Friday, July 09, 2010

Unable to understand

In a recent post, based on a couple of press releases, I wondered idly about recent paper on native speakers not understanding common constructions in their own languages. Thanks to Drew Smith's comment (and despite my own lack of time to search for myself), I've since read the article, published in Lingua, and talked to a few colleagues who have And the Log now has a post on it. A lot of the discussions have paralleled comments on the Mark Liberman's post on the Log: Some people, including me, are wondering about effects other than actual language ability which could trigger the responses Street and Dabrowska got -- see the Ridger's quote on the Log post. As Dr. Fnortner points out in a comment on that same post:
Whether the fault generally lies with flaws in the speaker's use of language, or in the listener's incapacity to understand, could be a research topic. The concern, shared by many here, that the illustrations, sentences, and process are off-putting and an important source of error should be examined.
After reading the article, I'm much less surprised by the findings and still figuring that other factors are at play here. But almost none of the discussion I've seen (save a couple of comments on our original post) talks about the huge implications that are being mentioned:
  • Is this really getting at a speaker's competence? (The article doesn't come down clearly on this, but see Stranded Preposition's comment on our original post.)
  • How clearly do these results actually support usage-based approaches?
  • Ultimately, does this show that grammar is really "grimmer than Chomsky claims"?
Beyond linguistics, the leap to speculation about IQ, about the 'richer' input that middle class children receive compared to working class children, and so on have been troubling to some of the people I've talked to about the paper.


Anonymous said...

Yes: What the hell with all the anti-Chomsky stuff in the release and the line in the conclusion about how generative views 'may be able to' handle this stuff?

BH said...

On getting at competence, other people's judgments of grammaticality have always been a thorny subject. I can't help but think of this passage from "Remarks on Nominalization." The context takes a while to sort it out, but the snarky version of what's being said is that "my hypothesis is that Y shouldn't be grammatical, and if some people say it is, they don't understand why it isn't grammatical."

Anonymous said...

Yes, but why present a snarky version that's not at all what Chomsky wrote -- which has no snark in it at all (nor Boojum either)?

What he wrote is more like this:

"My hypothesis is that Y is not grammatical. If some people say it is acceptable (≠grammatical), either I'm wrong, or else it is possible for certain types of examples to be rated as acceptable despite violating rules of the grammar. In the case at hand, there is a coherent story one might tell along these lines, and there is a way to test it too."

Maybe he was wrong, but the comments are perfectly sensible in principle.

Do make sure you read the page after the one you linked to as well...

BH said...

OK, I'll admit I picked a bad example, worded it poorly, and was moreover wrong on the internet. I was really thinking of McCawley's criticism of these analogical rules and should have said so (or simply quoted the better writer). Twisting the knife a little deeper, only now that I look over the original again do I realize McCawley might not have followed up on the reference to Aspects... more reading for me this week. Hopefully I'll learn something this time.

Anonymous said...

OK, thanks, apology accepted!