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Suspicions of Language Learning

Brian D. Rude, 2012

      Linguistics, I presume, is a well developed science, and I know nothing about it. But now and then in my lifetime some ideas about language have entered my thoughts, and at the risk of saying something foolish in this article, I will try to develop these ideas. My thinking along these lines leads me to think that some of our popular ideas on language and language learning are not very well developed.

      I have always believed that people ought to learn a second language as part of their general education. I have had a bit of experience in language learning in my life, but only a little. I took a year Latin when I was in the tenth grade and a year of Spanish as a senior in high school. And I learned a little. A few years later I was in the Army stationed in Germany. I made the effort to get a book or two on the German language and studied pretty regularly for a few months. Later I took three semesters of German in college. In recent years I have made some effort to learn a little more Spanish, but I never got very far. So I am far from being an expert on language, or learning of language, but I have a few thoughts that seem worthwhile to get down on paper. In this article I will talk about three topics, bilingualism, vocabulary size, and decoding. In another article I will develop some ideas about learning languages.

Bilingualism

      I will start with the idea of bilingualism. Throughout my life I have heard of people being bilingual. Indeed I have known a few such people, but never as more than casual acquaintances. My father, I believe, was bilingual. He was born in America to immigrants from Norway, and thus grew up hearing Norwegian at home and English at school. Unfortunately I know nothing more than these brief facts. My father died when I was less than one year old. I have no memories of my Norwegian grandparents, as both their deaths preceded my birth. But it always seemed to make sense to me that in a situation such as my father was in, one would indeed be bilingual. And that situation obviously happens all the time. So there must be a lot of bilingual people walking around.

      But a bit of reflection causes me to think it's probably a little more complicated than that. This reflection started when I was in the Army and a Hispanic friend commented that another Hispanic friend didn't know Spanish all that well. I can't remember just what words were said, but the picture I got seemed pretty clear. Hispanic friend number one, who made the comment, struck me as intelligent and thoughtful, and quiet. Hispanic friend number two, about whom the comment was made, was more of a loudmouth than intelligent and thoughtful.

      So I thought about this situation for a few days (or perhaps it was a few minutes, I don't remember). My loudmouth friend claimed to speak Spanish, and could certainly do so if asked. I probably heard him speak Spanish, though my memory is dim, and I simply accepted without question that he spoke Spanish like a native, because, after all, he was.

      Or was he? I did not know at the time, and I have no way of knowing, if Spanish was his first language. Perhaps he was Mexican born. I don't think it's ever been true that you have to be an American citizen to join the Army. But I think it is much more likely that he was American born, but in a Spanish speaking immigrant family. This would fit with my other friends comment that he didn't speak Spanish very well.

      A little thought gives me this picture. Two people, such as my two army friends could both be born into a Spanish speaking immigrant community, but by age twenty or so could have quite different abilities in their native language, for a variety of reasons. The quiet guy, perhaps, knew Spanish to a much greater extent than the loudmouth. To him, I could imagine, the limited Spanish of the loudmouth was irritating, perhaps even embarrassing.

      But how could this be, I wondered. I had assumed they were both native speakers. They were probably like my father - grew up hearing the native language at home and English outside the home. Therefore they would both be bilingual. That means they were both fluent in the language, weren't they? How could one's Spanish be much better than the other's? The answer that emerged from this thought was pretty simple. The loudmouth probably spoke the very limited Spanish of a child, not the considerably more advanced Spanish of an adult native speaker. The limited language of a child in any language may be very fluent and expressive, but that does not mean that it employs a wide vocabulary or complex structure. Indeed every normal child, say at age five, will exhibit fluency in his everyday speech. But the everyday speech of a five year old is not the everyday speech of an adult. That's why we send every five year old to school, and expect him to study his native language every year, for at least a decade. I conclude that apparent fluency tells us very little about accomplishment in a language.

      I have one more personal experience along this line to relate. A few years back I played in an amateur polka band. Our tuba player was a little bit bilingual. Apparently as a child he has some contact with Czech relatives, and therefore could speak a little Czech. Can he sing some Czech songs with our band we wondered? That would bring a nice bit of ethnicity to our performance. Sure, no problem, he said. However the time or two that we got around to actually trying it, it didn't work out. He couldn't remember enough of the words to really make it work. I don't remember the details, but I remember my conclusion. I concluded that the tuba player's Czech and my loudmouth Army buddy probably had something in common. They were bilingual, but to a quite limited extent. My army friend probably was fluent in Spanish to something like a preadolescent level. My tuba playing friend was probably fluent in Czech to the speech level of a four or five year old. They were probably each fluent in the small part of the language that they knew, but that probably doesn't mean much.

      I think it is very common for people to equate fluent language of a child with the complex language of an adult. But that equation does not hold up under scrutiny. If both the five year old child and an adult speak "like a native", then why is the child expected to study his native language in the first grade at school, and the second, and the third, and the fourth and on and on and on? The answer is very simple. We expect children to study their native language at school every year, year after year, because the speech of a child is indeed very different from the speech of an educated adult. A person whose speech does not advance from what it was when he was five years old has a very serious limitation. There is something in common, of course, in the speech of a child and the speech of an adult. Both may speak fluently with a very limited vocabulary and low level of complexity many times during the day. But the adult can easily break out from that simple language as the occasion requires. When an adult says something like, "That new guy at work is a jerk. He can't do the job and he bugs the hell out of me." he is using simple language that a child could understand and imitate. And this level of language may be representative of 95% of his speaking on any typical day. But that same adult, assuming he has at least a high school education, can pick up a magazine and read articles that the child could understand to a very limited degree, if at all. Of course this would involve general knowledge, and maybe specialized knowledge, not just language ability. But the point is that I think it is a mistake to think that fluency in a very limited sphere is the same as "knowing a language".

      Sketchy anecdotes such as these two examples I gave prove nothing, of course. They are suggestive at best. But the suggestion bears careful thought. My thought is that bilingualism can exist in many, many degrees.

      I will expand on this question by presenting a series of quite different scenarios on this basic theme.

      In scenario number one a child has a grandparent as the primary caregiver for the toddler years. The grandparent speaks to the child only in the native language, and the child learns to respond fluently in that language, fluently and appropriately for a normal four year old. But in scenario one, for one reason or another let us say, that arrangement ends when the child turns five and has no more contact with that language.

      In Scenario Number Two the parents are not well educated. They trust the school to educate their child, and feel they have little to add. The speak their native language at home because it is the only language adequate to their needs. In this scenario, scenario number two, I would expect that the heritage language of the child would remain stunted. But it would not be easily evident to everyone that it is stunted. If I were to observe a child of five, from scenario two, conversing at home with his parents in their heritage language I could easily conclude that the son is totally bilingual. But what would I know? All I could judge would be apparent fluency. They speak fast and seemingly effortlessly. How would I know whether it is heavy thought or mindless babbling? And if I were to observe that child as a teenager conversing at home with his parents in the heritage language I could again conclude that the son is totally bilingual. But again, what would I know?

      And if an acquaintance mentions she is bilingual, and I ask her to say something in her heritage language, and she complies, again how am I to judge? Maybe she said something important. Or maybe she comes from Scenario Number One and recited a nursery rhyme that she learned when was three, and knows very little more in that language. Or perhaps she has studied extensively and speaks the language as an educated adult. There is no way that I could know in this situation just from hearing her speak.

      In scenario number three the parents are well educated. They speak their native language at home, not just for convenience but also because they have made a conscious decision that they want the children to have that language. They take an active interest in their children's' education. Indeed they expect to be an important part of it. They make it a point to discuss their children's school work throughout their children's education, through college. Wouldn't this produce quite a different level of ability in their children's heritage language?

      In scenario number three there is still an important difference in the children's language education in English and in their native language, and surely this would make a difference in their bilingualism. In this scenario the children may be exposed to much of the heritage language vocabulary of the subjects they are studying in school. But in this scenario we do not include the idea that the children are given formal instruction in the heritage language. Does this formal instruction make a difference? In school students have to learn grammar, spelling, and usage in their language. They do homework and take tests on that grammar, spelling, and usage. They are assigned compositions to write. If all this formal instruction is missing in their heritage language, it would still seem reasonable that their bilingualism would not be complete. The heritage language could still be considerably less developed than the new language. If not, then why should anyone do homework, take tests, and so on?

      In a fourth scenario the child not only speaks the heritage language at home, but the parents see to it that he or she gets a considerable amount of education in the heritage language. Perhaps the immigrant community in this scenario is large enough to have a high school in the heritage language. I understand this was very common in the history of our country, but perhaps not at all common now. Or perhaps the child in this scenario gets a considerable amount of instruction in the heritage language and then goes to college in the land his parents came from. Surely this would produce a different level of bilingualism than in scenario one or two or three.

      From considerations such as this I conclude that learning a language is a big undertaking. From my own efforts at trying to learn foreign languages I conclude that it is a big undertaking. In the civilized world children have extensive school instruction in the native language over a period of years. How could a person who has far less instruction in a language, any language, develop that language to the same extent?

      This leads me to a conclusion, which I have no way to check. My conclusion is that the situation in which a person is equally fluent in two languages, and both speaks and writes both languages at the level of a minimally educated adult, is rare. I don't know how rare. I will refer to this situation as "balanced bilingualism". And I will hypothesize that "unbalanced bilingualism" is the norm. Truly balanced bilingualism, it seems to me, would only result in rather special circumstances.

      I presented a sequence of four scenarios to try to make the case that bilingualism must come in many degrees. Next I want to present a set of two scenarios to make some points about language proficiency in general and about the relation of age to language proficiency.

      A three year old knows a lot of language, but still has a vast amount to learn. Let's say Alvin is a three year old in an English speaking family with a typical three year old's vocabulary and language skills. And let's say Bert is a college freshmen, a native English speaker, who has never studied another language until he begins Spanish in college. These two learners have little in common, but considering their progress in parallel month by month may be instructive.

      At the end of one month both Alvin and Bert have progressed in learning the language, Alvin in English and Bert in Spanish. Who has learned more? That is obviously not an easy question. In that month Bert would have learned some vocabulary, perhaps a hundred words, or perhaps considerably less, and would have learned just a little about how words are put together into phrases and sentences in Spanish. And of course Bert would have learned some pronunciation rules of Spanish, and perhaps even some spelling rules. Alvin, in that same month, would obviously have learned something of the English language, but it might not be very easy to pin down and describe. He will have learned a few words, and perhaps his parents could identify some of those words. Perhaps he would have learned some new patterns of idioms, but that could be pretty difficult to pin down. Between the ages of three years zero months and three years one month, Alvin basically speaks like a three year old.

      Now let's consider Alvin and Bert after six months. Bert is now in his second semester of college Spanish. From personal experience I know that in the middle of the second semester in a college language course one doesn't know much. When doing homework for the course one can feel both confidence and humility. One can read a short article or story in a new lesson and be mystified by a bunch of new words and new ways that old words are used. But by studying the vocabulary and grammar of that lesson for a few days all of that changes. Then one can read that new article it makes sense. A new language doesn't seem that hard. But that feeling of confidence can be rather short lived when one looks at the next lesson and again sees so much that is unfamiliar. For a bit more humility one can pick up a newspaper or magazine in the language being studied and feel totally illiterate. Learning a language is a big job, a really big job.

      At least that's the way it was for me in taking German in college. I took three semesters of German, and did okay in it. I had the advantage of having spent about one year in Germany in the Army before this. During that time I had actively tried to learn German and made some progress. I wasn't really a beginner when I took beginning German in college. But I knew my head start wouldn't last very long. It made my first semester of German very easy, but I think the effect had pretty well worn off by the time I was in the third semester.

      Now consider Alvin and Bert after one year. Alvin is now four years old, and speaks English like a typical four year old. Bert has completed two semesters of Spanish. Let's say he was a competent student. How does his gain in learning Spanish compare with Alvin's gain in learning English? That is a very hard question to answer, of course. Let's assume Alvin speaks English like a typical four year old. On the one hand that is saying a lot. On the other hand, it's not saying a lot. A four year old does not speak like an adult, except in a very limited area of everyday conversation. Bert at this stage does not at all speak Spanish like a native. Does he speak Spanish like a four year old? I would say no, rather he speaks Spanish like a young adult who has completed one year of college Spanish. So how can we compare Alvin and Bert? On what basis could we say that Alvin has learned more than Bert, or that Bert has learned more than Alvin? It seems like comparing apples to oranges.

      Now let's take this example forward about six years. Let's say that Bert decided to major in Spanish, and proceeds to get a Masters degree in Spanish. Bert is now ready to be employed as an interpreter. Or is he? I have no experience in what it takes to be an interpreter as a professional. I am just guessing that after five or six years of studying a language in college one would be prepared for at least a low level job as an interpreter. But I am confident in saying that Alvin, who is now nine years old, is not ready to take on any job in English that would compare to what Bert would do in Spanish. Alvin as a nine year old will speak English as a nine year old. That is no mean accomplishment, of course. To speak and write at a nine year old level involves a vast amount of learning, but it is far away from what it means to speak and write as a twenty year old.

      Let me modify this scenario a bit. Let us say that Alvin is not just learning English. Suppose Alvin's parents speak two languages and make a conscious effort to teach Alvin both languages. To be more specific let us say that Alvin's father is a native speaker of English, but works as an interpreter of Spanish. And let us say that Alvin's mother is a native speaker of Spanish and works as an interpreter of English. And let us say that neither Alvin, nor his mother, nor his father are linguistically gifted Let us say they are intelligent, just as we would expect of college educated people, but not geniuses or prodigies. Thus in this scenario both parents are fluent in both languages and consciously use both languages in order to make a child with balanced bilingualism. Let us further suppose that they succeed.

      Now let us compare Alvin, a reasonably intelligent bilingual nine year old, and Bert, a reasonably intelligent young adult looking for his first job as an interpreter. Are their language abilities the same? No business, I presume, would want to employ Alvin as an interpreter. Of course there is a lot more than just language ability to be considered. But it seems to me that the language ability of any nine year old, excluding real prodigies perhaps, is still considerably short of the language abilities of a young adult. Otherwise why in the world does every nine year old have to look forward to studying his native language in school for another nine years till he graduates from high school?

      I keep coming back to the conclusion that learning a language is a really big job. Learning two languages, both to a high level of proficiency, is a doubly hard job.

      Or is it? Perhaps Alvin, in his peculiar situation, peculiarly advantageous to becoming bilingual, had just as much time for music, and sports, and playing, and gossiping, and just being a kid, as his monolingual classmates. Maybe nothing needs to be subtracted in a child's life in order to fit in sufficient language instruction to make him bilingual. Isn't that an attractive prospect? Or maybe it doesn't work that way. Maybe something must be subtracted. We understand that a athletically gifted child who aspires to be an olympic champion will have a lot of activities subtracted out of his life if he is to pursue his dream. We understand that a musically gifted child who aspires to the really high levels of concert performance will have a lot of activities subtracted out of her life if she is to pursue her dream.

      So how does it work for language? I don't know.

 

Vocabulary size

      Next I want to consider the size of a person's vocabulary. How many words does the average speaker know in his native language? 100,000? 50,000? I believe estimates of vocabulary size have been coming down over the decades. I remember estimates of 50,000 or even more were commonly made when I was young, but perhaps not now. But over the years I have formed the opinion that these estimates are way too high.

      It is no easy task to accurately count the words in a person's vocabulary, but with a little thought and a few simplifying assumptions we can come to some conclusions. A simple method is to take a dictionary, choose a page at random, and list the words on that page that you know. Repeat that for ten or twenty pages and get an average number of words per page that you know. Multiply that by the number of pages in the dictionary you are using, and you have an estimate of the size of your vocabulary.

      In using this method we have to have some agreement on what we count as a word. I think normally word families are counted, not all the possible variations on every word. Should we count "dog" and "dogs" as one word or two. I would count them as one word. Should we count "break", "breaks", "breaking", "broke" and "broken" as one word or five? I would count them as one word. This is not necessarily and easy and obvious choice. It can certainly be argued that "break" and "broke" are enough different that they won't be learned as one word, and so should be counted as two separate words. But "break", "breaks", and "breaking" certainly seem just variations of one word.

      I would count variations of a word as separate words if it seems like they must be learned as separate words. Thus I would count "be", "am" "is", "are", "was", and "were" as six separate words, even though they are different forms of the verb "to be". But I think for verbs in general it doesn't make sense to count all possible forms as distinct words that ought to be counted separately. It's hard to think of "develop", "develops", "developing", and "developed" as separate words. The forms of "break" seem, to me at least, to be on the borderline. I would count "break" and "broke" as just two variations of one word, but I can see how others might do it differently

      A dictionary that claims to have 160,000 entries, then, will not represent a vocabulary size of 160,000 words. Many of those entries are terms, not words. "Rat" is certainly a word, and "hole" is certainly a word. But should we count "rathole" as a word? When I talk about vocabulary size I will not count "rathole" as a separate word, even though it might be in a dictionary. If a child knows the meaning of "rat" and knows the meaning of "hole", then he is in a position to figure out what rathole means. This is not to say that there is no learning involved with the word "rathole". I am just saying that when I am talking about vocabulary size I will consider "rathole" the same as "rat hole", a combination of words, not a new independent word.

      And certainly the number of words in a dictionary is not meant to represent any one person's vocabulary. Nobody knows everything, or every word in his language.

      I used this method to estimate my vocabulary size. The dictionary I used has 1534 pages of entries. On page 329 of this dictionary the words I identified as in my vocabulary were "cushion", "cusp" "cuspidor', cuss", "custard","custody", "custom", "customer", and "cut", a total of only nine words. There were a lot of entries on this page that I didn't count. The first entry on this page was "curvi-", but I didn't count it as a word, because I decided it was just a form of "curve", and "curve was not on this page. It was on a previous page, of course, but I not counting every page. I'm using a sampling technique. I only used thirty out of the 1534 pages.

      The second entry on this page was "curvilinear" I didn't count that as a word, because it is a combined form of "curve" and "linear" Next came "curvy", but that is an obvious form of "curve", and "curve" is on a previous page, not this one.

      The next entry was a proper name, "Curzon", a British statesman, a viceroy of India at the turn of the last century. I didn't add that to my list because I didn't know the name, but also because I decided not to count proper names as vocabulary.

