Date: Fri, 14 Jan 2005 11:03:51 -0500 From: Derek Irwin Subject: The Development of Language: Functional Perspectives on Species and Individuals
EDITORS: Williams, Geoff; Lukin, Annabelle TITLE: The Development of Language SUBTITLE: Functional Perspectives on Species and Individuals SERIES: Open Linguistics Series PUBLISHER: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd YEAR: 2004
Derek Irwin, English Programme, York University.
OVERVIEW / INTRODUCTION
This collection presents theories of language development along two temporal scales: the phylogenetic (evolutionary) and the ontogenetic (individual life-span). While these two perspectives are obviously distinct, several of the papers presented here argue convincingly for the inter- relation of theoretical approaches to them. The other axis upon which the approaches depend is that of the material versus the semiotic; it is again the inter-relations between these two which distinguish a unique perspective. Lukin and Williams point out in their introduction, "Emerging Language," that the texts were predominantly conceived through a "'linguistic' orientation...not simply that language is _used_ to make meaning, but that it is _organized_ as a meaning-making system."(1, emphasis in original). This approach, stemming from Halliday's description of "Language as a Social Semiotic"(1978), thus categorizes the broader approach of this collection as Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL). However, the strong influences from such diverse fields as primatology, paleobiology, psychology, and critical pedagogy turn this text into something of a "transdisciplinary conversation" (Halliday: 15 this volume).
As Lukin and Williams also point out (3), because language is simultaneously engaged in both the semiotic and the material, the complement to this position is that language and the brain are the products of 'co-evolution', or 'co-construction' (cited from Deacon 1997; Baltes and Singer 2001; Halliday 2002a; also explored by Matthiessen, this volume). Avenues exploring and arguing for the results of this co-evolutionary process here are primary language development in human children and that of certain primates, as well as classroom learning from the first and second-language perspectives. What ties all of these together is the process which Halliday calls "Learning How to Mean" (1975). In fact, this is the key to the title of the present volume, for unlike other approaches which perceive language as something to be "acquired", the SFL perspective is that language is "developed", although once again the term "co-evolved" could perhaps be used.
Ch. 2 We begin with Halliday's "On Grammar as the Driving Force from Primary to Higher-order Consciousness." This paper continues Halliday's exploration of language development in infants, stemming from his longitudinal study of his son, Nigel in "Learning How to Mean" (1975). In broad strokes, the theory rests on an infant going through three major phases of language development: the first is the creation of an independent communication system termed a "protolanguage," the second is a transition into the adult language, and the third is the wholesale development of the adult language and the abandonment of the protolanguage. Each stage is marked by the use of more advanced linguistic functions, such as "regulatory" or "interactional". One of the more interesting additions in this paper is a discussion on "the nature of the protolanguage in relation to the human body."(23) Language development is tied in with an infant's physical interaction and orientation within his or her environment; in other words, motility engenders advances in the dimensional demands of the semiotic system. This is similarly tied in to our evolution; in the process of learning how to walk, "The moving body has undergone a revolutionary change, leaping over hundreds of generations of biological evolution."(24) By the addition of this "bodily environment" to that of the "ecosocial" and that of the brain, Halliday has lost such hedges as that present in his earlier work: "When we examine how a child learns the linguistic system from the functional standpoint, we get a picture which _could_ be a picture of how human language evolved,"(1978: 53, emphasis in original). This tri-stratal view of the protolanguage in turn sets up for the emergence of grammar within what Halliday calls "the grammar brain" (34), which functions in the ecosocial environment in that "it _construes_ the eco, whereas it _enacts_ the social." (35) Painter later elaborates and emphasizes this point.
