Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Some thoughts on memory, analogy and innate grammar

Lately I've been thinking a lot about the mainstream approach to linguistic inquiry, specifically about the idea of innate grammar. Although it was the idea of innate grammar that got me interested in linguistics in the first place, and although I think it a beautiful, elegant, and startling theory, I'm not so sure it's at all true. Why? The reasons are vague and unscientific, but warrant further research. And by "research" I mean I should hunt around for what others have to say about this, because I haven't tried that hard yet! So, some reasons:

1. I'm teaching ESL to mostly Asian students. I've had some students complain that as their English improves their native language weakens. This is mostly vocabulary loss, but I've heard complaints about grammar changes as well. Under my understanding of the current mainstream theory, this should be impossible. Once the parameters are set (or however it's thought about these days) they should be set for good.

2. The longer teachers have been teaching, the worse their English gets. One teacher in particular, who's been teaching for about five years, frequently leaves out articles from noun phrases and drops objects for obligatorily transitive verbs. These are, I would say, two of the three most noticeable and common errors that even our most advanced students make. The errors in teachers' English is clearly entirely the result of exposure to Asian ESL English.

3. The third of the three most common advanced student errors is using the wrong preposition in phrasal verbs and other verbs and nouns that require prepositions to link an object. E.g. *I gave it for my friend. Often these prepositions have no "logical" connection to their use. I've noticed from reading older novels that these "meaningless' prepositions change rapidly. Couldn't this be because they are connected by memory, not grammar?

4. Adverbs. And marginal sentences in general. There are many adverbs that can be in many places in the sentence. Most interestingly, there are often marginal places as well as good and bad places. Doesn't this sound like the meaning is okay, but we just don't normally say it that way so it sounds odd? E.g. (my judgements):

* Quickly the enemy will have destroyed the village.
?? The enemy quickly will have destroyed the village.
? The enemy will quickly have destroyed the village.
The enemy will have quickly destroyed the village.
* The enemy will have destroyed quickly the village.
The enemy will have destroyed the village quickly.

5. Language change. It should be nearly impossible to language as a whole to change under (my understanding of) the current model. Change can only come as a result of the child's error in hearing or understanding. How can it be transmitted to the community as a whole? How could young working class women lead change if grammar is set in infancy? If, on the other hand, grammar is linked to familiarity, change might be driven by what we hear around us as adults.

6. I can mimic accents. Well, I'm not very good at it, but some people are. Point being, the sounds we have access to are not set in stone, even in our native languages.

At the advice of one Matt Tucker, I'm going to read some Exemplar Theory and perhaps come back with something less hand-waving. For now, just some thoughts.