Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Language and the human mind

Allison Z's picture

The book Patterns in the Mind by Ray Jackendoff approaches the question of how language works. Language is perhaps the most unique aspect of humanity, as we are the only creatures to have the capacity for this type of communication. The book explores this facility of language, and what goes into the process of learning and becoming fluent in a language. The book questions what is specifically human about the ability to create and use language, and to what extent language is a result of nature versus nurture Jackendoff is very careful to differentiate between language and communication in this book: while many animals communicate, only humans have the complex grammar systems that constitute language.

Jackendoff’s main discussion revolves around two main ideas: that people have an automatic mental grammar in their heads that allows them to form correct sentences without thinking about it, and that there is an innate knowledge in humans that allows them to learn the language. The presence of “mental grammar” means that humans can recognize word patterns, even if they don’t make conceptual sense. An example of this he uses is the Jabberwocky, which uses made up words, yet is in clearly recognizable sentence patterns. We can generate these patterns as well, and even seemingly grammatically incorrect sentences still abide by syntactic rules: “I ain’t got no grapes” never becomes “I ain’t have no grapes.” Mental grammar therefore lends itself to the idea of universal grammar, which means that there is a universal ability to understand different grammars. Nouns, for instance, are always understood as such, and something performs the noun role in every language. Modifiers and verbs can be moved around, and this is where children have trouble. One can see by observing children that they understand the concept of nouns and verbs fairly easily, even when the noun does not refer directly to a person place or thing (in the case of less concrete nouns such as happiness). However it is where the verbs and modifiers are placed in relation to the nouns that takes children time to learn, as this varies from language to language.

This ties in with Jackendoff’s other point about the brain and language, which is the idea of innate knowledge. This is where the book becomes more complicated, for it ties in a variety of different ideas that work to try to parse out what is innate and what is learned. Jackendoff attempts to triangulate this, using notably the idea of a critical period for learning language.

There has been a lot of debate over why children can learn languages so easily, while adults struggle to obtain any amount of comfort with a second language, and rarely achieve fluency. The theory was therefore put forth that people had a critical period, from about four until twelve, during which time they were optimally primed for learning language. After that it becomes increasingly more difficult to learn languages. Another question is if there is a point at which it is impossible to gain language ability. Jackendoff uses the examples of Genie and Chelsea to describe his theories on this, saying that both cases in conjunction act to prove the idea of critical period. He cites Genie, a girl who was mentally and physically abused when her family locked her in a room and deprived her of most human contact until the age of thirteen. When she was found she was unresponsive and had no language, but began to learn to communicate quickly. She soon developed early language ability, however it stopped at the level of a 2 1/2 year olds language level, and no matter how much she was trained she was unable to learn any more. This suggests that after a certain point one can no longer acquire language, which in turn suggests that language is not cultural but a specific function that the brain is modified for. Another example is a woman named Chelsea, who was deaf and considered retarded for many years. At 31 her deafness was finally diagnosed, and she was given a hearing aid. However at this point she was unable to construct a mental grammar for herself, and while she could learn words, she was unable to use them to form real sentences. Jackendoff posits that these two cases, when viewed together, suggest that grammar is not learned through any sort of rote memorization, rather every person has the blueprints for language written into his or her brain, and must be taught a language, which the mental grammar will shift to accommodate. After the critical period however this becomes impossible, and a person can no longer access this ability for grammar.

To emphasize the idea that children have an innate knowledge for language Jackendoff also uses the development of Creole, which was developed by the children of people who spoke different variations of Pidgin, a very simplistic language that’s rules varied from person to person. The children of these speakers created an entirely new grammar however, which had specific grammar conventions. This suggests to Jackendoff that children have their own template for language patterns within their minds. If children learn a language during the critical period, the templates shift to accommodate the language patterns. However, in the case of the Creole language, the template was written onto an incomplete language, working to form a completed one.

Jackendoff ends his book by exploring other learned behaviors, and how they parallel language learning. He questions humanity’s assumption about itself, suggesting that many of our social and personal functions are the result of unconscious brain patterns. Ultimately, the difficulties in analyzing our relationship with language acts as a microcosm for almost every brain function. It is fascinating to see such a concrete example of how much we don’t know about brain and behavior. Through the complex study of the brain’s language system, it is possible to see the way scientists also triangulate other complex social brain functions. If one can attribute social behavior to patterns in the mind the way one can with language, this ties back to other issues of responsibility discussed in class. What aspects of the brain are pre decided, and what are what we would attribute to “free will”? This book makes some very interesting claims about the way the brain is already hardwired, and the final thought it leaves the reader with is the question of what exactly is nurture, and what is simply a pattern in the mind?





Jackendoff, Ray. Patterns in the Mind: Language and Human Nature. BasicBooks, 1994.


Paul Grobstein's picture

language and mind/brain

Maybe its all "patterns in the mind"/brain? Influenced both by nature and nurture ... and for at least some things potentially be "free will"?