"Being bilingual may delay Alzheimer's and boost brain power..."
language at sprynet.com
Thu Feb 24 18:03:25 UTC 2011
Sorry for the delay in getting back to you, Lise, I've been busy welcoming
my great half-nephew (who like many in the family is tri-lingual) during his
visit from England.
I believe you and your colleagues deserve to be congratulated for your hard
work in demonstrating the link between bilingualism and AD, and I don't
think you should take reservations voiced by others here too seriously.
Tom, it's quite obvious to anyone familiar with this field that my neighbor
who runs the fruit stand down the street & speaks Arabic, Spanish, & English
for business purposes isn't quite in the same category as people who are
truly challenged to reflect on complex realities in language A and then try
to express them in language B. Though even his brain might be just a bit
more stimulated than that of mere monoglots...
The various categories of bilinguals were long ago pretty well delineated by
Francois Grosjean in his 1982 "Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to
Bilingualism" (Harvard U. Press) and no doubt by other works since then, and
I don't quite see the point of bringing these categories up again simply to
cast doubt on Lise's study.
I was nonetheless quite happy to find your reference to "The Memory Palace
of Matteo Ricci," a book that meant a great deal to me when I first read it
during my Chinese period in the mid Eighties (& when I also heard Spence
lecture). It describes some remarkable instances of Ricci's culture
blindness, for instance (based on memory...) Ricci's certainty when he
showed the Chinese his painted, naturalistic, blood-dripping wooden crucifix
that he was clearly demonstrating to them the true glory of Christ, though
the Chinese merely interpreted it as evidence that he must be a devil
worshipper. Or the conclusion they reached, after Ricci ranted on and on
about the sheer & total oneness of god, that he could only be some kind of
Muslim. Such instances of culture blindness are almost as blatant as those
regularly displayed by some mainstream linguists.
I also don't think that the people whom I most respect as genuine
professional linguists--my old translator friends at the UN--would find much
to doubt in the study by Lise and her colleagues.
I further believe there's a great deal to celebrate in Lise's study, since
it links language and linguistics with medical studies and with at least
some standards of scientific proof, something linguistics today severely
I mentioned a few months ago that instead of harping on the limitations of
so-called mainstream linguistics (an easy task), I would try this year to
present some positive beginnings for a new study of language. So let me
start now--even if it may take a bit of time to put it all together (though
nowhere near so long as the mainstreamers have taken to come up with almost
One reason I am highly impressed with Lise's study (and also why I was happy
to learn that Anne Marie is a speech therapist) is that I have become ever
more certain over the years that the real center of language study lies not
in grammar at all but in language physiology and the sheer physicality of
language. This is a point I already started making in several of my papers
and articles during the Nineties, and I want to stress it even more
Based on what I believe can be easily demonstrated as the true center of
language, I will even go so far as to insist that all of those who have held
up grammar as the definitive guide and centering point for language--from
Panini and his commentators, to Dionysos Thrax, to Ibn Abi Ishaq, to Varro
and Priscian, to the Modistae and the Port Royal School, to the German
Junggrammatiker, to the Saussureans, and finally even to the unfortunate
Chomskians--that all of them have been demonstrably mistaken.
There was of course a very good reason why these doubtless worthy scholars
all centered in on grammar. It sounded so dry and clean, so abstract and
intellectual, it gave the illusion of being a major organizing principle, it
held out the promise that something truly important had been discovered.
Which of course added to the pride and self-esteem of the scholars who
detected it. It little mattered that each discoverer in each culture had
usually confronted a very different grammar, since it was then just one
quick leap into the even more fascinating--but quite untenable--belief that
all grammars in all languages everywhere must be remarkably similar. Or if
they failed to be similar, then they were obviously deviant and inferior
grammars, and those who employed them were deviant and inferior peoples.
But language is only incidentally dry and clean or abstract and
intellectual. It springs from the very wellspring of life itself, language
belongs in the same class as those three moist, messy, and clammy life
concoctions that so many people most fear and least want to talk about.
