Michael Tomasello: Constructing a Language

We are now studying chapter 7 of this heavy tome and have got the hang of what the author is doing. It is primarily opening up a new framework for research into language acquisition, one different from Chomsky’s Transformational Generative model that has dominated Linguistics for the last half century. Transformational Generative Grammar offers a mathematical schema for describing the syntax of language based on the idea that all languages can be described in the same way because they are the product of the innate system which all human beings share.

The new paradigm argues that the structure of language is determined by the social demands made on it and is learned by children from interacting with older members of the tribe. It is based on two capacities of the human being: one, looking for patterns and, two, communicating with another human being by pointing at something in the world. No other ape does this – Tomasello is Co-Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and he should know!

Tomasello convincingly draws attention to the fact that the TG approach makes many ex cathedra statements which are not backed by any evidence. Particularly interesting is the fact that the TG research is almost entirely based on the acquisition of English and the study of other languages, especially non-Indo European ones, throws much of the TG propositions into question. There are fascinating comparisons between English and, for instance, Korean.

We three have been trained in the English (and Australian) school of Linguistics (Systemic Linguistics), which is based on traditional grammar, and has always been sociological in its approach. We all read Halliday’s contribution to the research on language acquisition – Learning How to Mean – and wonder why Tomasello makes no reference to it. Hallidayan grammar has three components at the clause level – the transitivity system, which refers to events in the world; the mood system, which addresses an interlocutor; and the system of cohesion, which links words in sequence. This would seem to be a perfect system to be used as a framework for Tomasello’s research

Our dry academic study of language acquisition is relieved by the delight of observing video clips of my friend’s fourteen-month-old grandson. The latest shows him joyfully exploring the sound system of English with clearly articulated “Golly-golly-golly-wolly-Ickle-Pickle”, the last two “words” being the name of a character in a BBC children’s programme The Night Garden. I have put inverted commas round “words” because words have meaning and Isaac’s grandmother doubts whether even “Dadada” and “mamama” are as yet any more than practice sounds. They do not seem to her to be refer only to his parents. It will be interesting to see when this changes and how it happens.

Tomasello is not alone in leaping from the TG bandwagon on to a sociological alternative. Two other books we have looked at which have moved in the same direction are:

Vyvyan Evans: The Language Myth

Daniel Everett: Language: The Cultural Tool

Comments are closed.