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April 24, 2003
Party titbits

I've just done a quite long posting on Samizdata about the influence of children's toys on later artistic tastes, so I haven't time for much profundity here. But I did attend a social event last night at which I picked up a couple of titbits of interest here.

First, I learned that however interesting a figure Maria Montessori might be in herself, not everyone admires her influence, in the form of your average Montessori school. On the contrary, I encountered the opinion that Montessori schools are employment opportunities for dimwitted women who would otherwise have no place whatever in the teaching profession, and that in general they tend to be extremely disappointing and unsatisfactory places, full of kids being bored to death with pointless objects and just meandering around doing very little. Well, I'm just passing on what I heard.

The other little titbit I gathered up has a bearing on the bilingual raising of children. One of my friends told me last night that she knows of an Anglo-Dutch couple, with a kid. Dad talks to the kid entirely in Dutch, and Mum talks to the kid entirely in English.

The kid is not yet at the stage of talking. He's only at the repetitive nonsense words stage. Nor does he read books yet, for real I mean. But he is at the stage where he turns over the pages of books he already knows from them being read to him. Now, get this. When he "reads" books that his Dad has read to him (in Dutch) the repetitive nonsense noises are Dutch noises, with lots of "ch"-ing from the back of the throat, but when he "reads" Mum books, English books, the noises he makes are different, more of the "Grrrrh!" variety. I love that. I've no idea what it proves, or if it proves anything at all, but I love it.

At the party I also met up with occasional contributor here Julius Blumfeld, who had some very interesting things to say about the role of bias in education (he's for it!) which I urged him to write down and send in. If he doesn't do this reasonably soon, I hereby serve notice that I myself will attempt here to summarise what he said.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:23 PM
Category: LanguagesParents and children

Fascinating that stuff about bilingual raising of children!

I've had some interesting meets with "bilingual" people who were raised in both Hungarian and English, one parent each or lots of childhood time in both countries, and it made me begin to question all sorts of accepted ideas (such as the "critical period hypothesis" - that you can't get perfect at a language after a certain age).

I have met some individuals who were raised in two languages and as a result are confused and a bit dim in both (they're rare, but it seems it is possible to fall between two stools), and I've met lots of people passing as bilingual because they have no accent in either language, but who make mistakes in both Hungarian and in English. Almost no-one is able to notice their slips on both sides of the fence, of course.

There's a surprising number of "bilingual" adults around who have most of the people fooled most of the time, bluffing both sides very effectively, but have to privately do quite a lot of work on their own with language books to back up their perfectly-accented, confident-sounding grasp of the two languages with some extra details.

Comment by: mark on April 24, 2003 10:43 PM

Turning drunken ramblings into a blog. That'll be a challenge!

Give me day or two. My head's still hurting from the hangover.



Comment by: julius on April 25, 2003 03:21 PM

I thought the critical period hypothesis refers gaining any ability to process language at all. People who aren't exposed to any language during the critical period (somethink like the first six years) cannot gain proficiency in any language. I might be wrong.

I read a brief article perhaps a year ago in science news about how brain scans show that people who speak in a second language use the same portion of their brains as when they speak their first language. Noam Chomsky calls the ability of humans to learn a second language "an interesting empirical fact," and suggests that the fact that it's possible suggests that some of the same faculties must be used in learning a second language as a first.

(Yes, I know...Chomsky...leftist...evil, etc. Get over it. He's a pretty damn good linguist.)

Comment by: Lucas Wiman on April 25, 2003 10:03 PM

You're absolutely right Lucas - the critical period hypothesis, properly named, is about the period for acquiring a first language.

But what linguists discussing second-language acquisition are talking about is Lenneberg's extension (1967) of the CPH to learning a second language. Under this hypothesis, past a certain stage in childhood you'll never get perfect at a second (or third etc) language either. An often-cited sign of this is the 'Joseph Conrad Effect' for pronunciation. Pole Conrad learned English, his fourth language, as an adult so well as to become a great novelist in English, but never lost his Polish accent.

However a major study, usually ignored because
2LA CPH supporters don't like it, a longitudinal study of 17,000 British schoolchildren learning French in the 1970s, contradicts the 2LA CPH. Stern, Burstall and Harley found that after five years children beginning French aged 11 were not simply as good, but better, at French, than children beginning aged 8. I personally experienced this. I started French aged 8, and can still remember my astonishment at being overtaken six months into my 11th year by all the boys who had only just started French half a year before.

Chomsky's a big subject! I rather admire his principled advocacy of Palestine actually - I just think his linguistics has been very damaging and misconceived.

