maybe later

If I wasn’t both too skint and too immersed in writing, I’d be interested in getting hold of these books on language acquisition newly announced on the Linguist List.

  • Semantics in Acquisition, which seeks to apply formal semantics to language acquisition. I still have fond memories of (struggling to keep on top of) formal semantics and it would be intriguing to see how successfully it can handle child language acquisition.
  • Optimality Theory, Phonological Acquisition and Disorders, by Dinnsen and Gierut. Particularly their claim that there is indeed clinical relevance in what Optimality Theoretic accounts can offer makes the book sound appealing. And makes me wish I was going to ICPLA Istanbul to hear Martin Ball’s plenary; but I’m not.

Also of interest on the Linguist List recently was this review of a book on language acquisition from the perspective of modularity. The review is generally positive, but takes issue with what seems to be a major theme of the book:

The most controversial claim in this book concerns ”ethical modularity”, namely that the modular theory of mind may preserve the dignity of a child. First of all, it should be beyond doubt that the dignity of a child should always be preserved: a child having failed in a particular language (or cognitive) task should incur no disadvantages such as demotion to a lower class or to a class for handicapped pupils, misclassification as imbecile, or personal offence. However, it may not be that easy to achieve this goal. Can cognitive science help here? Roeper is convinced that by maintaining a modular theory of mind we can avoid harm to the children that are entrusted to our care. The modular theory may lend itself less easily to misuse than alternative theories. The argument claims that a modular theory naturally preserves the dignity of the child because the failure of a child in one task (if a failure at all) will remain a local one in just one module whereas all other modules may still be intact. The acknowledgement of the child’s general cognitive integrity preserves her dignity. In contrast, a theory that generalizes a local deficit to a global one is more likely to lead to a violation of the child’s dignity with all its negative consequences.

6 thoughts on “maybe later

  1. That last quote caught my attention. The LinguistList review has some more comments on the interaction of cognitive theory with ethics and public policy, as does this blog post by the author of the book (also linked from the review).

    As scientists, it is of course always worth considering the implications of our findings for society at large. But crucially, the implications for ethics should not determine which answers we are willing to entertain. If a scientific fact contradicts a belief that forms the basis of many people’s conception of human dignity, it will be difficult to adjust our view of ourselves. But that difficulty will not make it untrue.

    Anyway, you are quite right Cath – these are tantalizing books. Don’t worry – you’ll be finished soon. Good luck!


  2. Tim, if we’re thinking of the same paragraph, it’s the one I let my eye quickly leap over, to save me being distracted right now :) What i was mainly concerned about was the assumption or implication that you couldn’t be preserving the dignity of the child unless you adopted a modular approach. I haven’t read the blog post (… to save me being distracted) but it’s obviously a good thing when scientists want to ensure that their theories are ethical (which i suppose only maps on to ‘these theories preserve human dignity’ up to a point). The problem is failing to recognise that you can share the same ethical values and still interpret the same data in different ways – either as evidence for modularity or against. As the reviewer says:

    “Suppose it was true that a language deficit is just a sign of
    a general cognitive deficit. Would that automatically lead to an unjust treatment of the child? Not necessarily. Other aspects of constructivism may guard against it such as the idea that the child actively construes knowledge by interacting with the environment. Thus, a constructivist might try to foster this process therapeutically and thereby remedy the assumed general deficit. These examples show that different ethical consequences may follow from the same theory as well as the same ethical consequences may follow from different theories. What can we conclude from this? Entertaining a certain kind of theory neither exempts a researcher from constant monitoring of her proper ethical
    behavior nor does it condemn her to inevitable failure in this respect.”


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