LINGUIST List 11.2096

Sun Oct 1 2000

Disc: Review Green

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. jose luis guijarro, RE: 11.2092, Disc: Review Green

Message 1: RE: 11.2092, Disc: Review Green

Date: Sun, 1 Oct 2000 19:05:07 +0200
From: jose luis guijarro <>
Subject: RE: 11.2092, Disc: Review Green

Hola, buenas!>

On Sat, 30 Sep 2000 17:49:46 +0200
wrote on the
Subject: Disc: Review Green

> apparently I must have stirred a viper's nest. (...)

JLG: It's not your fault, really. As Rita Hayworth sang in Gilda "Put the
blame on me, man". It was me who started the debate.

>JM: (...) On the one hand, I find the
> tone of some parts of the criticism a bit annoying, to say the least. On
> other hand, I must admit that not all of my remarks were sufficiently
> explicit and to the point. Anyway, to make up for this shortcoming, and to
> hopefully tone down the discussion, I will try to concentrate on those
> arguments which I consider most important (and deliberately refrain from
> dissecting specific passages of previous contributions to the current
> discussion).

JLG: One of the features of debates is that people do not agree, and at
times get a bit too involved in them. But it isn't a bad thing --at least
from my point of view. On the contrary, I think that getting people involved
makes livelier debates. And lively debates make one think, which is the
point, or is it? Perhaps my problem is that I like "vipers".

>JM: (...) This automatically raises the question if a L2 learner of
English can ever
> achieve nativelike competence.

JLG: I don't know about you, naturally. But I can assure you that my
question was not meant to be that one. May I repeat it again? What I meant
was that, according to the way I interpret the current chomskyan (or, if you
prefer, Platonist) view of Linguistics, there are strong reasons to suppose
that acquiring a second language is not a modular process of the fodorian
kind (which, tipically, must be prewired, learned according to a similar
pattern and at a special time, following the same temporal course, etc).

Of course there are people that master more than one language in nativelike
fashion, whatever that is. Either, because they did learn it AT THE SAME
TIME as they learned their mother tongue, either because they are especially
endowed with that ability. We have writers like the native speaker of
Rumanian that Ionesco was who is a French classic in Literature, or Joseph
Conrad, and many more.

The PROBLEM here for me is that:

(1) Everybody is able to speak her/his own mother tongue in nativelike

(2) Very few people are able to speak other languages in nativelike fashion.
An those that do indeed speak other languages, like, say, my German,
English and French colleagues at the University who live in Spain, are
married to Spaniards, have Spanish kids, and interact in Spanish most of
their lives, have still problems in showing nativelike competence in Spanish
in various degrees.

I haven't got the solution to that problem, of course. But my contention was
that a real scientific research on that specific question needs to tackle a
lot more than a stimulus-response type of theory, based on the interactions
that take place in human communication.


(1) I do not deny that communication is a good way to fix linguistic
features of a second language in our minds. But I can't begin to understand
why a conscious learning (pedagocically organised features, by rote
learning, etc.) of some of those features must be banned as useless. It
seems to me that it is, as far as I am able to understand the matter,
ANOTHER possible way to fix them darned elements of a second language. Are
there really REASONS (and not dogmas) to believe otherwise? This is what I
would like to know.

(2) On the other hand, in the imprinting of a first language (at the given
time, with the given sequence, etc.) the conscious learning of linguitic
elements DOES NOT play any rol. The data that babies hear are not organised
in pedagogic fashion. According to Steven Pinker, kids of parents who speak
a pidgin language, CREATE a new language on their own, that we call creole.
One may be a believer in a mind with general learning capacities and not
specific imprintable modules. But, if so, one should be able to come up with
explanations about those facts and many others. As far as I am concerned,
none of the arguments of the aristotelians (i.e., mind-as-a-blank-slate)
seem to face these hard facts and explain them.

(3) I find the corpus based research a very interesting taxonomist
endeavour. My question is again: In what sense does this help people to
learn L2? Not in nativelike fashion, mind you, but simply LEARN it so that
one can use it with foreignlike competence, like I do in English. Nobody
ever taught me using that corpus based approach. And although my English is
far from perfect, here I am debating with you native English speakers. What
is the PROVEN good a corpus based approach will achieve? Can somebody answer
this very simple question in a simple manner?

>JM: We do not know today
> whether the neural correlates of language differ between the native
> use and the foreign language use or not. Also, neurobiological studies
> provide contradictory data with regard to another Chomskyan assumption,
> namely the autonomy of syntax (cf. e.g. Frazier/Fodor 1978 and Tannenhaus
> al. 1995).

