Monday, December 18, 2006

Language Acquisition - Part 1: General Discussion

Language, what is language?! Language can be roughly defined as a set of conventional signals that are used to suggest or convey information (or just data). Those signals can be in any form: Phonetic signals as in spoken language; Hand motion as in sign language; Electrical pulses as in computer communications; Numerous other forms exist. But the keyword in the definition of language is "conventional". Without conventions there are no languages. Consider how internet protocols are created: Certain dedicated committee of professionals meet in order to come up with a "standard", these standards are then published in either electronic or printed forms; From that point on, developers are expected to follow the conventional standard.

But what about human spoken language? Two highly interrelated questions arise: The first one is, how was first human language made? The second one is, if a person (say, a baby) has no knowledge whatsoever of the conventions used in a certain language, how would he develop an understanding of it? As an answer to this second question we can say that the combination of our pattern recognition abilities and continuous observation enables us to acquire language. Still the question is worth further analysis.

One of the main influences of creation of language and consequently understanding of language are the environment and experiences. In one discussion about language acquisition (here), I argued about the inherent difficulty for humans to analyze extraterrestrial languages. My position can be summarized that: Language experts have long been in the analysis of prehistoric languages (say, ancient Egyptian languages), their job is relatively easy because they are analyzing human languages - made by humans just like us. The real challenge would be to analyze and understand languages of beings that share neither our environment nor experiences.

Many philosophers have recognized this limitation, one such recognition is Wittgenstein's quote:
"If a lion could talk, we could not understand him." (source)
Other instances -say, the title "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus."- seem to suggest that even humans may be incapable of understanding eachother due to different physiological and psychological needs. All those instances seem to suggest that understanding of language is highly dependent on our familiarity of the concept being suggested.

A consequence to the "pattern recognition" method for acquiring language is ambiguity. Take two example nouns: "Knife" and "Love". The word "knife" can be easily recognized through observation, the concept is mainly unambiguous and not open for interpretations. On the other hand, the term "love" is highly ambiguous -each person has their own interpretations- since diverse patterns are attributed the same word "love".

An extreme view of the above two paragraphs, considering individualism and since every person has different experiences in life, then the meaning of words each individual perceives is different! We might say that no human really understands another, and we are merely deluded to think otherwise.

In this series:
Language Acquisition - Part 1: General Discussion
Language Acquisition - Part 2: The Influence Of Physiological Formation
Language Acquisition - Part 3: Deep Structure Hypothesis
Language Acquisition - Part 4: Ambiguities
Language Acquisition - Part 5: The Problem Of Representation
Language Acquisition - Part 6: Linguistic Determinism Hypothesis
Language Acquisition - Part 7: Possible Applications For The Investigation


The Observer said...

It is kind of a scary idea to realize that we barely understand each other. Maybe our understandment of things don't differ that much but one can feel it once being in a long debate.

As you said about the ambiguity of some words. We usually keep on arguing about an issue then end up realizing that we don't agree on the definition of what we argue about. It happens all the time.

il Cuore said...

To live without language, is like living without air...

Devil's Mind said...

Sure, Observer. I have at numerous times pointed out the importance of definitions in any well-formed discussion. We should usually stick to dictionary or encyclopediac definitions (since they are usually most authorative sources for definitions). Nonetheless it is important to understand that language is only a MEAN to convey ideas, so language itself can be manipulated by individuals to fit any discussion at hand. Sure enough, such "in-place" conventions cannot be applied to without explicitly stating the definitions. So we can say, the default is the dictionary definition unless stated otherwise.

No_Angel said...

actually i think you have barely scratched the surface in this instant .
unless you want to complicate things more than they should be but language is used primarly to environment and experiences. its not a requirement for understanding all you need is the context. have you observed people in an international convention trying to communicate ? if they intend to convey a message they will, regadless of the language.

as for the most basic context to convey information is using math, universally (regardless of the planet) math could be used to convey ideas and it could also be used to define context quite simply .

one last thing concept is higly arbitarary, a concept could circumlocated to cofuse intentionally, and hence it is ambigious by its defnition, so naturally it will exhibit ambiguity .

oh thanks for the post :)

Devil's Mind said...

Il Cuore, its true without language we would be just living alone.

Thank you No Angel because you touched the heart of the topic. I am not sure why you suggest the I barely scratched the surface, but yeah sure linguistics is very complex and diverse and I didnt intend to go into details.

Now, the heart of this post is perception. How do we conceive ideas, and how do we imply ideas to others. This is my angle regarding this topic.

You argue: "have you observed people in an international convention trying to communicate?" - I would regard signs as a more primitive kind of language. Say, I were a shop keeper and want to tell some foreign guy that "This pen costs 2 JDs". Basically, I would hold the pen in one hand, and pull out two fingers in the other one. I might also make it clearer by showing him a JD so that he'd know that this is the currency I am suggesting. This method is the "observation and pattern matching" method. And yes, it goes beyond the limitation of spoken languages.

Arguably, it is the way language was created, and also the way a baby would get an understanding of the language of his parents. This is the topic I am investigating here: How to we imply ideas when no formal convention has been established?

Using mathematics for communication suffers almost the same problem of "establishing the notation". But guess, this problem is much easily solved in mathematical context than almost anyother context.

And yes, some concept are very ill-defined that they are ambiguous by their own nature.

No_Angel said...

since you have defined the topic that is the focus of this i will wait till i hear the full argument before i go ranting off my slightly coherent comments :)
thanks for replying too
as for barely scratching the surface, one main reason for that (among others) is that you have not touched or mentioned etymology, or euphemism or any of the ideas that deal with the development of language and IMHO play an integral part in your discussion but i guess i was too hasty and you will mention them on later posts

Thanks again for teasing my brain, do appreciate it :)