Why languages can’t be learned

One of the most basic, essentially undisputed scientific facts about language — and the one that tends to get the most interest from laypeople — is that while learning a foreign language as an adult is very difficult, children learn their native languages with as much ease and proficiency as they learn to walk. This has led researchers such as Steven Pinker to call language learning an “instinct.” In fact, this “instinct” is more than remarkable — it’s miraculous. On careful reflection it seems impossible to learn even just a single word in any language, much less an entire vocabulary (and thus figuring out how we nonetheless all learned a language is a major area of research).

The paradox goes back to W. V. O. Quine (who, I’m proud to say, is a fellow Obie), who suggested this thought experiment: Suppose you are an anthropologist trying to learn the language of a new, previously undiscovered tribe. You are out in the field with a member of the tribe. Suddenly, a rabbit runs by. The tribesperson points and says, “Gavagai!”

What do you make of this? Most of us assume that “gavagai” means “rabbit,” but consider the possibilities: “white,” “moving whiteness,” “Lo, food”, “Let’s go hunting”, or even “there will be a storm tonight” (suppose this tribesperson is very superstitious). Of course, there are even more exotic possibilities: “Lo, a momentary rabbit-stage” or “Lo, undetached rabbit parts.” Upon reflection, there are an infinite number of possibilities. Upon further reflection (trust me on this), you could never winnow away the possibilites and arrive at the meaning of “gavagai” … that is, never unless you are making some assumptions about what the tribesman could mean (that is, if you assume definitions involving undetached rabbit parts are too unlikely to even consider).

Quine offered this thought experiment in a discussion about translation, but it clearly applies to the problems faced by any infant. To make matters worse, people rarely name objects in isolation — parents don’t say “bunny,” they say “Look, see the bunny?” or “Look at that bunny go!”

Generally, it should be very clear that infants could not learn a language if they didn’t make certain assumptions about which words meant what. One of the major areas of modern psycholinguistics is figuring out what those assumptions are and where do they come from (that is, are they innate or are they learned?).

Long-time readers know that the major focus of my research is on how people resolve ambiguity in language. My first web-based experiment on this topic has been running for a while. Last week I posted a new experiment. Participants hear sentences like “Show me the dax” and try to guess which of several new objects might be the “dax.” As usual, I can’t say much about the purpose of the experiment while it’s still running, but participants who finish the experiment will get an explanation of the experiment and also will get to see their own results. You can try it by clicking here.


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