JLG: Well, at least you aknowledge that we haven't got a clue. That's the
way to begin researching, of course. One problem, though is that, for the
time being, neurobiological studies don't seem to me to be really relevant
to our debate. It is as if, computer programmers were debating the value of,
say, LINUS and MICROSOFT and in came a computer engineer who pretended to
enter the debate by explaining the electronical organization of chips. I am
sure his ideas had a bearing on the programs, of course. After all, it is
clear that you cannot run MICROSOFT on your microwaves. But how relevant
would that be in the debate in question?

As to the question of syntax first, I show my students the following string
of wellknown words and ask them to tell me what they mean. If they are not
able to organyse them syntactically, they are of course unable to tell me.
Here is the string. Now you try:


In fact, you can try two moves: (1) understand the meaning and (2) rewrite
the whole chain as I did, from memory. You can only do both if you organise
your well known lexical elements into a sytactic pattern. (If somebody wants
the solution, just e�mail me and you will get it in no time).

>JM: (...) some twenty years ago Gross (1979: 861, 871) has already
described this
> problem about generativism "which is explicitly motivated by a desire to
> treat linguistics as an abstract level of argumentation [...]. The
> generative approach [...] has arrived at a state in which linguistic
> research based on systematic empirical work has been dismissed as
> irrelevant."

JLG: I think that Gross idea (which is almost 20 years old) was not
adequate. Let me quote a non-chomskyan cognitivist (i.e, neo-connectionist)
anthropologist, Edwin Hutchins who (in his book _Cognition in the Wild_ MIT
1995: 359-360) has this to say:

 "The idea of a formal system is that there. is some world of phenomena, and
some way to encode the phenomena as symbols. The symbols are manipulated by
references to their form only. We do not interpret the meanings of the
symbols while they are being manipulated. The manipulation of the symbols
results in some other symbolic expression. Finally, we may interpret a newly
created string of symbols as meaning something about the world of phenomena.
(...) If we built the right formal system, we could now describe states of
affairs in the world that would have been impossible or impractical to
observe directly.(...) I consider mastery of formal systems to be the key to
modern civilization. This is a very, very powerful idea".

As you know, one of the chomskyan levels of adequacy (the second one,
namely) was the descriptive. As far as I know, humankind has not yet found a
better way to describe world phenomena as this formal one. I can't see why
language may not be described that way as well without losing its global
essence (or whichever term one wishes to interpret it with). So this
recurring criticism... AFTER 20 years!!!... seems to be a little out of the
scientific world.

>JM: (...) On this basis, it is
> worth-assuming that it is not the autonomous knowledge of grammatical
> which provides a set of rules for infinite language use, but that grammar
> a generalization of language use: if the quantity (and quality) of
> to authentic language use increases, the grammatical correctness (and
> stylistic appropriateness) of such generalizations increases, too.

JLG: Of course! It is obvious. But, as I hope to have made clear, this is
not, repeat NOT, my contention.

>JM: By the way, this view of grammar (and, accordingly, the inductive
> of grammar) is not dreamed up all by myself and has also entered the
> curriculum in Germany: (...)

JLG: Precisely! That's the reason of my astonishment. That it has become a
contagious idea that extends all over the place. What I intended was to show
that it didn't have any specific theoretical PROVEN value as a unique

>JM: As a matter of fact,
> grammar exercises such as pattern drills and other "traditional" methods
> necessary, but they do not provide the methodological framework, but
> crutches which teachers and students alike should do without as soon as
> possible. Still, even such exercises should always be of minimal
> communicative value. Learning something "by rote" is useless in my view
> (and, by the way, not in line with the curriculum) if this term is to
> to the process in which "you learn it by repeating it without thinking or
> trying to understand" (COBUILD 1995: 1447).

JLG: The above assertions are what I would like to see proven. It may be
wishful thinking, as far as it goes.

>JM: The Chomskyan notion is based on written language, whereas what
> children learn in the first five years is informal spoken language, with
> different and simpler syntax, simpler morphology, and simpler vocabulary."

JLG: You must be kidding! Don't you remember Chomsky's wife little book _The
acquisition of Syntax by children_ ? How can one say things like these which
are patently untrue?

> Hopefully, these remarks will somewhat de-emotionalize the discussion (and
> will cause no further "trepidation").

JLG: Have they? I enjoyed participating in the debate, anyway.


Jose Luis Guijarro Morales
Facultad de Filosofia y Letras
Avda. Gomez Ulla, 1
11003 Cadiz (Espa�a)
Tel. +34 956 015526
Fax. +34 956 015501
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue