an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Archive for the ‘childhood’ Category

20: bonobo and human families, early childhood and free will

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ye olde nuclear family, and its enclosures

The bonobo reproduction rate is low, as is ours these days, though for different reasons. Bonobos don’t tend to go all the way, while humans have contraception even for naughty catholics. Muslim scholars seem a little confused about the issue, but are generally more accepting than their catholic counterparts. As to children, humans are rather more possessive about them than bonobos. Bonobo females are largely in charges of the kids, collectively, and paternity is unknown and undisputed. Think about how that would play out in human society, which for millennia has been largely patriarchal, patrilineal and even primogenitive. 

This doesn’t mean male bonobos are hostile to kids, as it’s generally a caring and sharing society, and besides, humouring the kids is a good way of winning favours from their mothers and others. Think of how that would be as a kid – you wouldn’t just be able to run to dad when mum’s mad at you, you’d have any number of adults to run to. You’d also have a range of adults to learn from, to identify with, to consider as role models, as well as to play off against each other. 

Modern, supposedly advanced human society is very different. We live in separate, securitised houses, in nuclear families – ideally mum, dad and 2⅓ kids – with a garden surrounded by a high fence, if we’re ‘lucky’. The grandparents live across town, or in another country, or a nursing home. Visitors are vetted by smartphone. Of course often it’s a single-parent situation, usually mum, and the odd long- or short-lived boyfriend. She works, so the kids spend a lot of time in day-care, meeting other kids and sharing with them one or two adults, who don’t get too close, wary of being accused of funny business. Rarely are these adults male. Still it’s pretty good, lots of toys and games and things to make and do, all in primary colours, but it’s not every day because it’s too expensive, you (the kid) sometimes get shipped around to aunties or friends or assorted baby-sitters, or you get switched to a new centre, with a whole bunch of strangers, or a kid you really like just disappears. But mostly you’re at home with your stupid brother, until school days arrive and you have to wear a uniform, and mum fusses over you and makes you feel nervous and watchful about whether you look different from the other kids, in a good or bad way. And you learn stuff and you like or hate the teacher and you start competing with the other kids and start thinking about how smart or dumb you are. 

Modern human life is pretty regimented. At a certain tender age you go to school where you learn first of all the basics of numeracy and literacy as the first steps toward being civilised. You also learn about rules and regulations, time management and the difference between work and play. Thrown into the school pool of humanity, you’re driven to contemplate and come to terms with variety: fat and skinny, pretty and ugly, noisy and quiet, smart and dumb, friend and enemy and all in between. You learn to make judgments, who to trust, who to avoid, and what to pay attention to. The prefrontal cortex, that amazing human asset, is continuing on its great connective journey, as you negotiate yourself between the formal and the free, between regimentation and independence. 

Yet all the research tells us that most of those judgments you make at school, and which you vaguely remember having made, are actually the product of that growth period before the laying down of memories, distorted or otherwise. And that includes your ability to make effective judgments. 

In the first few years of life, we form more than a million new neural connections every second. In fact, so many that after this surge of connections comes a period of pruning for order and efficiency. But this early period of development requires stimulation, which comes in infinite varieties of ways, including, of course, the bonobo way (and I don’t mean tree-climbing and chomping on insects), the chimp way (watching adult males battling it out), the Tiwi Islander way or the Netherlands royal family way or whatever. And much of this guided stimulation forms our behaviour for the rest of our lives. And the lack of it can reduce our capacities for a lifetime, in spite of subsequent kindness and care, as the notorious case of the Romanian orphans kept in horrendous states of neglect under the Ceauşescu regime has shown, though interestingly, some 20% of those adopted orphans have grown up showing little or no damage. Stimulation can come from within as well as without, and neglect has many variables. 

It stands to reason that we as individuals have little or no control over our development in this crucial period. Which brings me to the issue of free will. Philosophers have traditionally argued for free will on the ‘could have done otherwise’ basis. I could have drunk tea rather than coffee with brekky this morning (though I invariably drink coffee). I could’ve chosen x from the restaurant menu instead of y. So often these trivial examples are given, when it’s screamingly obvious that you don’t get to choose your parents, your genetic inheritance, your early childhood environment, the country or period you were born into, or even the species you were born as (I could’ve snuffed out your brief candle by treading on you in this morning’s walk). Given these restraints on your freedom, restaurant choices surely pale into insignificance. 

