Monday, July 26, 2004

The confusion of tongues and the language of God

An article in the current issue of Nature describes studies and experiments that yield conclusions with vast implications for our understanding of language acquisition.

Without linguistic support, an innate capability to make this distinction seems to vanish. So language learning seems to link linguistic forms to pre-existing representations of sound and meaning.

Jessica Lee Jernigan (discovered via Cup of Chicha) articulately summarizes the article (and makes a reference to Umberto Eco's The Search for the Perfect Language — a book and idea I'm obsessed with).

This conclusion has interesting — possibly vital — implications for competing theories about language acquisition. According to one theory, language grows as a child grows, and we develop abstract thoughts only when we have attained the means to express them. Other linguists claim that the learning of language doesn't build cognitive abilities so much as it winnows them. In one model, language plants seeds that blossom into abstract thinking; in the other, language prunes away at the wild brush of the infant mind until well-tended shapes emerge, shapes that have meaning within that language. Obviously, this study supports the latter way of thinking.

She notes, "In every creation myth, chaos precedes order."

Once upon a time, people believed in a perfect language — the language Adam and Eve spoke, the language before the Babel Tower fell, the language in which the thing corresponded perfectly to its sign. Once upon a time, people believed that a child raised without hearing the debased, fragmented tongue of his own time and place would speak that language. The search for that primal mind has produced legendarily tragic results. But what if it belongs to us all, what if each of us retains the latent, neglected potentiality to comprehend fullness? What if we all have ears big enough to hear the language of God?

She's right. It's already in us. We just don't listen.

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