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Old 14th November 2012, 05:44 AM   #1
angrysoba
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Chomsky vs. Connectionism/Emergentism

I'm interested in an argument in the field of language acquisition between those who adhere to a Chomskyan view of Universal Grammar and those who argue for a connectionist approach to language acquisition.

I am not exactly sure if the two are mutually incompatible but the theory of Chomsky's Universal Grammar seems to me to be that all human languages must conform to innate structures within the brain and that particular languages simply end turning particular switches according to the prevalant language used in that society.

Chomsky's argument for innate structures was a result of an argument with behaviourist pyschologists such as B.F Skinner who had argued that language was the result of children imitating particular language stimulus around them and being rewarded and/or negatively rewarded by the feedback they received from parents and peers. Of course, behaviourists also adopted what seems to me to be a logical positivist view that what could not be observed was of no interest to science, namely mental states, and therefore disregarded.

Connectionists, while agreeing that behaviourists were out-to-lunch seem to regard Chomsky's UG as just as unscientific as the behaviourist arguments that Chomsky also ridiculed. For example, while behaviourists have no good explanation for why children go through a so-called U-shaped acquisition of past-tense irregular verbs - by first correctly imitating the "surface-structure" of the verb "went" and later overgeneralizing the regular rule of past tense verbs by saying "goed" (and therefore apparently understanding the "deep-structure") - it seems that connectionists have produced "artificial neural networks", or computer programs, which replicate the same phenemenon without any need for "innate structures".

Just out of interest, is my characterization of the argument about right and, if so, just how are these "neural networks" devised?

Furthermore, it seems to be argued that UG (or simply language) is rather an emergent system rather than some kind of underlying system in the brain.

Can anyone give me a clearer idea of this debate or some reading that will spell this out better?
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Old 14th November 2012, 07:36 AM   #2
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Not me, but I'm interested.
Its a shame that so many languages are being lost.
Our data base is shrinking fast.
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Old 14th November 2012, 08:29 AM   #3
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The universal grammar has never been shown, despite many attempts.
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Old 14th November 2012, 10:25 AM   #4
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I think a position closer to a "Steven Pinker-ish" is a little more reasonable.

There probably are innate structures in the brain for spoken* language, but I would stop short of claiming there must be a limited set of rules because of that. Languages might likely follow certain patterns of development, but different circumstances might yield interesting exceptions to Chomsky's "rules". (That doesn't mean the "rules" don't exist in some form, but they would be very hard to find, since they are easily overwritten.)

Positions like this, I think, tell us a lot more about spoken language than a purely connectionist approach.

(*written language seems to have a very different development pattern.)
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Old 14th November 2012, 10:53 AM   #5
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Originally Posted by Wowbagger View Post
...

(*written language seems to have a very different development pattern.)
.
I've seen it noted that right-to-left writing means the hand would be dragged through the still wet ink.
And no one actually speaks in the shape of the glyphs that make up letters and words.
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Old 14th November 2012, 04:48 PM   #6
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Thanks for the replies, so far. By the way, I am only really finding my feet in this subject so I could well be wide of the mark on some of these issues. I would appreciate any criticism of what I am saying.

Originally Posted by quarky View Post
Not me, but I'm interested.
Its a shame that so many languages are being lost.
Our data base is shrinking fast.
It is sad to see languages dying out but I don't know to what extent that phenemenon affects the UG vs. connectionist debate.

Chomsky points to the fact that everyone, aside from very rare examples of people with severe brain damage, or feral children will learn a language despite growing up in varying backgrounds and having a wide variation in intelligence; it doesn't matter what that language is.