      The highest number of words I found on a single page was 16, on page 835 in my dictionary. The lowest number of words on a page was zero, on page 1257. This page starts with "Southampton", then "Southampton insurrection", "Southampton Island", and finishes up with "South Valley", "South Vietnam", and "southward". All of these, I decided, are just combinations of "south", which is on the previous page, not this one. This is not to say that there is no possible learning on this page. There are worlds of learning represented on this page. But for the moment I am just interested in vocabulary size.

      Are "dog", "fight", and "dogfight" two words or three. After speaking of "rat", "hole", and "rathole" a few paragraphs back as two words, not three, it might seem obvious that "dog", "fight", and "dogfight" are two words, not three. However when I came to "dogfight" on page 391, I decided that "dogfight" was a separate word, on the idea that the primary meaning of "dogfight" is a battle between two warplanes, not a fight between two dogs, though it obviously can be that too. I don't claim to be entirely logical and consistent. The goal is just to get a rough estimate of my vocabulary size.

      I got a total of 279 words from thirty pages, or 9.3 words per page. 9.3 times 1534 pages of entries in my dictionary yields a total of about 14,000 words in my vocabulary. That seems reasonable to me. Thus I think the idea that a high school graduate has a vocabulary of 50,000 words is not realistic.

      This doesn't give a great deal of guidance for estimating the vocabulary of a child starting kindergarten. Surely that vocabulary would be much smaller than adult's vocabulary, much smaller than my 14,000 word vocabulary. I will take a guess that it would be the exceptional kindergartener with a vocabulary above 2000 words.

      My thinking on vocabulary size was strongly influenced by something that happened some years ago. I somehow acquired several second hand books on American history. They were small paperbacks. I probably found them at a garage sale, though I really don't remember. Only after reading quite a bit of them did I notice that on the back cover it was explained that these were special books, written with either a 1000 or a 2000 word vocabulary. I had noticed that the writing seemed to be at something less than an adult level, perhaps seventh grade or so. Indeed I may have picked up these books because they appeared to be written at a child's level, and sometimes a book written for children can be a very good way to get the basics of some subject. But until I read what was on the back cover I would not have guessed that the vocabulary would be limited to either 1000 or 2000 words. A thousand words, it turns out, will go a long way. The word count to this point in this article is a few thousand words, and there are obviously many, many repeated words. Thinking about this led to the following:

      I took two articles of mine from my web site and counted the number of words used in each. This would have been a very tedious exercise before the age of computers, but not at all difficult now. The first article I used was "Hydrogen, Nitrogen, And John Q. Public". According to the word count function on my word processing program that has a total of 1836 words, a rather short article. Obviously most of those words are used more than once. To determine how many separate words there were I began to type the article in one column on a spread sheet. This is obviously not conducive to rapid typing. I must type one word, enter, type another word, enter, type the next word, enter, and on and on. When I have thus laboriously typed in the first paragraph, or even the first few sentences, it starts to go faster. In the very first sentence I might encounter the word "the" several times, and I need not type it in on the second and third occurrence. So within just a few sentences I begin to scan each line for new words and only type in the new words. But of course I can't remember every word that I have already typed. If there is any doubt I just type it in again. After doing a paragraph I use the sort function on the spreadsheet to sort that column into alphabetical order. Repeated words now appear consecutively in my column of words and it's easy to delete duplicates. Then I do another paragraph or two, typing in new words in the column in the spreadsheet, then sort that column into alphabetical order, then delete duplicates, then sort again to get a column of words used so far in the article to that point. This is tedious, but within an hour or so I have a list, in alphabetical order, of every word used in the article. For "Hydrogen, Nitrogen, And John Q. Public" I ended up with a list of 416 words. Remember there are 1836 words total in the article, but most words are repeated, some many times. The vocabulary size for this article is only 416 words.

      And then I did the same for my article, "The Case For Long Division" That is a longer article, 6295 words in all, but only 661 separate words. Of course that counts different forms of a word as only one word. If I remember that "understand" is already recorded on my list, and I come across the word "understanding", or understands", or even "understood" or "misunderstood" I just keep going. I consider all those as variations of the root word "understand".

      What are we to make of this? Can we argue that you only need to have a vocabulary of about 700 words to read and understand my long division article? That would be true in one sense. A person who has studied very little English might take my article and a dictionary of English in his native language and with a lot of perseverance be able to read that article with some understanding. But that would be a very narrow accomplishment. By learning the meanings of only those 661 words, that person would be very ill equipped to pick up any other article in English and make any sense of it.

      What this exercise illustrates is that much of our speaking and writing consists of a lot or repeated use of a relatively small number of words. Here is a table that illustrates this.

