Wednesday, August 16, 2017

An Accident Of Random Gurgling?

When our daughter was born, I wanted her to call me "Papa," so I said it to her a lot, mostly as part of a joke-y competition I had with my wife to be the first parent she named. I won the race when she was three months old: she said, "Papa," as I was changing her diaper. Initially, I figured it was just an accident of random gurgling because even as a first time parent I expected the first word milestone was still months away. I stepped out of the room, then returned. She said, "Papa." I did it again and again and each time she said it, smiling at me. At five months, she added "Mama" to her vocabulary and by the time she was eight months she was speaking in full sentences.

It felt like a miracle, but even if it came ahead of schedule, it's actually something every normally developing baby does. Humans are born with the ability to use language. It is part of what renowned linguist Noam Chomsky calls "the human biological endowment." Indeed, according to Chomsky, humans are not just born with the ability to imitate and use vocalizations to communicate, but also with an innate sense of grammatical rules. From the latest edition of New Philosopher (online version not yet available):

. . . (E)very language has something noun-like, something verb-like. There is always a way to make something negative, a way to ask a question, and to indicate the difference between one and more than one . . . According to Chomsky, those "fixed invariant principles" suggest that there is something innate about certain grammatical rules . . . In other words, there is a universal grammar.

In elementary school, we spent a lot of time diagraming sentences, breaking them down into all their various parts, naming them, then putting them back together. To this day, my formal knowledge of the rules of grammar are quite weak in that I never really did learn to label all the parts or to memorize the rules governing them. I found the classroom drills tedious at best, but I was nevertheless capable of pulling down good grades, largely because while I might not have been able to define grammar, I knew it when I heard it. It was something I entered the classroom "knowing," even if I'd never been taught.

The Greek philosopher Plato believed that all learning was "but recollection," that humans are born possessing knowledge and that we then come to remember it as we live our lives. Subsequent philosophers, however, have come to view the newborn as more of a blank slate upon which their environment does it's work. The longer I work with young children, however, the more I come around to seeing the truth in Plato's point of view. Almost every day, there is a moment in which a child does or expresses something that strikes me as evidence of a deeper wisdom, a profundity that simply could not have come from her environment. I share some of those moments here, but more often than not I, shake my head with a chuckle, and dismiss it as an accident of random gurgling. But is it?

It appears that Plato was at least right about grammar, that it is something we, at least in part, recollect rather than learn. I expect there is much more of this kind of remembering than we imagine.

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