Sherman Wilcox wilcox at UNM.EDU
Wed Mar 21 16:07:19 UTC 2001

> Sherman describes perfectly the experience children have in acquiring the
> phonology of their language ...
> It is indeed a good question whether we can as adults still have access to
> the individual subroutines that make up speech gestures.

Geoff spotted what I was hinting at. The reason Dan's retelling of the
Searle skiing story hit a chord with me is because this is PRECISELY how I
talk about the process of learning to fingerspell (which is one type of
phonological learning in the languages I work with): students first have
only a "conscious intention" to get each individual finger into the correct
position to perform a single fingerspelled letter (and it ain't easy!).
Later, when letters become functional units, the learner advances to higher
level units, and finally the task becomes "fingerspell the word
'subroutine'" (and not, "fingerspell 's-u-b-r-o ...'").

It's entrainment, emergence of a functional unit, lowering the degrees of
freedom, and all that. I've just never thought of in terms of ability to
consciously resurrect the individual "subconscious" subroutines of a
learned, coordinated action.

Geoff also brings up the important point of age of acquisition of these
skills. I don't know if I've ever told this story on funknet -- if I have, I
apologize. In another life I was a musician, an oboist. I learned to play in
junior high school and continued until my late 20s; I then gave up music and
didn't touch an oboe again for more than 25 years.

If you asked me, "How do you play a b-flat?" I couldn't show you. I could
not place my fingers in the correct position to produce a b-flat. I knew
this was so. But I always figured if I picked up and held an instrument, I
would be able to do it.

In 1995 I picked up an oboe, held it (without a reed), and thought to myself
"how do you finger a b-flat?" I couldn't do it. The unconscious subroutine
couldn't be dredged up to consciousness. Then I put a piece of music in
front of me, and tried to read the music and finger the notes (again with no
reed, no sound). This time, the entire piece flowed off of my fingers,
perfectly. I even produced -- entirely unconsciously (so much so that I had
a "shock" reaction at what my body was doing!) -- entirely forgotten
alternate fingerings. So, I couldn't bring the subroutines to memory, but
the gestalt, "play this piece of music in front of you!" (sort of like
Searle's "ski!") popped back into existence remarkably intact.

I'm not sure what this says about unconscious intentions. I guess it has
something to do with procedural versus declarative knowledge, age of
acquisition, etc.

Sherman Wilcox
Associate Professor
Department of Linguistics
University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM 87131

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