Originally Posted by Dancing David View Post
The universal grammar has never been shown, despite many attempts.
One major problem seems to be that there isn't even a clear definition of what it is. In some cases, it seems to have been defined as an actual "module" of the mind distinct from other forms of cognition that humans, but not animals, have. And at other times, it seems to refer to highly abstract principles of grammar which all languages must have. The problem for me is that some of them are so broad that they often seem minimum requirements of language itself, such as "structural dependency". Chomsky then goes on to say that while all languages require certain principles, they are then further divided into those that must have one or another of sets of parameters. And again, some of these seem so broad as to make me wonder whether or not they are even interesting.

Originally Posted by Wowbagger View Post
I think a position closer to a "Steven Pinker-ish" is a little more reasonable.

There probably are innate structures in the brain for spoken* language, but I would stop short of claiming there must be a limited set of rules because of that. Languages might likely follow certain patterns of development, but different circumstances might yield interesting exceptions to Chomsky's "rules". (That doesn't mean the "rules" don't exist in some form, but they would be very hard to find, since they are easily overwritten.)

Positions like this, I think, tell us a lot more about spoken language than a purely connectionist approach.

(*written language seems to have a very different development pattern.)
I don't know how different Pinker's position is to Chomsky. I have read Pinker's Language Instinct and the only serious disagreement I can see there between the two is one of the nature of how language developed. It seems Chomsky is agnostic on whether or not language developed by natural selection whereas Pinker thinks it obviously did. Chomsky's view seems to be taken from something like Gould's talk of spandrels, if I understand his argument, which, as far as I know, is something that isn't taken particularly seriously by most evolutionary scientists. That said, this disagreement is really only garnish. The rest of the book seems to fully endorse Chomsky's theories.

As for writing, yes, that is largely considered to be a very different process to learning to speak. But whereas all children learn to speak (or sign) a language with very rare exceptions, writing is not by any means acquired in the same way; many people and societies are wholly illiterate, so writing does not fall under the same "language instinct" as Pinker calls it.
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Old 14th November 2012, 05:37 PM   #7
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Originally Posted by Wowbagger View Post
I think a position closer to a "Steven Pinker-ish" is a little more reasonable.

There probably are innate structures in the brain for spoken* language, but I would stop short of claiming there must be a limited set of rules because of that. Languages might likely follow certain patterns of development, but different circumstances might yield interesting exceptions to Chomsky's "rules". (That doesn't mean the "rules" don't exist in some form, but they would be very hard to find, since they are easily overwritten.)

Positions like this, I think, tell us a lot more about spoken language than a purely connectionist approach.

(*written language seems to have a very different development pattern.)

I agree, humans have a propensity for language acquisition, and I would suggest then that the rules would be different. Maybe not the universal grammar, but for language acquisition.
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Old 14th November 2012, 05:40 PM   #8
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Originally Posted by angrysoba View Post



One major problem seems to be that there isn't even a clear definition of what it is. In some cases, it seems to have been defined as an actual "module" of the mind distinct from other forms of cognition that humans, but not animals, have. And at other times, it seems to refer to highly abstract principles of grammar which all languages must have. The problem for me is that some of them are so broad that they often seem minimum requirements of language itself, such as "structural dependency". Chomsky then goes on to say that while all languages require certain principles, they are then further divided into those that must have one or another of sets of parameters. And again, some of these seem so broad as to make me wonder whether or not they are even interesting.
It has been a while since I read up on Chomsky, but I think that describing the modal nature of language as a formal structure would still not really show that it is hard wired.

It would just map the way language works. Now the study of aspergers and autism may help, as well as the other language issues some people have, outside of brain trauma.
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Old 14th November 2012, 07:45 PM   #9
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Speech impediments, with implications of genetic backgrounds, intrigues.
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Old 16th November 2012, 09:13 AM   #10
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Originally Posted by angrysoba View Post
I don't know how different Pinker's position is to Chomsky. I have read Pinker's Language Instinct and the only serious disagreement I can see there between the two is one of the nature of how language developed. It seems Chomsky is agnostic on whether or not language developed by natural selection whereas Pinker thinks it obviously did. Chomsky's view seems to be taken from something like Gould's talk of spandrels, if I understand his argument, which, as far as I know, is something that isn't taken particularly seriously by most evolutionary scientists. That said, this disagreement is really only garnish. The rest of the book seems to fully endorse Chomsky's theories.
As far as I recall, Pinker stated that he didn't take Chomsky's theories as far as Chomsky did.