But let’s stick with humanity. I won’t go into the neurological underpinnings of the argument against free will (as if I could), but if we treat no free will as a given, then the consequences for humanity, vis-à-vis our handling of crime and punishment, are stark, as  the neurologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky points out in the penultimate chapter of his book Behave, entitled ‘Biology, the criminal justice system, and (oh, why not?) free will’. This is a vital issue for me, in terms of a more caring and sharing bonoboesque society, so I’ll reserve it for another essay, or two, or more.  


InBrief: The Science of Early Childhood Development

Robert Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst. 2017


Written by stewart henderson

January 6, 2021 at 12:43 pm

the autodidact story 1: family and authority

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When I was young I was somewhat troubled about myself. I was unhappy at home, I hated school, I felt I had no-one to talk to, and my only solace was the ‘rich inner life’ that, much later, I read about in an essay by the philosopher Hilary Putnam. That’s to say, he wrote an essay in which he happened to mention that some outwardly nondescript people might have cultivated a rich inner life, or words to that effect, and this fairly mundane observation was the only thing I took from Putnam’s essay.

I had a difficult time with friendship, and still do. On my birthday – I was probably fourteen – I received a card from another boy I knew well. It read ‘to my best friend ever’. I read it with shock. It made me feel somehow ashamed and miserable. I felt that this friend of mine was deluded, and I’d been the cause of his delusion. Perhaps there was some arrogance in this – I felt that my ‘rich inner life’ was almost completely hidden from him, and everyone else, so how could he think he knew me well enough to consider me his BFF? However, when he left for England with his family a few months later I felt more alone than ever. 

I’ve never felt seriously suicidal, but I do recall a particular moment, when I thought, ‘this is who I am – a loner. I have to learn to live with it’. I cried myself to sleep, and went on. 

Of course, all autobiographies, whether short or long, are mostly lies, beautiful or otherwise, so don’t take any of this too seriously. My parents didn’t get on too well, to put it mildly, and my siblings were – rivals. We lived in one of the most thoroughly working-class regions of Australia, in the newly created town of Elizabeth, built around the manufactory of holden cars, now deceased. My father worked there for a brief time, but he didn’t like working in factories, and I don’t blame him, having worked in quite a few myself. Unfortunately he couldn’t think of anything else to do, so he didn’t do anything much, and my mother was the nagging, harried breadwinner. My relationship with both of them during my teen years could fairly be described as toxic.

We did have books however. Encyclopedias, classics, and surprisingly modern fare, especially in the new feminist line, such as The female eunuch, Patriarchal attitudes, The feminine mystiquue and The second sex. I don’t know where all these books came from, they just always seemed to be there. My mother insisted on getting us to the library regularly, for which I’ll always be grateful, but I rarely saw her reading anything. She had a higher-up job in the nursing profession and when she got home she’d always flip the TV from the ABC to her favourite sit-coms, I love Lucy or The Dick Van Dike show. As for my father, I often wondered if he knew how to read. But these people bestowed upon me their genes, more or less equally, and that was a source of wonder. Was I smart?

We had come to Australia as ten pound migrants, and I had flickering memories of the boat trip – a camel train on the banks of the Suez, being saved from drowning in the ship’s pool, sitting with a group of kids while my mother, seconded as an educator, taught us spelling or something.  

Education. I became a teenager in 1969. It was a fantastic time for music, and the culture that came with it. I looked out the window at my brother and his friends and they were all wearing levis and it looked so cool. My older siblings were buying records – the Beatles, the Kinks, the Stones, and some now-embarrassing singles like ‘Little Arrows’ by Leapy Lee. Not long afterwards came Dylan and Cohen and I loved all that cool verbiage. Was I smart? I didn’t like school. I couldn’t talk to the teachers like other kids. I didn’t like the inequality, that they might know more than me. I didn’t like being told what to do. I liked to read, to learn stuff in my own way. I didn’t have an imaginary friend exactly, but I was always talking and arguing in my head, and felt the lack of the real thing.  

One day I was somehow invited to some kid’s house whose older sister was visiting from university. Did she live in the university? There was a crowd of kids and I could just see glimpses of the girl-woman through arms and legs. She was sitting on a stool as on a pedestal and she was slim and pretty with neat blonde hair and lipstick and a neat plaid skirt and heels, and I was shocked at this first ever sight of a university student. They were supposed to wear jeans and sandals and tie-dyed t-shirts and be beautifully scruffy and hairy. Disappointing.

