Linguist Sues Language Community—SpecGram Wire Services SpecGram Vol CLXVI, No 2 Contents Revivified Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know—Madalena Cruz-Ferreira

The Necessity of Sound Theoretical
Frameworks in Linguistic Education

Noah McMosky
Professor of Abstract Syntax
University of Ledworth

Theoretical Linguistics has the loftiest of goals, namely the creation of a theoretical framework that can explain the features of all languages. Lamentably, however, the pursuit of this goal is often frustrated by the activities of field linguists, who seem to take perverse delight in presenting data that apparently contradicts whatever theory seems most promising at the time. Sometimes, the data can be reanalysed in a more reasonable fashion, but to this day I remember my bitter disappointment as a young postdoctoral fellow when no amount of analysis would make Welsh and Hebrew yield to the perfectly straightforward prediction of Metasyntactical Heuristics that all VSO languages should be ergative.

In an attempt to discover just what these blighters think they’re doing, I recently attended a lecture by DJ Patterson, who as most readers will be painfully aware, appears to be incapable of reading the simplest theoretical paper without charging off to the ends of the earth in search of data to refute it. During the course of this lecture, I heard him say something that will haunt me for the rest of my life: “Remember, children don’t know any theory when they learn to speak.”

With these words ringing in my ears, I hurried to the University Library and began to read every paper I could find on first language acquisition. I was horrified to discover that parents, most of whom are linguistically naive themselves, simply present their children with large amounts of unanalysed data, and expect them to make sense of it by themselves. We would not inflict such indignities on the lowest of our graduate students! Is it any wonder that (as I discovered from reading further) they struggle for years, producing one ill-formed utterance after another, before eventually achieving some semblance of fluency? Even worse possibilities began to occur to me. Could some of the errors introduced by this haphazard method of teaching persist into adulthood? Might they, in fact, be the source of the problematic data with which field linguists torment us? Might informants have presented researchers with ill-formed data out of sheer naivety, simply because they were ignorant of a decent theoretical model?

I saw at once that a more rigorous method of linguistic instruction was needed. Instead of being expected to acquire grammar by trial and error, children should be trained from birth in Generative Grammar by qualified instructors (or failing that, research assistants who need the money). By the time they attempt utterances of their own, they should be able to predict from first principles which are well-formed.

Sceptics may claim that without first learning to speak, children will be unable to understand linguistic theory. However, anyone who has ever set a class of undergraduates to read a theoretical paper will surely have had the experience of finding, at the next class, that none of them has understood a word of it, and most doubt that it is even written in English. Newborns will then be at no disadvantage in the study of linguistic theory, as may be predicted from the innateness of Universal Grammar.

Once this approach to education has been adopted, the benefits will be immense. Linguists will at last be able to obtain well-structured and uncontaminated data from a generation of informants who understand how grammar is meant to work, and will no longer have to discard perfectly good theories on the basis of some field linguist’s erratic observations. A great future awaits us.

Linguist Sues Language CommunitySpecGram Wire Services
Revivified Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t KnowMadalena Cruz-Ferreira
SpecGram Vol CLXVI, No 2 Contents