Saturday, 13 May 2017

Thoughts in Progress

I was listening to Thought for the Day the other day and the guest speaker said something very interesting. Thought for the Day is Radio Four’s religion-infused, regular section whose main aim is to reflect on contemporary issues from a faith-based perspective. The occasion was the celebration of Buddha’s Wakening or Enlightenment and the guest was Vishvapani , a member of the Buddhist Order.

On explaining how the Buddha’s new understanding of life challenged all the notions that he had had before, Vishvpavani  said that the Buddha had showed people “how to tap the mind's hidden capacities“. This phrase reminded me of an article I had read in the London Review of Books a few days before. The piece was about Noam Chomsky as a linguist and radical political figure. In the former role Noam revolutionised the field of linguistics. The academic position at the time was a distrust of “the ghost in the machine”, i.e., the human mind. Moreover, both philosophy and psychology followed this trend, preferring conventional wisdom to the prospect of having to deal with subjective experience. Chomsky, on the other hand, claimed that there were things we knew innately, even if they did not manifest themselves explicitly.

Having written a column on how to place adjectives correctly in a sentence in the English language more than a week ago and how this “problem” was hardly a problem for native speakers as they could “feel” what the right order was, I see myself in agreement with Chomsky. Knowledge, both the acquisition and possession of it, can be tacit and unconscious. Watch young children forming their own phrases, sometimes not even using the raw material they are given from birth. More than once when overhearing my own children talking when they were little, I caught myself thinking: “How do they know that?

However, I do have certain doubts. If this knowledge is somehow innate, where does it come from originally? Not being religious at all, in fact, being an atheist, I reject the notion that it is planted in our brains by an external agent. Could this knowledge perhaps be a generational phenomenon? The instincts embedded throughout our evolutionary journey through planet Earth. When Chomsky talks about the difference between the I-language of internal, individual structures of meaning versus the E-language of external expression he is onto something. About the same time I read the LRB article, I was also preparing myself for an entry test to study the Online Celta course at International House London. For the last five years I have been looking at the possibility of returning to full-time language teaching. Here is now that opportunity. I have been accepted at IH for a September start.

As a young graduate I remember being really excited about lesson planning. It was a chance to put some of my wacky ideas into practice. One of them was based on maieutics. This was the method used by Socrates to elicit knowledge from the mind of a person by interrogation and insistence on close and logical reason. Whereas Socrates and his followers were more interested in critical thinking I used maieutics to unlock the linguistic power of my students. English being the unofficial lingua franca of the last seventy-odd years, exposure to it, even in socialist, Fidel-run Cuba, meant that many of pupils had already come across some of the expressions I was about to teach them, perhaps unconsciously.

The first answer of the foreign language adult learner is “I don’t know”. Self-consciousness is their worst enemy. That is why determining the context in which one wants to study is fundamental. That context includes using the knowledge acquired both by conscious and unconscious means. This is where Chomsky and Socrates come together, in my view. The former supports the mysterious “ghost in the machine”. This means that my students have the capacity to generate I-language, which at the same time underpins consciousness. Socrates comes in handy when we, teachers, need to unlock the hidden power of learning in adults. Understanding the linguistic complexities of a foreign lexicon is scary. In order to achieve this, I, the teacher, usually take the grown-up back to a childlike state of mind. Socrates was interested in critical thinking; my goal is to show the adult what they know and how much they know.

Are we humans born with an innate sense of knowledge about certain things? Or, is all knowledge acquired empirically? It seems to me that that “ghost” will continue to be debated for many years, even centuries, to come.


© 2017

Next Post: “Diary of an Inconsequential Being”, to be published on Wednesday 17th May at 6pm (GMT)

20 comments:

  1. I cringe when I hear phrases like, "I'm not going nowhere" instead of the correct "I'm not going anywhere." LOL! A very well articulated post, dear friend. Thanks for sharing. :)

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  2. Kids sure do find a way of learning without learning it seems. But most of it I'm sure they heard or seen somewhere and then their little minds just stick things together like a puzzle.

