Sunday, 5 October 2014

Linguistic questions

Why is it that a 4 year old child can conjugate irregular verbs with alarming accuracy (e.g. je veux boire, je bois, j'ai bu) without having been explained how they work, but he does not understand the more simple rule "no one is obliged to give you things just because you have asked for them"?

One book that I would recommend for anyone who is interested in this sort of thing is Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, which is one of the few linguistic books that I've actually been able to read right the way through with no fatigue. A lot of language books are meant to be used as reference rather than to be read like a 'proper' book, but The Language Instinct remains readable, interesting and well written all the way through.

A primary theme throughout the book is questions like the above - why can small children pick up and use grammatical rules subconsciously, when they can't even consistently follow the simplest societal rules?

The basic idea is that humans are predisposed to absorb language from the very start, differently from any other animal, for whom there are only more basic instincts. Of course linguistic theory is just that, but it seems to check out, and either way it makes for a very interesting read.

(I have not done this book justice at all - but if you think it sounds a bit interesting, you will find the book really cool. The PDF is available online or I can send it to people)

The topic helps me to rationalise some of the behaviour of the kids I work with, but it doesn't do much to actually make it less irritating that every few minutes, the smallest makes a request for something that he doesn't need, including my jewellery, my hair bobble, my actual hair, and the rest...! Ah well, it's pretty amusing for me so far! :-)

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