LINGUIST List 3.268

Thu 19 Mar 1992

Disc: Genetic Language Impairment and The Gopnik Controversy

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  1. INMG000, genetic language impairment

Message 1: genetic language impairment

Date: Thu, 19 Mar 92 09:35:44 ESgenetic language impairment
From: INMG000 <>
Subject: genetic language impairment

 Subject: The Gopnik controversy: science and silliness

It is gratifying, in a way, to see some of the issues raised by my work
so widely discussed. However, it is a bit strange to see some of our
colleagues, who would chastise a student for using a media report as an
academic source do so themselves. The problem is that news bites nec-
essarily significantly oversimplify both the question and the answer,
and using them as sources can lead to silly arguments. Case in point:
that what we are seeing in this data is "dialect differences". If the
correspondants had even glanced at the original reports they would see
that all of the subjects in the study, the normals as well as the
language impaired subjects, come from the same extended family from the
same neighborhood in the same city. Now if someone can tell me how nine
siblings raised together in the same household can end up with signifi-
cantly different "dialects" I would be glad to consider the "different
dialect" hypothesis as a potential explanation.

 (For those who are interested in this question but do not have the
time or inclination to pour over the scientific papers there will be a
more detailed media report on CBC's "Quirks and Quarks"on Saturday,
March 21 at noon that provides a more comprehensive and scientific
discussion of the issues.)

I thank Joe Stemberger for clarifyingthe difference between what I say
and what the media report. The issue that he raises about the role of
auditory perception or salience as a potential explanatory model is one
that I have considered carefully and written on at length. Briefly
speaking a wide range of data appear to not be accountable for by any
such hypothesis. One example (among very many)

In a test that required subjects to rate the acceptability of sentences
presented to them in a printed booklet the sentence:
 He was very happy last week when he was first.
was rated at the very top of the scale by both the language impaired and
the normal subjects. The sentence:
 He was very happy last week when he is first.
was rated as completely unacceptable by the normals but was found to be
acceptable by the language impaired subjects.
It is hard to see how a written form of a suppletive verb can get
confused because of auditory "salience" (even if we had a clear defini-
tion of "salience")

Mabel Rice is absolutely right that this is a complicated problem. It
will only be understood by carefully collecting significant data,
providing linguistically principled analyses of this data, proposing
explanatory models and then testing these models against other data
and other models and abandoning them when they do not work. The aim
of the scientific enterprise is not to be absolutely right, that is not
ever possible, but merely to be righter than you were before (Gopnik
1992 knows, probably better than most,that the Gopnik, 1990 explanation
is only partially right. A new model is in the works.) The fact that
parts of language are associated with a single dominant gene provides
us with a natural experiment to probe the question of the precise
properties of the innate component of language. I look forward to parti
cipating in the cooperative scientific enterprise which will lead us to
understand the nature of this deficit.
M. Gopnik
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