This book, The Articulate Mammal, which first appeared in and is now in its fourth edition, has also contributed to a general interest in the subject. She rightly points out that the field of psycholinguistics "is in many ways like the proverbial hydra--a monster with an endless number of heads: there seems no limit to the aspects of the subject that could be explored. This is a rather unsatisfactory state of affairs. The first area is what she calls the "acquisition problem," which pertains to the controversial question of whether humans pick up language because they are born furnished with particular linguistic knowledge or they acquire language because they are intelligent and skilled problem solvers. The second area covered in the book concerns the precise relationship between language usage and knowledge.

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Shelves: linguistics this books is a great introduction to the psychology of language. Is language a skill which humans learn, such as knitting?

Or is it natural phenomenon, such as walking or sexual activity? Skinners attempt to explain language as similar to the bar-pressing antics of rats was a dismal failure, as Chomsky showed.

Chomsky proposed instead that the human species is preprogrammed for language. Some features of human language were found to be shared with some animal communication systems, but no animal system possessed them all. Attempts to teach sign and symbol systems to non-human apes are described: after a lot of effort, these apes could cope with some of the rudimentary characteristics of human language, but their achievements were far inferior to those of human children.

Above all, intention reading and pattern finding seemed to be beyond the ability range of non-humans. Their output is not just a random amalgam of badly copied adult utterances. However, in the early stages, the rules are not necessarily linguistic ones: children might just be applying their general intelligence. Second, the claim that children solve the puzzle of language by using their general intelligence, aided by helpful parents and a desire to satisfy their everyday needs, was not supported either: several individuals had been found who displayed a huge discrepancy between their linguistic and general cognitive abilities.

Third, the suggestion that children make use of an inbuilt linguistic puzzle-solving device seemed nearest the truth, though the interaction between inherited principles, caretaker input, and changing mental organization is still unclear.

Language cannot be explained simply as an offshoot of general intelligence, even though humans obviously use general cognitive abilities when they speak. Equally, infants do not have fixed chunks of pre-information about language. Instead, they are naturally geared to processing linguistic data.

At each stage, children can handle only a certain amount: their mind is a natural filter, like a fishing net with a particular size mesh, which catches some fish, but lets others slip away. Once a certain amount of language is in place, this forms the basis for another trawl with another net, probably one with a slightly different-sized mesh.

And so on and so on. Children move forward partly because each stage reached forms the basis for tackling the next. This general process is known as epigenesis.

Psychologists and linguists need to combine in order to tease out the details of the epigenetic sequence associated with language.


Jean Aitchison



The Articulate Mammal: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics






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