We all know what those three are: birth, sex, and death--and language is
definitely the fourth among them. And that is why laymen and scholars alike
have so desperately sought out clean, dry, and abstract formulations about
I have discussed these moist, clammy origins of language in several
published and/or presented papers and articles, how language most probably
evolved from the scent markings and spray markings of more primitive animals
& turned into sound markings, how it is related to chemical excrescences of
unicellular organisms or the territorial sprayings of mammals and other
animals. URLS for two of those publications are found towards the end.
Language is the fourth of those three wells of moistness, and its
physiological locus is not installed in some never-never "language organ"
but of course right inside our nervous and muscular systems. It exists
primarily as a network for self-preservation and self-defense and a means of
distinguishing family from strangers, friends from foes, clan members from
outsiders. And it plays this role even in the highest echelons of our
societies, including scientists and scholars.
It is not sufficiently recognized that learning to speak a language requires
not merely learning grammar, vocabulary, idioms, and cultural usages, it
also urgently demands that we embed all of these into the network of our
nerves and muscles if we are ever truly to speak any language, including our
own. As such, learning a language is more similar to learning how to box or
play tennis or throw and catch a ball than it is to memorizing a series of
dates or names or sales figures or drawing creative diagrams to show how
grammar supposedly works.
This is where Rosetta Stone falls down when it supposes that if you want to
know the time, asking "?Que hora es?" or "Che ore sono" in Spanish or
Italian will necessarily help you to understand the answer, which might be
not the expected one at all but "My wife borrowed the good watch, and this
one doesn't work." And this is also where our academic linguists fall down
just as badly when they suppose that language inevitably follows structured,
We must not only pronounce our questions correctly in a foreign language, we
must fully understand the answer and be ready with a follow-up question or
comment. This requires not only good hearing and nerve endings but
well-timed muscular coordination. The muscles employed are far smaller than
those we use in boxing or tennis, but their use and timing must be
Language can perhaps best be seen from a variety of perspectives: as a
protective covering that envelops all of us in varying degrees according to
our age, our accomplishments, and our place in society. Or as a series of
parries and thrusts in an extended fencing match. Or as a set of evasions
and strikes in ninjutsu. Or as a set of probes aimed at determining proper
bounds, also requiring proper advances or retreats. And all of these
comparisons are by no means limited to advanced or "witty" stages of
repartee--they are just as common among five-year olds moving from one
parent to another to gain advantage.
I can go a great deal further along the lines I have laid out here and with
your permission hope to do so later on. I am simply afraid that what I have
said so far is perhaps already more than strange enough for some of you, and
that you might be tempted to react with brief, contemptuous putdowns or at
best the usual sort of semi-learned obscurantism that appears here more
often than it should. Or to question or ridicule my supposed academic
achievements, as one of you did a few years ago.
If any of this is your intent, may I ask you, if you possibly can, to please
refrain. This would be especially true for grad students, who might be
tempted to earn brownie points from their advisors by launching a
mega-attack against ideas contrary to what they have been taught. In any
case, after fifty years of failed mentalism, it's scarcely surprising that
we would find resistance to a combined body-mind approach to language.
Those of you who have bothered to visit my website ought to have discovered
by now that my publications include not only contributions to linguistics,
including invited & peer-reviewed papers in our field, but also in
translation studies and MT, in Chinese medicine, in endocrinology, in sexual
education, and in Elizabethan, Ancient Greek, and modern German theatre. My
more informal articles and reviews delve even more deeply in all these
>>From this perspective, I sometimes find myself both shocked and disturbed by
the narrowness of education displayed by a few who contribute to this group,
along with the doctrinal and dogmatic points of view such narrowness
encourages. I truly hope there can be room here for a broader perspective
With only the very best to all of you!
URLS for my language-spray pieces:
The principal purpose of language is not communication but to persuade
that we know what we are talking about, when quite often we do not.
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