Keeping it Small and Simple

2008.03.16

Noam Chomsky on human language learning

Filed under: Anarchism, Linguistics — Tags: , , , — Lorenzo E. Danielsson @ 00:23

I think most people have heard or read something that has a profound effect on them. The funny thing is that it may not even have been intended to be ground-breaking by the speaker or author. They may, in fact, just have made the statement “in passing”.

Professor Noam Chomsky was once asked in an interview how he, a famous scholar, could hold such a positive view of “the common man”. (I guess the underlying assumption is that as a person from the academic community, one is expected to look with contempt at the large majority of the people that make up society.)

Professor Chomsky replied that his research in linguistics shows that being able to acquire language skills is something that is common to all people, regardless of their social position. (It was a long time ago that I heard this so I don’t remember the actual words. Anybody has a reference to the actual quote, feel free to comment.) He also mentions the large amount of imagination that is required to actively use language.

If you listen to people communicating, you can hear that imagination in practice: the can joke, mock, support, etc. by stringing together sequences of words. People are able to “play” with words. It doesn’t matter what social class they belong to or the amount or quality of education they have. Common to all people is also the ability to communicate about abstract things, to talk about the future and other things that are not immediately available.

While I was a student of Japanese at the University of Stockholm we once had a visit by Kenzaburo Oe, who had won the Nobel Literature prize that year (sometime in the early 1990s). He talked to us about his son who is autistic and not able to talk and shows little or no sign of being able to understand when talked to. But, Hikari Oe, who is a famous composer, is able to communicate through music. Father and son Oe were able to “talk” to each other through music.

I wonder how much the realization that all people share a common ability to learn something as complex as human language has affected Noam Chomsky’s political views. I know that what he said in that interview had a profound affect on me. Modern societies try to legitimize the oppression of the many by reference to “the educated elite” as contrasted to “the bewildered herd” (although, of course, those are not necessarily the terms used). I know that there was I time when I would be be dismissive of people who I did not deem “worthy of attention” (yes, the liberal propaganda system worked very well on a young, ambitious man who wanted to have an academic career).

If the ability to acquire language is a complex process and common to all people, then perhaps the differences between the classes with power and influence and “the rest”, the ones who do not count, is much smaller than what we think. That would of course mean that the legitimacy of societies built on the premise that a small group of responsible men must control the confused beasts begins to erode. Or at least we are able to put a tiny dent into that legitimacy.

Of course, it would take a lot more to dismantle the current power structures. Elites dominate, not only by claiming to in some way being intellectually superior (in itself a false claim), but also through ownership and the ability to use force, as well as other things. Ownership is codified in laws that have been decided by the elites for their own benefit and should be discarded. The ability to use force ultimately depends on individuals who, for most part, have much in common with the very people they are to use force against: the domestic enemy (to use Professor Chomsky’s term).

It is my hope that as the evolving capitalist system becomes more and more cruel and inhumane, when the widening gaps drags us into open, large-scale conflict yet again, that these “enforcers of the law” begin to realize which side of the divide they have more in common with. They exist to brutalize us, but they are not part of the elite. They don’t have wealth. They don’t own. They are not bosses. They are, when stripped of the ability to force, as powerless and unimportant as the very people they are paid to oppress.

One of the effects Professor Chomsky’s words has had on me is to be far less dismissive of things that are said by people that traditionally are ignored in public discourse. And yes, I admit, I do occasionally talk to people who are normally declared to be “mad” or for one reason or another not deemed to have anything useful to say. They do. After all, an anarchist society (however it will look) must be one in which everybody is encouraged to participate, even when they hold ideas that we deem to be “wrong” or even “outrageous”.

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