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Language and Mind: Assessing Chomsky through a Neurobiological Lens

drichard's picture
In his seminal work Language and Mind world-renowned linguist Noam Chomsky discusses the development of language. In a series of telling essays and lectures he presents the linguistic contributions to past, present, and future studies of the mind and details the distinctive nature of language. Combining concepts from biology and psychology he attempts to trace the origin of language, all the while analyzing what these origins imply about the nature of the brain. One Chomskyan theory of particular interest deals with language acquisition and is labeled "Universal Grammar" (Chomsky 99)1. In the following paragraphs I will present and discuss this theory and attempt to situate it with the neurobiological conclusions reached by our class this semester.
      As a highly complex system of communication, language distinguishes humans from all other animals. For this reason we are able to use the human capacity for language as a window into the mind. Chomsky himself states, "I am primarily intrigued by the possibility of learning something, from the study of language, that will bring to light inherent properties of the human mind" (90). One area of linguistic study that has been particularly successful in edifying the theory of mind deals with patterns in spoken languages and their relationship to language acquisition. It has been observed, for example, that all languages can be analyzed using "similar assumptions as to the form and organization of such generative systems" (99). In other words, linguists attempting to construct a formal grammar for any language can employ a common, tested model from which they can build their research.
Another important pattern can be recognized among speakers of the same language. Chomsky notes, "different speakers of the same language, with somewhat different experience and training, nevertheless acquire grammars that are remarkably similar, as we can determine from the ease with which they communicate and the correspondences among them in the interpretation of new sentences" (100). This is no small feat as the successful orchestration of language requires mastery of sensory cues beyond auditory and verbal capacities; one must be able to read and produce essential physical elements of a language in order to communicate successfully. When comparing the number of linguistic elements that could go awry in the acquisition process with the number of successful speakers, it becomes evident that there must be some common mechanism seated in the brain that guides the human capacity for language.
      In light of these patterns and other findings, Chomsky proposes the existence of a set of deep-seated formal conditions in the mind that strictly direct the human capacity for language. He suggests, "if the conclusions of this research (the patterns observed and noted above) are anywhere near correct, then humans must be endowed with a very rich and explicit set of mental attributes that determine a specific form of language" (100). This theory is aptly titled "Universal Grammar" as it suggests that humans the world over share a set of linguistic principles that guide the acquisition process.
The implications of the Universal Grammar theory are of immediate importance. The neurophysiological commonality it accounts for would suggest that, though we all experience different realities, we all have a common capacity for language governed by the same rules. This affords us an equal plane upon which to communicate our realities. In other words, though reality is a highly personal experience language allows us to exchange our narratives with other humans. A universal grammar would act as a bridge between all human experiences. This notion is important in a world saturated with stereotypes and other isolating semantic manipulations; it reminds us that we are all of the same body.
      In his discussion of Universal Grammar Chomsky notes another intriguing aspect of language acquisition. As previously alluded to, humans who master a language are able to seamlessly incorporate its verbal, auditory, and physical aspects all while processing the meaning of these particular linguistic inputs and outputs. Chomsky notes, "the person who knows the language has no consciousness of having mastered these rules or of putting them to use, nor is there any reason to suppose that this knowledge of the rules of language can be brought to consciousness" (91). In light of our discussion of the bipartite brain, this item becomes significant. It is apparent that the successful use of language is another testament to the power of the dialogue between the cognitive unconscious and the storyteller. Mastered language skills are stored in the cognitive unconscious and are called upon largely without conscious effort by the storyteller as it spins its yarn of reality.
      On a final note of analysis, one related to Universal Grammar only by the concept of language in general, I'd like to directly address the storyteller's use of language. Though the I-function can communicate through "language in a highly creative way, constrained by its rules but free to express new thoughts..." (100), language is not the only means of expression. This fact is significant in the modern context as much of our language is broken. More often than not, clarity is lost to double entendres as our evolving vernacular erodes the tradition of the English language. The function of the storyteller is to overcome the ambiguity already inherently present in the world so as to afford us coherent realities. If it were to perform this function with an ambiguous tool its work would be rendered useless.
Overall, Chomsky affirms the notion that there is still much to be discovered about the human brain, especially in terms of language, its acquisition, and its use. Reading Language and Mind has served to further the amazement I continue to feel when engaging studies of the human brain. Our capacity to communicate through language is a tremendous and often overlooked ability that defines our existence. I would be interested to look further into the incorporation of language into our thoughts. Can we think without words? This is just one of the engaging questions linguistics has to offer neurobiology. Perhaps one day the two disciplines will unite to provide an answer.

Works Cited
Noam., Chomsky,. Language and Mind. New York: Cambridge UP, 2006.
1 All subsequent parenthetical references can be attributed to Noam Chomsky's Language and Mind and will contain page numbers only.


Paul Grobstein's picture

learning from the brain and language

"much of our language is broken. More often than not, clarity is lost to double entendres as our evolving vernacular erodes the tradition of the English language. The function of the storyteller is to overcome the ambiguity already inherently present in the world so as to afford us coherent realities. If it were to perform this function with an ambiguous tool its work would be rendered useless."

Perhaps, instead, the ambiguity of language is a feature instead of a bug, as per the following?

"A story is told by the sender not to simply transmit the story but also, and equally importantly, to elicit information from/about the receiver, to find out what is otherwise unknowable by the sender: what ideas/thoughts/perspectives the receiver has about the general subject of the story. An unambiguous transmission/story calls for nothing from the receiver other than what the transmitter already knows; an ambiguous transmission/story links teller/transmitter and audience/receiver in a conversation (and, ideally, in a dialectic from which new things emerge)."