Anyway, I left school because I was always in trouble for not doing my homework, inter alia, and I had horrible fights with my mother when she wasn’t having horrible fights with my father, and my father had fist fights with me, which wasn’t much fun as he’d been a boxer in his past and I could see him eyeing me for maximum damage with his dukes up. I would stay at friends’ houses here and there, and I got my first job on an assembly line making Wilkins Servis washing machines. The one shown is of course a much earlier model than the ones I tended to stuff up when I worked there.     

And so my first experience of formal education was botched, and maybe I should blame myself, I don’t know. I continued to read of course, and to argue with myself. A rich inner life.

I read novels, mostly, in those days. I developed an obsession with Thomas Hardy. This was in my fifteenth year, I think. The Return of the Native was my first, and I think I read every single novel except A Laodicean, which critics said was his worst. I wanted to read it, for completeness, like Two Gentlemen of Verona, which I did read. I also wanted to know why it was considered so bad. I loved Thomas Hardy, he was so kind, it seemed to me, and so sad somehow.

(to be continued)

Written by stewart henderson

February 28, 2020 at 7:30 pm

situation USA 3: the right i word

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Nancy Pelosi – trying to make the best of a bad system

I’ve been saying from the start that impeachment – thankfully not a part of the Westminster system – is a hopelessly politicised process, and that someone like Trump should be dealt with by straightforward, clear-cut law. Unfortunately, when it comes to white-collar crime – which is far from being victimless – the USA doesn’t set a great example. Though of course it’s not the only democratic nation to fail in this regard. However, Trump has pushed white-collar crime about as far as it can go without consequences. Just about all he has going for him presently is Presidential immunity. That’s why his principal aim right now is to extend that present as far into the future as possible, and that’s why I’m predicting that things will get worse. He won’t give up the presidency without a very ugly fight.

Nancy Pelosi has been in a friendly-fire fight with Jerry Nadler over the right i word. She says it’s imprisonment, and of course I agree with her. The USA needs to create clear law wiping out presidential immunity ASAP if it’s to regain the respect of the international community, but of course this won’t be possible until 2021. In the meantime, the House should continue to build its case against Trump, just as law officials are doing outside of Congress.

CNN ‘Editor-at-large’ (what does that mean? Editor who should be in prison?) Chris Cillizza has written a strange and quite silly piece, saying Trump’s imprisonment is ‘not likely’. His first point is that Pelosi, by bringing up the right i word, is trying to show Nadler and others that, by opposing the rush to impeachment, she’s not being soft, but realistic. It’s indeed an incredible thing that the Senate Republicans are largely choosing to stand by their flim-flam man, but it’s a fact, and proof of the tainted, politicised process that impeachment is. But Cillizza then describes this word as a ‘rhetorical grenade’. Rubbish, I say. The fact that Trump is still President-at-large is a disgrace. For a start, he’s not an ‘unindicted co-conspirator’ in the SDNY case which saw his fixer plead guilty on two felony counts. I realise this a term of legal art, but it completely misrepresents the situation, in which Trump was the boss and Cohen merely the gofer. And of course the campaign violation stuff is just the tip of the iceberg.

Cillizza then instructs his readers with this gem of wisdom:

Remember that impeachment and indictment are two very different things. The first is a political process, the second is a legal one.

Wow. Is he addressing 10 year-olds or is he one himself? Anyway, he goes on rather long-windedly to point out that impeachment won’t work due to the GOP Senate majority and the two thirds rule. I’d be even more brief. Impeachment is gobshite. Only in America (ok – also in South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil and any other country fool enough to follow the US system).

Cillizza goes on to ‘examine’ the possibility of imprisonment. It’s more of a glossing over, however, than an examination. The Mueller Report itself evaluates ten cases of obstruction of justice, some of which are strong enough to have over 700 federal prosecutors (as of a month ago – the number keeps rising) sign a letter baldly stating that Trump would face ‘multiple felony charges’ on obstruction alone if he was not President. What this says about the totally stuffed federal political system of the USA should indeed be clear to any wide-awake 10 year-old. Then there are the 16 or so criminal probes involving Trump, his foundation, his taxes, his inauguration, his emoluments violations, his anti-immigration horrors (his worst crimes while in office), his links with Russia and the Middle East, the Deutsche Bank money laundering scandals etc etc. It’s abundantly clear that Trump is a pre-teen spoilt brat turned career criminal – because, given his background, he couldn’t succeed at anything else. But a spoilt child, like a spoilt dinner, doesn’t spoil itself. It’s spoilt by its ‘makers’, and I’m not talking about gods. I’m talking about parents and environment and other early influences. So Trump isn’t to blame for becoming the US President, and making the US Presidency the object of global scorn and opprobrium. The fault lies with the US political system itself. The USA allowed this fainéant to become its President (not forgetting Russia’s sly assistance), because it takes pride in allowing anyone to become President. No screening for party allegiance, no screening for legal or political or historical literacy, no screening for business integrity or acumen, no screening for any kind of competence whatsoever. And instead of assuring the world – noting that we’re talking of the world’s most powerful nation, economically and militarily – that with great power comes great responsibility – it teaches us that, in the US at least, with great power comes great immunity.

