"Being bilingual may delay Alzheimer's and boost brain power..."

alex gross 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 
forcefully now.

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, 
innate principles.

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 
exquisitely sensitive.

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 
on language.

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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