LINGUIST List 11.2095

Sun Oct 1 2000

Disc: Review Green

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Mike Maxwell, Re: 11.2092, Disc: Review Green
  2. Ronald Sheen, Re: 11.2092, Disc: Review Green
  3. Dan Moonhawk Alford, Re: 11.2076, Disc: Review of Green

Message 1: Re: 11.2092, Disc: Review Green

Date: Sat, 30 Sep 2000 14:51:29 -0400
From: Mike Maxwell <>
Subject: Re: 11.2092, Disc: Review Green

In 11.2092, Joybrato Mukherjee writes:

>...the L1 speaker of English has a nativelike competence
>not because he/she uses whatever is possible, but rather
>because he/she uses what is probable, i.e. what is frequent.

Competency was never defined by Chomsky (or others of the same persuasion)
in terms of native speaker _use_, but in terms of native speaker

To make an analogy: the math I learned in school allows me to manipulate
huge numbers, using algorithms that work for any number of digits. But if
someone looked over my shoulder on a day-to-day basis, when I was balancing
my checkbook for example, they would find that I only work with (alas!) far
smaller numbers, and they would never see me use some of the other
techniques I learned and still know (scientific notation, algebra,
calculus...). Usage =\= knowledge.

Mukherjee quotes Miller/Weinert (1998: 403) as saying:
>What is under attack is the nature of competence. The
>Chomskyan notion is based on written language...

This is not the place to argue against something someone else has said, and
which is only quoted in part in Mukherjee's reply, but...what is the basis
for the claim that the "Chomskyan" notion of competence is based on the
written language? This strikes me as bizarre.

>...whereas what children learn in the first five years is
>informal spoken language, with different and simpler syntax,
>simpler morphology, and simpler vocabulary...

Well, suppose this is true: suppose children really are exposed only to
simpler syntax. And yet we come to have reasonably uniform acceptability
judgements (with variations in some interesting cases). What better
evidence could we ask for that our syntactic competence is _not_ based
simply on what we hear?!

BTW, I do believe there is room for disagreement about competence in areas
other than syntax. In phonology, for example, it is not at all clear to me
that rules like velar softening (English) are "real" (synchronically), and
the words that undergo it are not simply memorized. Syntax is different,
because we demonstrably have intuitions that go far beyond what we could
have memorized. Mukherjee also quotes Gross (1979: 861, 871) as saying:

>The generative approach [...] has arrived at a state in which
>linguistic research based on systematic empirical work has
>been dismissed as irrelevant.

Some generative linguists in non-MIT theories have remarked on this
tendency, more recently, and I tend to be sympathetic to them. At issue is
the question of observational adequacy vs. descriptive or explanatory
adequacy. That is, these critics believe MIT linguists have started
ignoring some of the relevant data (perhaps relegating it to the so-called
"periphery"). There probably needs to be some selection of data (Newton's
theory of motion, for example, did not cover biological growth, a kind of
motion which was covered by Aristotle's theory of motion); at issue is how
one selects that data. But I don't think either side in this
generative-internal debate would say that corpora are all we need, or even

One last comment:
>I know some Dutch people in the neighbourhood whose
>knowledge of German is, so far as I can judge, nativelike.
>This holds for lexico-grammar, stylistic appropriateness,
>pronunciation and even intonation. All of them learned
>German as a foreign language at school...

But what do native speakers of German say? Besides, from what (little) I
know of German, there is so much German-internal (dialectal) variation that
I wouldn't be surprised if even native speakers of German passed off these
Dutch people's accents as some other dialect of German.

 Mike Maxwell
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Message 2: Re: 11.2092, Disc: Review Green

Date: Sat, 30 Sep 2000 17:01:35 -0400
From: Ronald Sheen <Ronald_SheenUQTR.UQuebec.CA>
Subject: Re: 11.2092, Disc: Review Green

J.Mukherjee (JM) writes:

>Apparently I must have stirred a viper's nest. On the one hand, I find the
>tone of some parts of the criticism a bit annoying, to say the least.