But let’s get back to Cillizza’s piece. Here are his concluding remarks.

To be clear: Neither impeachment nor arrest is a sure thing. In fact, neither are even long shots. We are deliberating between something that is very, very, very, very unlikely to happen and something that is very, very, very, very, very unlikely to happen. But between impeachment and imprisonment, the former is the far more viable option. No matter what Pelosi wants.

As I’ve made clear, I have no interest in impeachment, but Cillizza is arguing – or, rather, stating, that imprisonment is a virtual impossibility for this career criminal, in spite of all the evidence piling up against him – which will always amount to a mere fraction of his wrong-doing. And yet, my impression is that Cillizza’s as jingoistic about ‘the leader of the free world’ and ‘the light on the hill’ as most Americans. The proverbial frog in the slowly boiling water comes to mind. If Trump escapes imprisonment, then surely that frog is doomed.


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Written by stewart henderson

June 9, 2019 at 3:33 pm

What’s up with Trump’s frontal cortex? – part 1

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He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity… manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. 

Trump, when asked who he consults with on foreign policy

You might be forgiven for thinking the above description is of the current US President, but in fact it’s a 19th century account of the change wrought upon Phineas Gage after his tragically explosive encounter with a railway tamping rod in 1848. It’s taken from neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave. A more fulsome analysis is provided in Antonio Demasio’s landmark work Descartes’ Error. The 19th century account is provided by Gage’s doctor.

Due to an accident with blasting powder the iron tamping rod blew a large hole through a part of Gage’s brain, exited through the top of his skull and landed some eighty feet away ‘along with much of his left frontal cortex’ (Sapolsky). Amazingly, Gage survived, though with great changes to his behaviour, as described above . Before the accident he had earned a reputation as a highly skilled, disciplined and reliable railway team foreman.

I was quite happy to be reacquainted with Gage’s story this morning, because in a recent conversation I was expounding upon Trump’s pre-adolescent nature, his tantrums, his solipsism, his childish name-calling, his limited language skills, his short attention span, his more or less complete ethical delinquency and so forth, about which my companion readily agreed, but when I suggested that this was all about a profoundly underdeveloped frontal cortex, she demurred, feeling I’d gone a bit too far.

Of course, I’m not a neurologist, but…

Any full description of Trump’s apparently missing or severely reduced frontal cortex needs to be evidence-based, but Trump is as likely to submit to any kind of brain scan or analysis as he is to present his tax returns. So the best we can do is compare his behaviour to those we know to have frontal lobe impairment.

Sapolsky tells us about the importance of the frontal lobe in making the tough decisions, the kinds of decisions that separate us from other primates. These are decisions in which our emotions and drives are activated, as well as higher order thinking involving a full understanding of the impact upon others of our actions.

Interestingly, in the case of Gage, his personality transformation meant that he couldn’t continue in his former occupation, so for a time he suffered the humiliation of being an exhibit in P T Barnum’s American Museum. I find this particularly intriguing because Trump has often been compared to Barnum – a showman, a con-man, a self-promoter and so forth. So in some ways – for example in Trump’s rallies, which he clearly loves to engage in – Trump has a dual role, as exhibitor and exhibit.

More importantly though, and this story is I think far more important than his injury and humiliation, Gage recovered almost completely over time – a testament to the brain plasticity which has recently been highlighted. On reflection, this shouldn’t be so surprising. Gage had been a person of rectitude and responsibility for decades before the disaster, and the neuronal pathways that his habitual behaviour had laid down, perhaps since early childhood, had only to be recovered through memory. It’s astonishing how this can happen even with subjects with less brain matter than ‘normal’ humans. Different parts of the brain can apparently be harnessed to rebuild the old networks.

