Friday, September 19, 2008

Awaking the Dead Hebrew, Part I

My friend Linda speaks Hebrew with her kids everyday even though her mother tongue is American English and she grew up bilingual English / Indonesian. They live in Israel, where her husband, the kids' daddy, grew up. They only speak English when they have to.

The conventional wisdom about language learning is that kids do it so much more naturally than adults do post-puberty. "Linda's husband and kids acquired Hebrew. Linda had to get it differently, with much more of a struggle." But there are language theorists who believe (following Aristotle's logic) that language is innate and therefore naturally awakes in any adult as well as any child. Noam Chomsky with his binary "competence / performance" is one such theorist; and the proto-Chomskian Steven Krashen, likewise, has this logical separation "acquisition / learning."

The main problem with Chomsky's construct of language as innate competence that is awaked in performance is that he has to abstract just what "competence" looks like. All the world ever sees or hears is a person's sloppy writing or ever-imperfect speech. Krashen has to do the same thing; except he abstracts the ostensibly natural order of acquisition that should be monitored lest faulty learning gets in the way. What makes Chomsky's and Krashen's ideal Platonism so Aristotelian in reality is that Noam, Steven, and Aristotle all believe that language is the property of a homo sapien and not any other species of animal--Aristotle takes it a step further and says only members of the super race, the Athenian style Greek men, actually speak right and can write correctly; all the others are plant-like (such as females) or are like lesser animals (such as BarBarian men and the men who are Soloi, who mess up the Greek grammar).

Fascinatingly, ironically, even though Noam, Steven, and Aristotle say that this is all natural-born stuff, they feel like they have to write books on it and give lectures on it and teach it to their students who cannot acquire it so naturally as they have. (There are other ways of learning that these three men won't touch; I'll look at them in another post soon. Here's a quick peek at them for those of you who like to read ahead. I'll try to translate some of the ideas in the linked article in less academic English.)

For Linda's kids and husband, native speakers of Hebrew in Israel, there's this other thing: when they go to the museum in Jerusalem and try to read the ancient Hebrew scrolls, they become as non-native as she is. Sure, every one of them can more or less recognize the letters and pronounce them rather fluently. There's just this question of whether they really are awake to the now-dead language.

I say they can be more awake to ancient Hebrew, and that they can awaken it. In another post soon, I'll suggest some of the ways.

HT David Ker for getting us to think about "Learning Hebrew Backwards."


David Ker said...

I have to tell you I was nervous about listing the conventional platitudes about lang. acq. when I knew you'd be reading. But I think the inverted paradigm is helpful in thinking about how to attack the project.

I am finding the transliterations to be particularly not helpful so I think I have to learn the Hebrew alphabet at this point just to stop creating false associations with the language I've already mastered.

What's fun for me about this project is that I'm doing it for fun. I don't have any rush. I'm not being tested. So why not do something different?

mike said...

The problem that I have with articles like the one you linked to was that it shows very a little awareness of Generative Grammar beyond Chomsky. They're all lumped together - rather unfairly.

J. K. Gayle said...

As I commented at your blog, I love your "fun" approach. We preach the FISH Philosophy over here, and I'll say more about that soon, I think.

Definitely there's Generative Grammar beyond Chomsky (let's call it GGbC): It's been that Minimalist stuff since the early 90s--nothing new or less abstract for nearly 2 whole long decades. The author of the article you object to (publishing it in the late 90s), has another in which he gets at GGbC. He writes fairly recently:

"Meanwhile, ‘mainstream linguistics’ seems to me curiously retrograde in guarding its borders
by steadily narrowing its quest from ‘language studied in and for itself’, ‘standing apart from
everything else’ (Saussure 1966 [1916]: 13, 232) down to the ‘competence’ of ‘ideal
speaker-hearer in a completely homogeneous speech-community’ (Chomsky 1965:3),
logically terminating in ‘minimalism’ (see now Seuren 2004), whose very title defiantly
announces its intention to address and explain as little as possible
(my emphasis)

mike aubrey said...

Joan Bresnan was working on LFG since the 70s and Van Valin and his Role & Reference Grammar was in the early-ish 80's. They're both Generative - just not transformative...

But I hear you.