Vocabulary size

Text coverage

1000

2000

3000

4000

5000

6000

15,851

72.0%

79.7%

84.0%

86.8%

88.7%

89.9%

97.8%


This is from an internet article by Paul Nation and Robert Waring. The internet address is http://www.fltr.ucl.ac.be/fltr/germ/etan/bibs/vocab/cup.html. The "text coverage" column means that a person with a 1000 word vocabulary would know about 72% of the words in a passage of standard text, and a person with a 6000 word vocabulary would know about 90% of the words encountered in standard text. Of course this depends on what they have in mind as "standard text". It seems to me that their chart would apply to writing intended for a pretty well educated public, perhaps something like a college history text, not the text used in many newspapers, or in advertising meant for the general public. It seems to me that a vocabulary of about 6000 words would enable a person to recognize 98% of words in writing intended for a general audience. I have no way of knowing how authoritative this chart is, but it certainly fits, roughly at least, what I would expect. A few words go a long way.

      A very interesting point is made in this article. Below a certain threshold vocabulary size a reader or listener is in no position to successfully guess the meaning of unknown words. However once a person reaches a certain vocabulary size guessing of meaning can profitably be done. The authors of this article put that threshold at about 3000 words.

      How would the author of those limited vocabulary books I mentioned manage to convey good meaning with only a thousand or two thousand words. Certainly one could argue that a lot of important meanings would be simply left out. But a lot of meaning could be left in. If you have a list of 1000 words you have a lot to work with, you can say a lot.

      Getting back to levels of bilingual proficiency, it would seem reasonable, to me at least, that a person who learned only 500 words, or even a thousand, should have a good start on being able to function in a culture of that language. This would help explain how a bilingual person could convincingly fluent with a very limited knowledge of the language.

 

Decoding, making meaning

      Now I will turn to a few ideas on meaning, or decoding. As a first approximation we could say that decoding is simply a matter of vocabulary. If you know what individual words mean, then is it obvious that you know what combinations of words mean?

      Surely getting meaning from a language must start with vocabulary. Words have meaning, and if you don't know the meaning of the words in a sentence it would seem that nothing further is possible. One can think of possible exceptions to this. If you're in a foreign land and a native speaker comes up and excitedly starts speaking and gesturing frantically you might gather from body language and situational language that perhaps you are in danger in some way, or perhaps are breaking some rule of civil behavior without realizing it. So in some ways we might argue that there is something in languages even more basic than vocabulary, but that seems stretching it a little. In the big picture of language learning it would seem that vocabulary would have to come first.

      But vocabulary is limited. Words are put together, and how they are put together matters. A string of words can typically be interpreted in a number of different ways, and often those different ways are quite different, even opposites. Thus we get to grammar. A starting point is the idea that rules of grammar determine how we get meaning from language.

      In English word order counts. The sentence "The man bites the dog" has an entirely different meaning that the similar sentence, "The dog bites the man". So in English we know that if we are to be understood we must use proper word order, and the proper word order is subject-verb-direct object. Without this rule of word order many sentences, such as these two, would be ambiguous, or even meaningless. As I remember from my one year of Latin in high school, that is not at all the case in Latin. The meaning of these two sentences would indeed require some rules of grammar to understand them, but the rules of grammar would be rules of case ending, not rules of word order. In the first sentence "man" would be in the nominative case, and have a nominative case ending. The nominative case is for the subject of a sentence. Since "dog", in this first sentence, is the recipient of the action, it would be in the accusative case, and have an accusative case ending. The accusative case is for the direct object in sentences, not the subject. In the other sentence "dog" would be in the nominative case and would have a nominative case ending. "Man", being the recipient of the action, would be in the accusative case and have an accusative case ending. The word order would be variable. That is not to say that there would not be rules of custom to influence word order, but those rules of custom would not be as important as the case endings. In general word order does not determine meaning in Latin. Case does. At least that is my understanding. I suppose it gets a lot more complicated when you know more Latin.

      So it never made much sense to me when Noam Chomsky said there is a "universal grammar". Chomsky is a famous linguist, of course, but I really don't know what he means by a universal grammar. It would seem to me that the opposite is true, that there is no universal grammar. There is no universal set of rules that tell us what is meant by any given combination of words. Rather there are language specific customs that serve that purpose. In English "The man bit the dog" and, "the dog bit the man", have distinct and opposite meanings, but only because English employs the important rule that word order carries meaning. But that rule doesn't apply to every language.

      In English a rising inflection at the end of a sentence tells us that it is a question. In writing the two sentences, "The bird is blue.", and "The bird is blue?" have different meanings indicated by the question mark or period. Those marks are not available in spoken English, but the rising inflection of the question makes it clear when interpretation is intended. Is that true in every language? I don't think so, but I really can't say for sure. Linguists, I presume, know, but I don't.