Ch. 3 Matthiessen provides us with a mirror image of this theory of co-evolution in "The Evolution of Language: A Systemic Functional Exploration of Phylogenetic Phases." This is based within a "cosmogenetic" perspective, which has led to looking at language as a "particular kind of complex adaptive system in the context of the evolution of complex adaptive human systems in general."(82) In essence, the three phases of infant language development are applied to language evolution; this rests on the notion that the development of registers in language are the indicators of unidirectional change, and that "we can infer aspects of the evolution of language based on the evolution of registers that we can correlate with socio-cultural evolution."(46) What is, of course, the vital basis to this theory is that "each stage of development is functional in its own right; it shows how more complex semiotic patterns develop out of existing ones...and it shows how the human potential to mean increases in the course of development."(48) From this is postulated a model whereby language evolved according to organizational complexity from bistratal to tristratal, based on the emergence of the lexicogrammar within the content- expression planes. This model is then applied against both biological and social evolution, including the phased evolution of the mind based on Mithen's (1996) model. An intriguing figure in light of the next two articles, (3.8: 76) is a result of superimposing the three phases of development onto a figure from Mithin (1996: 12) which looks at the mean brain volume of primates over time. This places the mean brain volume for chimpanzees and gorillas into the same range as that of Australopithecines circa 3 million years ago: the same era where Matthiessen locates our evolutionary protolanguage.
Ch. 4 The next article, by Taglialatela, Savage-Rumbaugh, Rumbaugh, Benson, and Greaves, entitled "Language, Apes and Meaning-Making," works as an argument that the labeling of primate communication as "protolanguage" is not doing justice to the complexity of the communication being employed by some apes in captivity. It does this by exploring a 'Theory of Mind' (ToM), or "the ability to attribute mental states to others" (94), in both human children and non-human primates. While the results from numerous studies are often contradictory in their implications of ToM in non-humans, the authors postulate that this is because the apes involved are actually demonstrating cognitively complex behaviours, and that often negative results can be attributed to the numerous difficulties of cross- species communication. A couple of points are thus important here: have the apes been exposed to language from an early age and in a 'natural' environment? And are the human interactants consistently treating their utterances as "intentional actions in a connected series of events"? (100) The latter question is one which has been embedded in the experimental process itself ever since the cueing of animals such as Clever Hans was revealed (related here from Pfungst 1965). By insisting that there be no chance of cueing in testing the linguistic abilities of non-humans, it can be conclusively shown that bonobos such as Kanzi have impressive levels of English comprehension. However, "there is a very high price to be paid for decontextualization, since it does violence to the way language is learned and used, in both inter-species and intra-species communication."(106) The greatest violence, then, is in the vast under-estimation of non-human species' abilities.
Ch. 5 Thibault's article, "Agency, Individuation and Meaning-making: Reflections on an Episode of Bonobo-Human Interaction," is a close reading of 10 seconds between Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and another bonobo, Panbanisha. The episode in question is one which does not make use of spoken communication, relying instead on the modalities of posture, movement, gaze, and gesture, as they pertain to Panbanisha's use of a lexigram keyboard familiar to both her and Savage-Rumbaugh. Thibault argues here that a move such as pointing is "co-contextualized with other semiotic resources" in the sense that it "is a dialogically organized and coordinated act."(117) Thus, since Panbanisha is operating as a self- organized individual with agency, and Savage-Rumbaugh interprets her as such, this interaction clearly demonstrates an example of meaning-making which goes beyond the merely indexical.
Ch. 6 Painter also demonstrates the importance of the self, albeit that of human infants, in "The 'Interpersonal First' Principle in Child Language Development." Those familiar with SFL will recognize the Interpersonal as one of the metafunctions of language, the other two being the Ideational, with its Logical and Experiential functions, and the Textual. Here Painter reminds us that "we need to understand 'interpersonal' as including not only the 'inter' (between persons) but the 'personal' (attitudinal or emotional) aspects of the term."(138) This is because of the nature of the protolanguage: it is not representing items in the Experiential sense, but rather providing appraisal of experience. An argument in favour of this point of view is that the final function developed in infant language is that of the informative; describing something using only language is a difficult concept, although in adult terms it is by far the most common use. It is therefore falls to reason that "in the SFL development case studies...various grammatical resources within the ideational metafunction were first used by the child in contexts where it was the interpersonal negotiation with the addressee that was principally at stake, not the referential domain itself."(144) The fact that language is typically constructed via dialogue with a linguistically superior caregiver makes "the co-ordination of minds"(148) of the utmost importance, and this is most certainly an interpersonal act.
