Sunday, October 11, 2009

Free-floating neurons: Linguistics professors and philologists say the darnedest things

It's sometimes humorous and often alarming to see how information about language and linguistics gets presented in the media — a familiar fact and one that drives much linguistic blogging, here and elsewhere.

In a piece called "We've entered linguistic tangle" for the Amarillo Globe-News, John Freivalds runs through a set of cliches, starting with good old "Press '1' for English; press '2' for Spanish" to rail against the use of languages other than English in education and the public sphere, etc. Conclusion: It's all about 'liberal guilt'.

But he actually quotes a linguist, or tries to, or claims to:
A linguistics professor once explained to me that before puberty children have "free floating neurons" in the brain. This enables them to learn numerous languages and to do so without an accent. If someone learns another language after puberty, they will always have an accent.
I'm not sure what free-floating neurons are. I checked with a cognitive science-oriented colleague who had the same reaction I did, namely that this was a mangled reference to the critical period hypothesis, with 'free-floating' referring to plasticity. In checking around, I found that Freivalds had published a similar version of this point earlier (in but yet earlier in a Roanoke, Va. newspaper):
Philologists tell us that we have “free-floating neurons” in our brain before puberty that enable us to learn an "infinite" number of languages.
Wow, what a tangle we've entered. Philology, in Merriam-Webster's 11th, is:
1: the study of literature and of disciplines relevant to literature or to language as used in literature
2 a: LINGUISTICS; especially: historical and comparative linguistics b: the study of human speech especially as the vehicle of literature and as a field of study that sheds light on cultural history.
It is occasionally used as a synonym for 'linguistics' and that's what we have here, the broadest of M-W's set. But please don't trust any self-identified philologist to explain cognitive science. Then we've got the free-floating neurons again. And this time it's an infinite number of languages we can learn. (I assume the quotation marks around 'infinite' are for emphasis.) Wow, a world with an infinite number of languages. Linguistics would be a serious challenge then.

It's that last point that caught my attention: What's the actual limit on how many languages a kid could acquire? Is the boundary set by how much input the little bugger could get? Even assuming poverty of stimulus, you have to have a lot of exposure to a language to learn it, at any age.

Image from here.


Anonymous said...

Wow, That's cool.

John Cowan said...

I'm writing a response there.

As for "free-floating", though, the OED's third definition is "Not associated with or applicable to a specific group, category, etc.; unaffiliated, independent; free-ranging, unconstrained", which seems to me to be entirely apt for the description of neurons that are still plastic. One need not have visions of unattached neurons moving briskly about the brain.

And if linguists no longer want to be called philologists, it's their own damn fault. :-)

Mr. Verb said...

A generous interpretation. I am curious whether brain folks use that turn of phrase.

Some members of our team can claim to be philologists, I think, so I'll say no more on that topic!

John Cowan said...

I'm a generous guy, as you can see by my calm and polite messages at the page you link ... until, that is, the guy I'm mostly talking with (though my beef is very little with him and mostly with the OP, of course) falls into outright nuttery.

Mr. Verb said...

Well, you're a better man than me ... I don't have the patience for that kind of exchange.

Anonymous said...

that picture looks like aliens having sex. You mean that's going on in my brain?!?!?