The case of Trump, though, is different, as these higher order networks may never have been laid down. This isn’t to say there isn’t something there – it’s not as if there’s just a great hole where his frontal cortex should be. It’s more that his responses would map onto the responses of someone – a teenager or pre-teenager – who reliably behaves in a certain way because of the lack of full development of the frontal cortex, which we know isn’t fully developed in normal adults until their mid-twenties. And when we talk of the frontal cortex, we’re of course talking of something immensely complex with many interacting parts, which respond with great variability to different stimuli among different people.

But before delving into the neurological issues, a few points about the recent New York Times revelations regarding Fred Trump’s businesses, his treatment of young Donald and vice versa. The Hall & Oates refrain keeps playing in my head as I write, and as I read the Times article. What it suggests is a gilded, cosseted life – a millionaire, by current financial standards, at age eight. It seems that right until the end, Fred Trump covered up for his son’s business incompetence by bailing him out time and time again. This adds to a coherent narrative of a spoilt little brat who was rarely ever put in a position where he could learn from his mistakes, or think through complex solutions to complex problems. Trump senior clearly over-indulged his chosen heir-apparent with the near-inevitable result that the spoilt brat heartlessly exploited him in his final years. Fred Trump was a business-obsessed workaholic who lived frugally in a modest home and funnelled masses of money to his children, especially Donald, who basically hoodwinked the old man into thinking he was a chip off the old block. In the usual sibling battle for the parents’ affection and regard, Donald, the second son, saw that his older bother, Fred junior, was exasperating his dad due to his easy-going, unambitious nature (he later became an alcoholic, and died at 42), so Donald presented himself as the opposite – a ruthless, abstemious, hard-driving deal-maker. It worked, and Donald became his pretend right-hand man: his manager, his banker, his advisor, etc. In fact Donald was none of these things – underlings did all the work. Donald was able to talk the talk, but he couldn’t walk the walk – he had none of his father’s business acumen, as the Times article amply proves. In the late eighties, with the stock market crashing and the economy in free-fall, Trump made stupid decision after stupid decision, but his ever-reliable and always-praising dad kept him afloat. He also bequeathed to his son a strong belief in dodging taxes, crushing opposition and exaggerating his assets. The father even encouraged the son’s story that he was a ‘self-made billionaire’, and it’s not surprising that the over-indulged Donald and his siblings eventually took advantage of their ailing father – enriching themselves at his expense through a variety of business dodges described in the Times article. By the time of his death, Fred Trump had been stripped of almost all of his assets, a large swathe of it going to Donald, who was by this time having books ghost-written about how to succeed in business.

Of course it can be argued that Trump has one real talent – for self-promotion. This surely proves that he’s more than just a spoilt, over-grown pre-teen. Or maybe not. It doesn’t take much effort to big-note yourself, especially when, due to the luck of your family background, you can appear to walk the walk, especially in those rallies full of uncritical people desperate to believe in the American Business Hero. Indeed, Trump’s adolescent antics at those rallies tend to convince his base that they too can become rich and successful idiots. You don’t actually have to know anything  or to make much sense. Confidence is the trick.

It’s not likely we’ll ever know about the connections within Trump’s frontal and prefrontal cortices, but we can learn some general things about under-development or pre-development in those regions, and the typical behaviour this produces, and in my next post – because this one’s gone on too long  – I’ll utilise the chapter on adolescence in Sapolsky’s Behave, and perhaps other texts and sources – apparently Michelle Obama brought Trump’s inchoate frontal cortex to the public’s attention during the election – to explore further the confident incompetence of the American president.

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2018 at 5:38 pm

adventures in second language acquisition – an intro to the usage-based hypothesis of language learning

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don't you just hate it when slide presentations on grammar contain grammar errors

don’t you just hate it when slide presentations on grammar contain grammar errors

So now I’m going to describe and reflect on a rather more interesting video by two academics and teachers, Marjo Mitsutomi, a specialist in SLA, and Minna Kirjavainen, who researches first language acquisition. They’re working in the teaching of English in Osaka, and they’re describing the uni course they’ve just set up there. Kirjavainen, the first speaker, describes her research as being on ‘the acquisition of syntax and morphology in monolingual, typically developing children, from about the ages two to six’. So now for some definitions. How does syntax differ from grammar, and what is morphology? A rough answer is that a grammar involves everything about how a language works, which includes syntax, which is essentially about how words are ordered in sentences. Morphology is often described as the corollary of syntax. Grammar can be divided into syntax, the external economy of words (i.e. in sentences), and morphology, the internal economy of words (i.e. from morphemes). For example, ‘robbed’ contains the verb ‘rob’ plus the unit of meaning ‘-ed’, or ‘-bed’, which means ‘in the past’. But presumably ‘went’ is made up of two morphemes, ‘go’ and ‘in the past’, both of which are in a sense hidden in the word?

