Monday, May 21, 2012

Halliday v. Chomsky

Halliday is always courteous and circumspect when referring to Chomsky: he only hints at their differences. Nevertheless, it becomes clear from the hints that their theories of language differ radically. Chomsky believes that language is innate: Halliday believes that it is learned. Chomsky believes that all human beings possess a grammatical programme hardwired into the brain: Halliday does not – he believes that grammar mirrors function and is mastered through experience. Chomsky believes in ‘Universal Grammar’: Halliday does not. Chomsky believes that language exists separately from experience: Halliday believes that language only develops through experience of other people and the world around us. Chomsky’s theory is Cartesian – in other words: mind exists separately from matter: Halliday’s ideas are Darwinian – in other words: language and the mind obey the same laws as all other aspects of reality. Chomsky’s theories are metaphysical: Halliday’s are scientific.
From "Michael Halliday at 80: A tribute"

Building on what I mentioned earlier about Dan Everett -- Everett is lately touted as the first linguist to seriously challenge the foundations of Chomskian linguistics, and Halliday's work is extremely unsexy so it's rarely mentioned, but this paragraph shows that most of Everett's criticisms are implicit in Halliday's work. I've said before that I think SFL basically has a marketing problem: all the theory seems incredibly relevant, but then somebody tells you you're not allowed to call things nouns and verbs anymore and it's thanks but no thanks.

Side note: this paragraph also offers a fine example of the discourse I mentioned earlier, as well. Halliday = realistic linguistics = hard science = Darwin. Chomsky = 'theoretical' linguistics = metaphysics (which to a metaphysical naturalist = imaginary magic) = idle speculation = Descartes (who by the way gets an unnecessarily bad rap).

Not that I don't agree with the criticisms of Chomsky's way of explaining UG, but this description sets up a pretty unsustainable binary, if you ask me. And want an answer in fashionable jargon.

I'm blogging a lot so I must be thinking.

Rescuing acceptability

See, the thing is, we have to stop treating competent bilingual English-users are "mere learners." We can't treat their language use or their metalingusitic talk about their language as deficient. Even if that is how they want to see themselves. (There, I said it! I'm an academic asserting that I actually know better than the people whose behavior I am studying! I have crossed over to the dark side!) Modesty about your ability in an L2 is one thing. I am exceedingly modest about my L2 abilities (not without cause, in my opinion). But English is a special case. It is a lingua franca. It is a working language for millions of non-native speakers. It is a language that L2 English teachers function in at a high level.

I believe my Chinese colleagues who teach English at the tertiary level to be highly competent users of English. (I believe many upper-level L2 college students and certainly grad students are highly competent users of English as well.)  Certainly I believe my professors at UBC who speak English as a second language are highly competent users of English. Is there a difference between their English usage/knowledge and mine? Sure, in some abstract way. I am 'closer' to English on a personal level than they are in some ways, though I would argue that many of them are closer to it in a professional way.

Moving acceptability judgments from the domain of theoretical linguistics frees it from accusations that it is not actually measuring what it claims to be measuring -- linguistic/grammatical knowledge at a deep/unconscious mental level.

Moving acceptability judgments from the domain of second language acquisition frees it from the undue burden of having to provide an accurate map of a learner's 'interlinguistic competence' (to use Birdsong's term).

Putting them squarely in the domain of sociolinguistics, language attitudes, and world Englishes, etc. allows AJTs to be considered as another kind of behavioral data, elicited from people who use English in a specific way and a specific context, that can be analysed in a social practice framework.

This AJT data can then be considered in light of the sociocultural realities of English around the world -- insead of in terms of an abstract generative linguistics based on native-speaker intuitions (which is not that relevant to applied linguistics, much of the time), or a gauge of how well someone is learning the 'target language' which should conform to native speaker standards.

Birdsong (1989) on the abuse of acceptability judgments

Theory must account for data; if elicited data are shaky, other data are supplied by introspective fiat. These data conspicuously fit the existing model. If these data are questions by proponents of another model, then the search is on for speakers, be they naive or trained, whose idiolects provide data that fit the first.

He's saying that's a bad thing, FYI. "Introspection" is basically a linguist thinking about it and pronouncing his view as the correct one.

It is in a theory-internal sense that the distinction between 'grammatical' (derived from a grammar or accounted for by a grammar) and 'acceptable' (derived from elicited or introspective evidence) is to be understood.

Birdsong quoting from Levelt et al:

The empirical domain of Chomskian linguistics is linguistic intuitions. The relation between these intuitions and man's capacity for language, however, is highly obscure.

(This does seem pretty nuts.)

Linguistics is a potentially fraudulent enterprise when elicitation data can be manipulated to substantiate pet theoretical analyses.

Friday, May 04, 2012

What language is and does

I don't devote a lot of time to thinking about the fundamental nature of language as a thing in itself, nor the origins of language. (Partly because I am not (a) a linguist or (b) an evolutionary psychologist.) But I do feel like those things are pretty high up in the popular imagination in terms of what "laypeople" (for lack of a better term) want to know about language.

It also seems like the larger discourses of the primacy of the hard sciences, the idea of 'dethroning' the human species as unique in the world, and (maybe this one is reaching too far, but I do think it's growing) the assumed importance of evolutionary explanations for how we do (or even should) go about our business are driving people's interests in language as a cognitive phenomenon that should be studied "scientifically."

I don't by those scare quotes mean it shouldn't be studied that way. I just note that there's not a lot of interest in sociocultural explanations of what language is and how it works in the media. Dan Everett's book Language: The Cultural Tool (which I'm currently reading) has attracted a lot of attention to linguistics and I'm glad that his formula for 'what language is' -- cognition + culture + communication -- includes so much that is sociocultural. And I feel like people will be more likely to accept this argument from him than they would from a sociologist or literary theorist because he couches his arguments, to some extent, in terms that track with the discourses mentioned above.

Of course there's a danger of people seeing that the study of language is a science and thus reifying culture and communication as things that can somehow be pinned down by, say, neurological or biological observation (obviously I don't think they can, and I suspect most people don't), but overall I think the popularity of Everett's work is a good thing for the general understanding of what language does.