCE THERE IS NO
EVIDENCE that any language forbids its speakers to think anything, we
must look in an entirely different direction to discover how our mother
tongue really does shape our experience of the world." Language may not,
but culture certainly does. And, language and culture are inexorably
linked through authority. Austen observed "An exceedingly important aid
is the circumstances of the utterance. Thus we may say 'coming from him,
I took it as an order, not as a request'..." (Lecture VI). (03)
It seems to me that examining the underlying capabilities of the
individuals across time would be fruitful, to at least accept, or deny.
Yet, neither Whorf, nor Everett, bothered to do that. They examine at
the cultural levels with all its inherent problems of analysis, and come
to a weak conclusion. (04)
It may be that Whorf, without a background in linguistics, did not have
the tools for a sufficient analysis. In our work we are looking at
tagging (marking) utterances with cultural identifiers to simplify the
selection of actions that could result. We feel this will be useful in
developing a theory of personal behavior based on culture and language. (05)
Back to Whorf; diagnostically, it should be possible, using statistical
methods, to validate his hypothesis, given sufficient language and
cultural data. I do this with test assessment data. His statement is a
straightforward probabilistic observation with no predicate. I'm sure
some correlation is there, but to what degree and confidence? He just
didn't say what it was, nor what the elements were. I may quibble, but I
can't disagree with such a broadly stated premise. (06)
Concord, MA (07)
On 8/31/2010 3:40 PM, Ed Barkmeyer wrote:
> John Bottoms wrote:
>> et al passim,
>> The responses to my statement have gone a bit astray. I very carefully
>> said, "...learning speech...", not language.
> I see. Yes, I was completely off base. OTOH, I can accuse you of
> leading us astray by following the statement about learning speech with
> a statement about teaching the Pirahã children to count.
> I don't see in anything you write about feral children that you are
> drawing any conclusion with respect to the original topic: Whorf's
> assertion that thought processes are limited by language. The Everett
> discussion is not about children who lack speech, but rather children
> and adults who lack both counting terms and the concept of counting.
> It does seem that the feral children might be a very strong
> counterexample to Whorf. Feral children clearly don't completely lack
> thought processes, in spite of lacking speech -- and therefore language?
> -- entirely. But that opens a different can of worms, which is the
> relationship between language and speech. We know that language exists
> without speech -- we have the examples of American Sign, ideographs and
> text. So, what is the relevance of feral children to the Whorf thesis?
>> 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
>> 2. Peter Hobson. The Cradle of Thought: Exploring the Origins of
>> Thinking, Oxford University Press, USA, 2004.
>> 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.
>> 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.
>> 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.
>> -John Bottoms
>> Concord, MA
>> T: 978-505-9878
>> 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.
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