Kirjavainen describes herself as coming from the ‘usage-based, constructivist view-point’, and says

‘this means that I don’t assume there’s innate syntactic components in the child’s mind like many first language and second language acquisition researchers do. Instead, the usage-based viewpoint assumes that language exposure and general cognitive processes result in language acquisition in children.’

A slide accompanying this anouncement indicated that Michael Tomasello is one of the major developers of this approach. So I’ll need to familiarise myself with Tomasello’s work, especially as I’m currently reading Steven Pinker’s The language instinct, which appears to be an attempt to popularise Chomsky’s universal grammar theories. Chomsky and Pinker argue that there is something innate about grammar, though just what it is is hard to capture.

Kirjavainen is of the view that a child’s general cognitive processes (e.g. pattern finding, analogy-making and categorisation) together with exposure to language, lead to competent language acquisition. She argues that these processes are effective for non-linguistic tasks, so the same mechanisms are sufficient for decoding the language they hear and want to use. She divides her inquiry into first language acquisition into three questions:

  1. how do children learn to speak their native language?
  2. what kind of things do children pay attention to when they learn their native language?
  3. how do caregivers talk to children? What effect does it have on children’s language development?

Firstly, children pay a lot of attention to language input, and apparently research is starting to show that it’s not just lexical items but grammatical structures that children mirror from caregivers. The most frequently used grammatical structures of caregivers are the ones used earliest by children, and they then become the most used by children. So the ambient language heavily influences the child’s language development. The constructivists also argue that syntactic constructions are built on the language that children already know. So they chunk things together and try them out for effective communication with those around them, they absorb responses and corrections and adjust their language accordingly. Examples are ‘Mummy’, ‘I want mummy’, ‘Mummy do it’ ‘I want mummy do it’, ‘I want mummy to do it’.

All of this makes a lot of sense to me prima facie. Mitsotomi, who next takes up the talk, is of Finnish background like Kirjavainen, but with a more pronounced accent, having learned English later in life. She begins by mentioning the critical period hypothesis for SLA, which might be the subject of a future post. Her concern is in how SLA is affected not only by the towering presence of the learner’s L1, but by many other life experiences. So given these influences and possible constraints how do we create a space and an atmosphere conducive to SLA? Also, what does SLA mean to the identity of learners, and how is it that some acquire an L2 more quickly and effectively than others?

Kirjavainen then continues by introducing what might be seen as the obstacles to a collaboration between first and second language theorists. First, some linguists argue that there are inherent differences between first and second language learning. She lists three (out of many) common assumptions about these differences:

  1. all (typically developing) children learn to speak their L1 natively, whereas most people (with normal cognitive skills) don’t learn their L2 to a native-like standard
  2. children learn their L1 very quickly whereas it takes L2 learners years to master their target language
  3. L1 learners make few errors in comparison to L2 learners, i.e. children find it easier to learn the grammatical rules of their language, whereas L2 learners find it difficult to learn these rules

Kirjavainen questions the first assumption, first on the basis of vocabulary – a child’s L1 vocab will depend on her socio-economic background, the level of education, experience and language competence of those she’s learning from and other such factors. These factors also affect syntax, and she described a study of native speakers’ knowledge of and proficiency in the passive construction. The study compared the proficiency of university teaching staff (academics) with non-teaching staff. They were tested on their understanding of active and passive sentences based on pictures, a fairly easy test, and it was found that while both teaching and non-teaching staff had full understanding of the active constructions, only the academics had full understanding of the passive construction. The non-teaching staff were significantly below full understanding. The general point here is that not all native speakers know all the grammatical rules of their L1, and that it depends more on regular usage than is sometimes admitted.

Next Kirjavainen gets stuck into the claim that children learn their native language quickly. She points out that an average 5 year old is quite a competent L1 user, but far from having adult proficiency. She then does a breakdown of how many hours a day children have spent, up to the age of five, exposed to and using the L1. That’s 5 years@6-14 hours a day of exposure, and about 3.5 years@8-14 hours a day in using the language. Conclusion: it takes children years to reach a relatively high level of L1 proficiency.