      How else, other than word order, case endings, and vocal inflections, might meaning be encoded into words? I presume there are other ways, but at the moment I have exhausted my linguistic knowledge.

      My contention is that the only thing universal in all languages is that meaning may (or may not) be implied and inferred by anything that potentially can hold meaning. This doesn't sound very impressive, but I think it is fundamental to how languages work. Languages are opportunistic, more than systematic. If word order is useful to carry meaning, then we may use word order, or we may not. If body language is useful to convey meaning, then we may use body language, or we may not. If suffixes can be used to convey meaning then suffixes maybe used, or may not.

      Here is an example in my personal experience that I think is relevant here. Years ago I had some experience with one child with poorly developed language. He was perhaps eight or nine years old at the time. I discovered one day that he did not use the word "if". It either was simply not in his vocabulary, or for some reason he did not use it. For example the sentence "If you'll put on your coat we'll go play in the snow", in his speech would come out as "You put on your coat, we'll go play in the snow". When I realized this, his speech became more understandable. In normal everyday conversation there are many times when we express something conditional. The simplest way in English to express that something is conditional is with the word "if". But in listening to this boy I learned that I simply had to keep in mind that two sentence fragments that seem disconnected might simply be connected by a conditional. If this boy said, "Clouds are dark, the garden will grow." he might mean it as a compound declarative, "The clouds are dark, and the garden may grow. Or he may mean it as a conditional, "If the clouds are dark, that means the garden will grow". The connection is that dark clouds mean rain and rain makes the garden grow.

      One could say it is a rule of grammar in English, or a rule of vocabulary, that a conditional is expressed by the word "if", and one could say that the rules of grammar and vocabulary are necessary for meaning to be encoded and conveyed. There is a lot of truth to that, of course, but my experience with this boy leads me to think there is a bigger truth. I think the bigger truth is that meaning is conveyed in many ways.

      The rules of grammar and vocabulary give a certain minimum meaning to a sentence like, "The sky is blue.", but that meaning can be greatly modified, or extended, or even negated by voice inflection, by body language, by gestural language, by situational language, by knowledge of context and setting, by knowledge of culture, by knowledge of antecedents, and on and on and on.

      All this leads to a concept that I have found useful for a number of years. I call it the "juggling machine". The juggling machine is the brain, or some part of the brain, that takes a string of words and extracts meaning from it. This part of the brain takes the words, juggles them around in various ways that might be meaningful, chooses the meaning that seems most likely, and then somehow passes that meaning along to the rest of the brain. This process becomes most visible in situations where the meaning of a string of words is indefinite, or ambiguous.

      Consider this example: "After a long trial before judge and jury the defendant was found guilty and sentenced to jail." This sentence is pretty straightforward and understandable. But let us take parts of this sentence and show how they could have different meanings.

      "to jail" could be the infinitive form of a verb, as in "The police were forced to jail a protester who refused to leave the premises." This is a perfectly legitimate meaning of the two-word phrase, "to jail". It is the infinitive form of a verb, and jail is certainly sometimes a verb. But the grammar and vocabulary rules do not tell which meaning is intended. Context tells that, and it depends on an active process in the mind to determine which meaning is intended.

      "the defendant was found" could have quite a different meaning, as in "Jones somehow slipped away, leaving the courtroom in in a state of confusion until the defendant was found hiding in a bathroom."

      "before judge" could have the meaning as in " "jelly comes before judge because e comes before u in the alphabet."

      What is the meaning of "jury the defendant"? Could it be a verb phrase as in "We ought to hang him now, but judicial nicety requires that we jury the defendant first, and then hang him." This sentence is certainly bending the rules of normal usage of the English language, but it is also is perfectly understandable.

      "trial" could have a meaning as in "The second phase of the research requires a trial of at least 1000 inoculations of mice and observation of the resulting tumor growth."

      The simple word "after" could mean position in time or position in space, or position in importance, or it could mean pursuit, as in "The police are after me".

      All these alternative meanings, and many, more are not the meanings used in this sentence. But it is neither vocabulary rules nor grammar rules that determine which of the many possible meanings are correct. Rather the brain takes a string of words and looks for ways that they could make sense. The words are "juggled down".

      The "juggling machine", as I use the term, refers to a process, or whole series of processes, in the brain by which possible meanings are extracted, and one meaning chosen. This processing is usually given little thought, but sometimes becomes visible with humorous results. An old joke is the phrase, "Take my wife, please!" The first part of this, "take my wife", is normally interpreted as something like, "consider my wife as an example", but the last word forces the brain to consider another, and more basic meaning of the phrase, "take my wife". A similar example is "I see, said the carpenter as he picked up his hammer and saw."