But, this thread doesn't need to be about the specifics between these folks, anyway.

As a general idea, I think "how we have propensity to develop language" is likely a more productive area of study than taking "universal grammar" too far.

Originally Posted by Dancing David View Post
I agree, humans have a propensity for language acquisition, and I would suggest then that the rules would be different. Maybe not the universal grammar, but for language acquisition.
So, you seem to agree that language is at least somewhat instinctual?
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Old 16th November 2012, 09:49 AM   #11
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I wonder if illiterate societies have a richer sort of verbal communication?
Or the opposite?
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Old 17th November 2012, 05:24 AM   #12
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Originally Posted by Wowbagger View Post

So, you seem to agree that language is at least somewhat instinctual?
No.

I would be more likely to say possible genetic predisposition to language acquisition.
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Old 17th November 2012, 05:25 AM   #13
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Originally Posted by quarky View Post
I wonder if illiterate societies have a richer sort of verbal communication?
Or the opposite?
What we do know is that they retained a lot more oral material than we do.
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Old 17th November 2012, 05:43 AM   #14
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Originally Posted by quarky View Post
I wonder if illiterate societies have a richer sort of verbal communication?
Or the opposite?
It depends on what you mean by a "richer sort of verbal communication". And you may find that "illiterate societies'" languages are just as different from each other than they are from those spoken by literate societies.

Originally Posted by Dancing David View Post
No.

I would be more likely to say possible genetic predisposition to language acquisition.
I think there must be some genetic component no matter which model best explains language acquisition. This is one of the reasons why Pinker calls it a language instinct and Chomsky likens language to something humans do in a similar way to how birds fly; there is obviously something about humans that allow them to use "language" that other animals apparently cannot (and yes, there are arguments over whether or not bees, dolphins, chimpanzees and bonobos can or not but I think that almost all linguists argue that they cannot.) But connectionists too would no doubt argue that a rule-like language acquisition made up of various simple components would also be a product of genes and evolution as much as a "rule-governed" complex universal grammar.
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Old 17th November 2012, 12:49 PM   #15
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Originally Posted by Dancing David View Post
I would be more likely to say possible genetic predisposition to language acquisition.
...which is just another way of saying it is instinctual. At least if we are using more modern definitions of instinct.
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Old 18th November 2012, 05:50 AM   #16
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Originally Posted by Wowbagger View Post
...which is just another way of saying it is instinctual. At least if we are using more modern definitions of instinct.
I believe we have had this discussion before, there is no real modern use of the term in technical usage.

There are FAP and MAP and I use terms differently then you.

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Old 18th November 2012, 05:53 AM   #17
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Originally Posted by angrysoba View Post
This is one of the reasons why Pinker calls it a language instinct and Chomsky likens language to something humans do in a similar way to how birds fly;
And there would be considerable debate if that is a reflex or a MAP (modal action pattern) or FAP (fixed action pattern). Just as most ungulates can ran within minutes of being born.
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Old 19th November 2012, 05:43 AM   #18
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Somewhat related article:

http://m.theatlantic.com/technology/...ngle_page=true
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Old 19th November 2012, 05:49 AM   #19
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Originally Posted by Mark6 View Post
Thanks for that. I'll have a read when I get the chance but it looks very interesting.

One small gripe:

Quote:
The undoing of Skinner's grip on psychology is commonly marked by Chomsky's 1967 critical review of Skinner's book Verbal Behavior, a book in which Skinner attempted to explain linguistic ability using behaviorist principles
Chomsky's review of Skinner's Verbal Behavior was published in 1959, not 1967.
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