All of this strikes me as really thought-provoking stuff, and some of the thoughts provoked in me are memories of my callow youth – for example an occasion when as a 15 year-old or so I found myself at a party full of uni students types, all a few years my senior, and was awed by their vocabulary and language proficiency, and fearful that I’d get roped into conversation and be mocked for my verbal incompetence. So, again, I’m finding Kirjavainen’s arguments persuasive here at first blush.

The third assumption is more or less demolished by Kirjavainen as she cites research by herself and others to show that children make lots of errors, especially between the ages of 18 months and 4 years – these include pronoun errors, omission of infinitival to, agreement errors, subject omissions and verb inflection errors. Even at five and upwards there are mistakes with past tense, relative clauses and complement clause constructions. A complement clause? I’ve only just heard of them, but let me explain.

Here are two examples of complement clauses, taken from Kidd et al, 2007.

(1)  That Rufus was late angered his boss.

(2)  Rufus could see that he had angered his boss.

The complement clauses are underlined. The first here functions as the subject of an ‘argument’ sentence, the second as the object. The second sentence is described as an unmarked case, in which the complementiser that is optional and generally not used in naturalistic speech. There are many other forms of complement clause construction, so I won’t get bogged down by exploring them here.

So this has been an enlightening post for me, and an enlightening view of a new (to me) usage-based constructivist view of language acquisition. Next time I’ll report on the latter part of this talk, which will focus more on the implications for SLA.

just a thought to end with

just a thought to end with

Written by stewart henderson

January 30, 2017 at 3:25 pm

Did Freud ever pass his orals?

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Freud died of epithelioma from sticking too many cigars in his mouth, but he doesn't strike me as the orally-fixated dependent type

Freud died of epithelioma from sticking too many cigars in his mouth, but he doesn’t strike me as the orally-fixated dependent type

A young person I know is studying psychology probably for the first time and she informed me of the stages of early childhood psychological development she has been told about – oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. I’d certainly heard of the first two of these, but not too much of the others. A quick squiz at the lists of Dr Google led me to Freudian psychosexual theory, which naturally raised my scepical antennae. And yet, despite my limited parental experience I’ve noted that babies do like to put things in their mouths a lot (the oral stage is supposed to extend from birth to 1 -2 years), sometimes to their great detriment. So, personality-wise, is the oral stage a real thing, and does it really give way to the anal stage, etc? I’m using the oral stage here to stand for all the stages in the theory/hypothesis.

These stages were posited by Freud as central to his hypothesis of psychosexual development – though how the phallic stage is experienced by girls is an obvious question. His view was that our childhood development was a matter of fixation, at various periods, on ‘erogenous zones’. After the oral stage, children supposedly switch to an anal stage, which lasts to 3 years of age – presumably on average. These switches might be delayed, or brought on earlier, in individual cases, and sometimes an individual might get stuck at a particular stage, denoting psychosexual problems.

So how real are these stages? Are some more real than others? What is the experimental evidence for them, do they exist in other primates, and if they exist, then why? What purpose do they serve?

It seems that Freud, and perhaps also his followers, have built up a whole system around these stages and how individuals are more or less influenced by any one or a combination in the development of their adult personalities, and since the degree of influence of these different stages and the way they’ve combined in each individual is pretty well impossible to recover, the theory looks to be unfalsifiable. There also appears to be the problem that psychologists can usually only track back from the adult’s personality to speculate about early childhood influences, which looks like creating a circular argument. For example, if an individual presents as an overly trusting, dependent personality, this may be cited as evidence of fixation at the oral stage of development, because children fixated at this stage are believed to develop these personalites in later life. The only way out of this impasse it seems to me is to define this oral stage (or any other stage) more carefully, so that we can accurately identify children who have experienced a prolonged or fixated oral stage, and then return to them to observe how their personalites have developed.

Of course there are other problems with the theory. There needs to be a clearer explanation, it seems to me, of how these apparently erogenously-related stages are marked into personality traits in later life. The relationship between an obsession with putting things in your mouth, or sucking, licking or otherwise craving and enjoying oral sensations, and a dependent, trusting personality, is by no means obvious. In fact, some might go as far as to say that, prima facie, it makes about as much sense as an astrologically-based account of personality.

Perhaps if we look at the oral stage, or claims about it, more closely, we’ll find something of an explanation. In this description, we learn that the libido, or life force, gets fixated in the oral stage in more than one way, leading to an ‘oral receptive personality’ and an ‘oral aggressive personality’. The first type, which is a consequence of a delayed or overly fixated oral stage, is trusting and dependent, the second is dominating and aggressive, due largely to a curtailed oral stage, apparently. Those who experienced a longer oral stage in childhood are supposedly more likely to be smokers and nail-biters as adults, though I’m not sure how this relates to being a dependent or trusting personality.