We should discuss Chom another time, Lucas!

Comment by: mark on April 26, 2003 03:42 PM

Mark: You probably know much more about Chomsky than I. (I've just read Syntactic Structures and a few of his books on the philosophy of language, so you seem to be in a much better position to judge him.) I was expecting a backlash of "Chomsky is an idiotarian leftist. Therefore his linguistics is rubbish." That kind of careful reasoning. But please feel free to give a detailed account of what you think about his work in linguistics. I've not seen much serious criticism of him, but I haven't looked. Linguistics isn't really my field.

Comment by: Lucas Wiman on April 27, 2003 03:40 AM

I've never read Chomsky's linguistics at first hand ("why read the original sources when you can crib from second hand references?" is my philosophy for auto-didactism), but after reading Pinker's The Language Instinct (my crib for Chomsky) I did read an interesting book (damn I 've forgotten the title and have since given it away) in which the author made the point that since languages evolve much more easily than brains (with a percentage mutation rate of thousands of times that of brains), it is much more likely that languages evolved to suit the pre-existing features of brains than that brains have evolved to produce hard-wired language modules.

Of course how one would or could tell the difference is another question. I'm not sure what sort of hypothesis would be required to test out the two cases.


Comment by: Julius on April 30, 2003 08:06 AM


I think that's a bad philosophy in general, though it can certainly be useful at times. In any case, some experimental evidence tends to suggest that this is not the case. There was group of deaf children (in some south american country) who were not being taught sign language, and they developed their own version of sign language. It seems distinct from Spanish sign language, and appears to have developed without external prodding within a few generations. This suggests that the brain is very well-adapted to produce and understand language. If no language is provided, one eventually arises in a fully developed form very quickly.

In any case, the model suggested by whoever that you speak of would have as a consequence that the current human language faculty had developed prior to the development of any language. This seems highly doubtful to me. A co-evolution seems most plausible to me. The fast mutation rate of natural language (which might have been faster among early humans) would suggest that language would quickly tailor itself to the currently existing cognitive faculties. A developed language would cause the development of new cognitive abilities to be selected for. So, for example, if there was a point when language had only nouns, verbs and adjectives (which is about all that people have been able to teach other primates), the ability to form prepositional phrases or to conjugate verbs in novel ways could become a selective factor. This would suggest that humans evolved to create more descriptive kinds of syntax and to be able to learn an enormous number of words and concepts relating them, not that humans already had such abilities and language developed around them. The theory which you speak of above would have to give a description of why certain kinds of cognitive abilities unique to language processing evolved for reasons unrelated to language--a quite formidable task.

Comment by: Lucas Wiman on April 30, 2003 09:56 PM

I have to post in defense of Montessori Directresses and Directors.

Far from being "dimwitted" these individuals have to be some of the most gifted people on earth. Imagine walking into a building containing 2 adults and 24 children aged 3 to 6 and hearing virtually NO noise. On closer observation you see that EVERY child is intensly involved in his/her work. Some are working alone, many are working in groups. No one raises their voice louder than is necessary to communicate with his/her workmate. No objects are thrown or treated with anything but the utmost respect. The floor is not cluttered, there are clearly defined spaces between work areas that are easily navigated. In fact, your presence in the room is barely noticed by the children. These are not children with labels ("gifted" "special"). The 2 adults in the room are calm and serene. At any given moment they can give you a complete report on what each child is working on, & their progress both academically and personally. At the end of the day, the adults work not to clean the classroom--for the children have done that as the natural progress of their work, the adults evaluate each child's progress and discuss how best to serve each child the next day.

For the directress the educational system is 24 IEP's. That is 24 Individual Education Plans. As the average public school teacher to manage a classroom in which each student's plan is different. I'll bet you get a bit of resistence.

"Dimwitted"? You try to keep 24 young children occupied for 3 hours with out succombing to total chaos! Ok, then try to keep 24 young children focused on their own IEP. It doesn't take a PHd in Psychology. It takes TALENT and an clear head.

Most Montessori professionals earn less than parachocial school teachers. They work longer hours-doing what is needed, not what the work day permits. Many work without benefits. They do this, not because they can't get better paying teaching job (I've met many a Montessori directress with a Masters degree), but because they are dedicated to Montessori principles and feel the work they do REALLY does contribute to a better future for all of us.

I thank GOD that Montessori professionals exist. Perhaps those who consider Montessori professionals "dimwitted" lack the ability necessary to carry the title: "Directress".

Comment by: gretchen on October 19, 2004 04:10 AM
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