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  3. You sound like a teacher I would have loved to have.
    Chomsky not only has an ability "to tap the minds hidden capacities" but he is doing such a valuable job in exposing, with precision, the current situation. He taps into the reality with concise language and exposes the guts of the situation. I enjoy listening to him and come away amazed at what I've just learned.

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  4. An intriguing and thought provoking post. I think all of us learn in a myriad of ways. And would love to expand that capacity. Like Liv, as I read I thought that you are a teacher I would have loved to have. And then stopped. You are one of my teachers. For which I thank you.

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  5. I often think about and occasionally write about (in posts and elsewhere) the source of what appears to be innate or instinctive knowledge. Although I do not believe in reincarnation, I do not rule it out, either, as one possible explanation. Socrates and the "Old Greeks" apparently bought into it. More likely, but not any more plausible from my point of view, is that the source is material embedded in our genetic "inheritance" from our ancestors.

    I think in the case of children, they actually learn a great deal simply by watching adults. That is how I learned how to play pinochle, for instance -- as a boy, standing silently while looking over the shoulders of men playing it in pool halls.

    You do come up with some wonderful posts, CiL .... this is one.

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  6. Experience, observation, and education all play a part in the way we express ourselves.

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  7. A compelling post, and congratulations! Greetings from La Florida.

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  8. Many congratulations. I agree with others that children learn by observation as much as training.

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  9. This is very interesting. I agree with other comments, children learn by observation but also absorption, it's the same to some degree when learning a foreign language as an adult, if you immerse yourself in the language then you find yourself absorbing certain elements without being aware of it

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  10. So true - kids absorb anything like sponges!

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  11. It's not just people that seem to have an 'inate' understanding of the world. Salmon cross the oceans and up the rivers to the place they were spawned. Turtles cross the seas to lay eggs on one particular beach. Some birds migrate across the world without an adult showing them where to go. A million termites from hundreds of nest fly into the sky at exactly the same moment, searching for a new home.

    Like you, I don't put this down to any divine intervention. But I do think it's rather wonderful!

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  12. Mmm, I'm not sure that this is an either/or situation. Genetic predisposition and learning is already well-documented; it's called instinct. It seems truly ridiculous to discount that certain social behaviors couldn't be genetically passed on via instinct since we've observed this very thing in other species. We are not above it.

    HOWEVER, I think unconscious acquisition shouldn't be discounted either. Learning does not necessarily require active comprehension and consideration. Most early learning is performed not through conscious effect but unconscious mimicry. It seems logical that, provided the concept of language, an english-born speak would have certain colloquialisms and unconscious knowledge that they picked up through raw, unintended exposure versus a native-born student studying the language. This same concept can be supported through things like the colloquialisms, certain sentence structures, and accents found in particular geographic locations compared to other locations.

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  13. Fascinating post. I truly want to belief in the ghost in the machine, though I have no logical explanation for it.

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  14. Hi Mario - fascinating post ... we do learn as we grow, yet can be encouraged in other directions and to add to our knowledge, to open our minds to new ideas. Brilliant you've got accepted to the CELTA course - congratulations on that - bet you're as pleased as punch ... and from the little I know of you via the blog - it seems it will suit you down to the ground. Wonderful. Congratulations - cheers Hilary

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  15. a bit too deep for me today :)

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  16. Me imagino que a fuerza de oír las frases correctas uno aprende a utilizar y hablar correctamente o lo mejor que uno puede.
    Un abrazo.

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  17. I don't know enough about Buddhism, but Platonic thought had this notion about us trying to achieve what we had in an earlier world. Do you think that idealistic philosophies have a intrinsic religious foundation?

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  18. Yes, a lot to consider here, deep thoughts.

    On the topic of language learning, I'm using Memrise now and really enjoying it.😀

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  19. PS...Your new header is amazing.

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