Ch. 7 Hasan's "The World in Words: Semiotic Mediation, Tenor and Ideology" has a somewhat different strategy, in that it concentrates not on the infant's language development, but on the adult's modeling of language. It is through this that adults "define, at least initially, the child's world, giving it the power of 'reality' and the attraction of new possibilities."(159) It is therefore important to concentrate not on specialized knowledge or processes, but rather on the mundane construction of the entire picture found within everyday talk, again emphasizing the role of dialogue as semiotic mediation. Over time, it becomes obvious that knowledge can be replaced or discarded, "but the mental disposition and the sense of social identity that the adult's discourse develops in the child is something that requires extraordinary circumstances to diverge from its established course."(174) It is this social positioning which leads us into SFL's Tenor context, as well as "an account of the co-genesis of language and society,"(175) itself a kind of microcosm earlier accounts of co-evolution.
Ch. 8 Meares and Sullivan's "Two Forms of Human Language" demonstrates what they believe to be a uniquely human form of identity evolution: all primates have a form of "I", but only the higher forms have a "me" that can be recognized as the self in a reflection, and "only humans, we suppose, have developed the experience of 'myself',"(184) which is the stable self-identity as in the example "I was not myself yesterday." In the same way that children increase the functional capacities of their language in an emulation of evolution, children begin with only Social Speech, and it is through symbolic play that a child develops the capacity to form Inner Speech. Here is created "an embryonic narrative of self, which becomes increasingly complex."(188) From this point on, language is coordinated between the two language forms: for example, stream-of-consciousness literature reflects a heavy leaning towards the characteristics of Inner Speech, while legal documents are likewise biased towards Social Speech. In constructing a more empirically measurable idea of 'self', Meares and Sullivan are hoping to be able to test hypotheses such as a stunted 'self' being evident in borderline personality disorders.
Ch. 9 Gibbons' "Changing the Rules, Changing the Game: A Sociocultural Perspective on Second Language Learning in the Classroom" is an exploration of the unstated 'rules' which in and of themselves define the activity; her analogy is to the game of chess, where if the rules are changed the game can continue, but it is no longer 'chess.'(196-7) Since classroom discourse uses a different and more difficult register than other social contexts, what are the implications in the dialogue of those who are not only trying to operate in the new register, but are also trying to develop proficiency in a second language? What Gibbons finds is that the traditional classroom discourse rules of 'IRF' or 'IRE' (Initiation, Response, Feedback/Evaluation) are subtly altered in a second language setting to enable for difficulties in the specialized vocabulary to make room for equivalency words taken from another register, for example alternating the terms "sticking" and "pushing away" with "attracting" and "repelling" in a discussion of magnets.(203-4) Thus "the kind of register 'meshing' that results in a 'hybrid' register...is a significant factor in the successful development of new academic registers with young second language learners."(206) The 'game' itself has also altered in the sense that it is now designed to not only pass on grade-school science content, but the linguistic knowledge necessary to discuss said content.
Ch. 10 Butt's "How Our Meanings Change: School Contexts and Semantic Evolution" examines the increasing semantic complexity which the apprenticeship of school reinforces on a path to critical abstraction. In order to do this, abstractions must not only be "'naturalized' into a recognizable type of _local_ knowledge,"(236, emphasis in original) but the workings of the system must be opened so that the system itself is apparent. Thus the work of the teacher is not the task of filling empty vessels, but simultaneously displacing previous assumptions as well as demonstrating the 'evolutionary' process itself: our 'cultural DNA'.