**This is surprising. I found nothing in the responses to be worthy of
being characterized as having any venom. And rather than being annoyed, JM
might be happy to see his review arousing so much interest. After all, the
list reviews seldom meet the aims of the list editors:" We expect these
discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book
discussed is cordially invited to join in." What has transpired has proven
to be a welcome change.

As to the substance of JM's response with regards to my own particular
interest: the putative L1/L2 equivalence in classroom foreign/second
language learning, I find some ambiguity in his position. He stated early

1) There is no reason to believe that learning the mother tongue and
learning a foreign language are fundamentally and by definition different.

**In his present clarification, he states:

2) To begin with, the concept of native competence seems to play a central
>role. In other words: is the difference between a native speaker of English
>and someone who has learned English as a foreign language a fundamental one?
>This automatically raises the question if a L2 learner of English can ever
>achieve nativelike competence. From the Chomskyan point of view (and/or on
>the basis of regarding L1, but not L2, as a matter of "prewired
>imprinting"), the answer to the first question would be yes and to the
>second one no.

**This raises the following obvious question (but one not without an answer
which JM may care to provide):

If the learning process is fundmentally the same, what explains the
basically same result of first language acquisiton and the vast range of
results of SLA? If his response entails ascribing the difference to the
limited classroom time, he will have to account for the Canadian Immersion

JM further adds:

3) However,these are all external factors, and I guess that the internal, mental
procedure of learning a language, be it L1 or FL, is not fundamentally
different. The practical conclusion I draw from the multitude of
restrictions in the foreign language classroom is that time is far too
precious and should, therefore, not be wasted on non-communicative

**This raises yet one more question. Does JM still accept the validity of
Krashen's input hypothesis ie that exposure to comprehensible input alone
will trigger the acquisition of accurate grammatical competence. If he
does, I'd appreciate his citing the evidentiary support and his arguments
in rebuttal of the findings which demonstrate that not wasting time on
non-communicative activities (ie providing grammatical instruction) results
in marked grammatical inaccuracy in oral production. (The Canadian
Immersion findings, for example.)

Ron Sheen, U of Quebec in Trois Rivieres, Canada.

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Message 3: Re: 11.2076, Disc: Review of Green

Date: Sat, 30 Sep 2000 18:03:19 -0700 (PDT)
From: Dan Moonhawk Alford <>
Subject: Re: 11.2076, Disc: Review of Green

On Fri, 29 Sep 2000, xx wrote:

> > -------------------------------- Message 4 -------------------------------
> >
> > Date: Thu, 28 Sep 2000 09:54:47 -0700 (PDT)
> > From: Dan Moonhawk Alford <>
> > Subject: Re: 11.2052, Disc: Re: Review of Green
> > May I point out, briefly ;-), the role of meaning here. To our lasting
> > professional discomfort, parents universally fail to teach their children
> > to pay attention to only verbal meaning, so they just naturally collect
> > meaning from all over the place -- the tone in mom's voice when she calls
> > you and whether she uses one, two, or all three of your names, body
> > posture, facial expressions, etc.
> JLG: I am sorry, Dan, here we are again at it!

No need for that, since I will take this otherwise than being "at it". ;-)
It is fully mine to be sorry since my attempt at brevity -- which I shall
not abandon! -- seemingly torpedoed my attempt at clarity. :-( 

> I can't understand what you mean by "collecting meaning from all over the
> place". I wasn't talking about meaning, but about human spoken languages
> (i.e., in my terminology, IDIOMAS) and the way they get fixed in babies
> memory. 