In any case this hardly takes us further in terms of evidence, and it’s worth noting that the site in which this is mooted is described as ‘integrated sociopsychology’. Dr Steven Novella, in the most recent episode of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, warned about the use of such terms as ‘integrative’, ‘functional’ and ‘holistic’ used before ‘medicine’ as a red flag indicating a probable bogus approach. I suspect the same goes for psychology. Obviously the website’s author is a Freudian, and he makes this statement as to evidence:

What is undoubtedly disturbing to the ‘Freud-bashers’ is how much evidence has accumulated over the years to say that, in broad terms at least, if not always in detail, Freud’s observations pretty much stand up so many years later.

However, other psychology sites I’ve looked at, which don’t appear to me to be particularly Freud-bashing, have pointed to the lack of evidence as the principal problem for Freud’s stages. Of course the major problem is how to test for the ‘personality effect’ of these stages. Again I think of astrology – someone dedicated to astrological causation can always account for personality ‘deviations’ in terms of cusps and conjunctions and ascendants and the like, and this would surely also be the case for the confounding influences of our various cavities and tackle, so to speak.

Some 20 years ago a paper by Fisher & Greenberg (1996) suggested that Freud’s stages and other aspects of his early childhood writings should be scientifically examined as separate hypotheses, in a sort of piecemeal fashion. Unfortunately I can find little evidence that evidence has been found for the oral stage as a marker for later personality development – or even looked for.  This is probably because most scientists in the field – experimental psychologists – have little interest in these Freudian hypotheses, and little funding would be available for testing them. They would surely have to be longitudinal studies, with a host of potentially confounding factors accounted for, and the end results would hardly be likely to convince other early childhood specialists.

I’ve said the theory looks to be unfalsifiable, but I’m not quite prepared to say outright that it is. It seems to me that the oral stage, with its obvious association with breast-feeding, and the obvious association between prolonged breast-feeding and dependence, at least in popular culture, is the one most amenable to testing. The later Oedipus/Elektra complexes, associated I think with the phallic stage, seem rather too convoluted and caveat-ridden to be seriously testable. I must admit to a residual fondness for some of Freud’s theories of development though, however unscientific they might be. Though I was never interested in the strict form of the Oedipus complex, because my father was by far the weaker of my parents, I felt it offered some insight into relations with the dominant parent – struggle, rivalry, attempts to overthrow. I also agreed with his general view that early childhood is absolutely crucial to our subsequent psychological development, and I found his ego, id and superego hypotheses enlightening and fascinating. Polymorphous perversity, sublimation and the pervasive influence of libido also tickled my fancy a lot.

I think it’s fair to say that Freud has had a greater influence on popular culture than on science, but it has been a profound influence, and overall a positive one. The term ‘observations’, rather than theories, seems better to describe his contributions. In writing about the libido and the pleasure principle, inter alia, he accepted our instinctive animal nature, and gave us ideas about how to both harness it and overcome it. Notions like the id and the superego seemed to give us fresh ways to think about desire, discipline and control. His ideas and concepts tapped into stuff that was very personal to us in our individual struggles, and his universalising tendencies helped us, I think, to look sympathetically at the struggles of others. Libido itself was a banner-word that helped release us from the straight-jacket of earlier sexual thinking – or avoidance thereof.

It’s also probably unfair to expect from Freud’s pioneering work anything like the scientific riguor we expect and really need from psychology today. Certainly he was far too firm about the rightness of his most speculative work – I read The Interpretation of Dreams as an ideas-hungry teenager and was impressed with its first-half demolition of previous dream theories, but the second-half presentation of his own theory struck me even then as ludicrously weak, though it had the definitely positive effect of putting me off dream-interpreters for life (a dream that can be interpreted is a dream not worth having, and that’s their greatest gift to us). It’s more what he drew attention to that counts. His concept of the unconscious doesn’t really cut it today, but he made us start thinking of unconscious motivations in general, and much else besides. I’ve never been to an analyst, but I think one benefit of the psychoanalytic movement is to help us realise that there’s no normality and that we all carry baggage of guilt, anger, fear and frustration. For all its failings, his was a humanising enterprise.

Written by stewart henderson

July 10, 2016 at 5:34 pm