Ch. 11 A blueprint for achieving Butt's classroom goal can be found in Williams' "Ontogenesis and Grammatics: Functions of Metalanguage in Pedagogical Discourse," which takes a closer look at the potential use of self-reflexivity in the language system in schools, 'grammatics' being to grammar what 'linguistics' is to language (from Halliday 2002b: 385-6). Williams follows Vygotsky's (1986) argument that although the study of grammar is somewhat useless, it nevertheless contributes to the mental development of the student. He then explores how SFL can introduce concepts of grammatics without recourse to simple lists of word classes. The basis is that "children require intellectual tools which enable them literally to see grammatical features in relation to meaning-making practices."(263) This project is ultimately important as social semiotics continues to evolve to greater levels of complexity, hence the ontogenesis of these abstract relations is necessary for students to be able to operate effectively within the ecosocial environment.
The perspectives explored in this book make for a theoretically fascinating read. I was particularly interested in Matthiessen's direct comparison between ontogenesis and phylogenesis; it is always of fundamental interest in the field to ask where language comes from, not only within the individual, but also in the social and evolutionary sense. Mattheissen's "big picture", while impossible to prove or disprove, is quite convincing due to the demonstrated parallels of language taken alongside the biological and cultural evolution of the human animal.
Looking back to how we were, it is striking that others still may be so; it is therefore striking to consider the abilities of non-human primates operating in human languages. Taglialatela et al continue to challenge notions that there is some arbitrary 'great divide' between the human and non-human worlds, providing an exhaustive number of critically-evaluated studies as well as first-hand experience. It is worth noting here how new the human-bonobo culture actually is, and it is incredibly exciting to consider where it still may go; as they point out, it is no longer a question of _if_ apes have language, but to what extent symbolic systems are used. (106) By taking an approach in which it is assumed a bonobo is using a symbolic system, Thibault readily finds a wealth of examples within a microscopic moment of interaction. This does call into question the concept of Meares and Sullivan that only humans have a conception of a base self ("myself"); I suspect that bonobos which have been acculturated into human society will demonstrate some form of this entity, although it would be difficult to test for. I look forward to further work using the Theory of Mind to help settle this question.
The work within pedagogy is similarly interesting in its revelation of the potential of children to apprehend metalinguistic systems. I was especially struck by Williams' examples of the discussions a basis in SFL can spur within a class of 11 year-olds; not only do they quickly learn and apply quite sophisticated concepts, but the fact that it is all done through 'play' in language leads to some very amusing moments, such as the child who deliberately identifies the multi-word Process 'throw up' as a 'reprocess.'(258)
Overall, this text provides stimulating perspectives on language origins and development. Anyone interested in these issues from a functional perspective will find "The Development of Language" an excellent read.
Baltes, P. B. and Singer, T. (2001) "Plasticity and the Ageing Mind: an Exemplar of the Bio-cultural Orchestration of Brain and Behaviour." European Review 9.1, 59-76.
Deacon, T. (1997) The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Human Brain. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press.
Halliday, M. A. K (2002a) "Meanings, Wording and Context: Modeling the 'Language Brain'." Paper delivered to Brain Sciences Institute, RIKEN, Tokyo, 2002.
---------- (2002b) "On Grammar and Grammatics," in On Grammar: Volume 1 of the Collected Works of M.A.K. Halliday, ed J.J. Webster. London: Continuum.
---------- (1978). Language as a Social Semiotic: the Social Interpretation of Language and Meaning. London: Edward Arnold.
---------- (1975). Learning How To Mean - Explorations in the Development of Language. London: Edward Arnold.
Mithen, S. (1996). The Prehistory of Mind: a Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science. London: Thames and Hudson.
Pfungst, O. (1965). Clever Hans, The Horse of Mr. Von Osten. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1986) Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Derek Irwin is a PhD candidate at York University, Toronto. His dissertation is on First Nations' loan words in early Canadian literature from an SFL perspective. Theoretical interests also include infant language development, ESL learning strategies, multi-modal expression planes, and human-bonobo language interaction.