As was I. How about the way we teach our babies "Hot!" -- is it one word
among many, like "ball" and "bed"? Hardly. It's invested with emotion
suggesting danger and physical movements of pulling the hand away in order
to get the child to understand the "seriousness to survival" meaning of
that word. We engage more brains into the acquisition process. Along with
many words there's an emotional tone/tune ALSO expressing whether it's
good or bad for the child. This is what I meant by picking up meanings
from all over: different levels of meaning, including emotional. Some
believe that memories are stored first by emotions, for instance. So an
emotional tone demonstrably helps "fix" the word and concept in the baby's
memory, yet that seemingly is "para-linguistic," not really "language."
> > A proposal: given that chimps use body language, facial expressions, and
> > emotional tones to convey meaning, much as we do, and since in doing them
> > they embody specific physical behavior with meaning, what if we took THOSE
> > as universal for humans, or even primates, and go from there?
> JLG: Why should we? Chimps, to my knowledge, have enormousl difficulty, not
> only in giving lectures, but also in speaking simple words. You can train
> them to make their representations public with some types of behaviour,
> that's true. But, what does that bear on the issue I am trying to solve?

A fair question, showing again how brevity conquered my clarity. 

Why should we? We have a primate brain with extensive modification. The
modification didn't do away with tried and true cognitive subsystems, only
added to and reintegrated them. I only ask that we consider what we share
with them in order to see more clearly how we differ from them. 

We share brainwave levels and brains with them as well as have a level and
functional brain they lack. We share body language, emotional tunes/tones,
and simple utterances "words"/calls) with them, and differ by complex

There are four accepted brainwave levels in standard use, each of which
measures specific brain activity. Activity measured corresponds with the
functions of different brains (i.e., emotions are processed using theta
waves and in the limbic region), again numbering four. Piaget discusses
four developmental levels of THINKING which correspond to brainwave levels
and evolutionary brains. I suggest that if we took the position that
thinking happens in diverse languages -- form/meaning systems -- in an
integrative manner, maybe up to three operating simultaneously, we might
thereby stake out new territories where no linguist has gone before,
perhaps also gaining a greater understanding of the berbal/nonverbal
languages by which we navigate our lives. 

> >DM: The generative attitude, promising as it was originally, promoted a
> > form-first paradigm which is currently unbalanced and in need of a
> > complementary meaning-first paradigm.
> JLG: This might well be. But you see, the form first paradigm, as you call
> it, is the ONLY means we have to describe those mental processes that happen
> in us for the time being. It does not necessarily mean that the processes
> ARE formal, but only that we describe them so. ...

A thousand pardons I ask for sending you down a fruitless pear path!
Brevity outstripped my clarity again. I thought I was restating a
truism. ;-) 

"Minimal pear" -- oops, "pair"! -- is the name for perhaps the most
important tool in our professional toolbox, whether on the phonological,
morphological, syntactic, semantic, pragmatic, or any other level of
linguistics. We find a pair like "pair/pear" as forms in our data, maybe
as [pAEr], and then resort to "meaning" to disambiguate the forms. This
illustrates what I'm calling the form-first approach ("meaning as last
resort") and -- like you -- I find nothing at all wrong with it per se. It
is only at the metalevel of the history of ideas that I forsee dead ends
and ultimate irrelevancy in its unbalanced use.

A complementary meaning-first approach might look, AS WELL, at the
integrative and coherent aspects of meaning which surround the utterance
like an onion-layered field. The word is embodied as well as linguistic,
as I tried to show with the word "Hot!" as we teach it. A meaning-first
approach would look at all the behaviors, not simply the word, that we
convey and see how they cohere. Non-coherence (a wink or sarcastic tone
negating the message "What a winner!") modifies the verbal meanings, in
minimal pair fashion.

Yes, the form-first is the only proven approach we have. Shall we be
content with that? Is there more we can be doing? I'm afraid my
metatheoretical point was taken as condemnation or misunderstanding of
current linguistics, when all I meant to do was point a possible future
direction for the discipline. Some people see no problems, and thus all I
say moot, going from previous unrelated posts.
> In any case, it's always a pleasure to hear from you again and I mean
> that!

And you. I enjoy your thoughts.

warm regards, moonhawk
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