      I have long been quite conscious of the workings of my juggling machine for several reasons. First I have always been introspective and analytic, and if you start paying attention to your juggling machine, or more generally, your own thinking, you can become quite aware of many possible interpretations of many things that are said in everyday language.

      A second reason I am very much aware of how my juggling machine operates is that my wife and I have always enjoyed exploiting the humor in ambiguities. There are plenty of situations where the humor of ambiguities is published in one form or another. There are also many situations in which little jokes are enjoyed by my wife and I as momentary private humor. Just today I put two of them in an email. At the mention of sight seeing on a day off from work, I asked what kind of sites are desired, building sites maybe. At the mention of going south of the border, I asked what boarder are we talking about, and why we might care whether we are north or south of that person.

      Does everyone's mind work this way? My guess is that everyone's mind can work this way. If you're in the habit of looking for humorous misinterpretations of words in everyday language they pop up all the time.

      The juggling machine works very fast and efficiently. Consider this sentence, "A comment was leaked to the press by a white house source." I heard this comment, or something like it, once on the radio. I was probably not listening very closely for meaning, because my mind at the moment turned to my own thinking. And I realized that the first part of this, "A comment was leaked to the press by a white" produced meaning in my mind. I distinctly remember wondering why anyone cares about the race of the leaker, whether he was white or black or Indian or oriental or whatever. But that interpretation was wrong. "White" did not refer to the race of the leaker, but was part of the phrase "white house". That shows how amazingly fast the brain works. If the speaker on the radio was talking at 140 words per minute, then there is about 70 milliseconds between the word "white" and the word "house" Yet that 70 milliseconds was quite sufficient for my brain to come up with a possible interpretation of the meaning of the words up to that point in the sentence, a wrong interpretation. I distinctly remember the interpretation of race jumping into my mind, and then being immediately ejected when I heard the word "house".

      Here is an interesting sentence, “Throw the horse over the fence some hay.” I don’t remember where I heard this sentence, but I think maybe it comes from Minnesota humor, perhaps representative of Scandinavian speech. It is perfectly understandable, but a bit humorous because of the phrasing. I think the humor comes from “throw the horse over the fence”. I would think for most everyone, or at least most all native English speakers, an image of a horse being thrown over a fence comes to mine. Our juggling machines expect to juggle the words around until they have some meaning, and an obvious candidate for meaning is the idea of a horse being thrown over the fence. But the last two words force the sentence to be rejuggled. “Horse” becomes the indirect object, “hay” is the direct object, and it’s a perfectly good sentence.

      Can we identify any English rule of grammar that tells us what is meant by this sentence? I don’t think so. It seems to me that we take in the words, and then by some mental process decide on what is meant. We juggle the words down until meaning can be extracted. This is not to say that rules of grammar are useless or irrelevant, but that they are very incomplete for decoding meaning out of messages.

      As I can recall from my year of Latin in high school, Latin has the dative case for indirect objects, as well as the nominative case for subjects and the accusative case for direct objects. Perhaps other languages also have something like this. In such a language the rules of grammar would determine how this sentence is to be interpreted. One might argue that English is less efficient for lacking such grammar rules, or less effective, but one could argue that English does just fine anyway. The horse-over-the-fence sentence may sound awkward or even humorous to most speakers of English, but its meaning is easily understood.

      The juggling machine idea, of course, is just descriptive. It's sort of an "as if" description. The brain works as if it has some mechanism of this sort. But I think there are a few consequences of this "as if" idea that are worth thinking about.

      The juggling machine idea implies that the brain works opportunistically. It puts data together in ways that make some sort of sense. Indeed that would seem to be the general idea of the brain as an all purpose problem solver. We evolved as creatures whose ecological niche is general problem solving ability. The brain is not evolved to do things in particular, so much as it evolved to try a lot of different things. This is not to say there are no specific abilities that have evolved in us. It's just to say that the general problem solving ability, which comes from opportunistically putting information and ideas together in many different ways, is very important to our evolution.

      More specifically applied to language, it means, as I have already mentioned once, the rules of grammar are descriptive, not proscriptive. They do not, at least usually, definitively determine meaning, but they nearly always help in finding possible meanings.

      And it means that decoding any string of words depends on prior knowledge. Certainly there are many sentences that seem to make perfect sense with no prior knowledge. The sentence, “The red rose on the table is starting to wilt.” seems to make sense in itself. But many more sentences are not at all so straightforward. How about “Put the flat down as a risky business.” ? Without context that sentence cannot be deciphered. The sentence, “I wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.” certainly conveys meaning, but without context its specific meaning, the meaning meant by the speaker, is unknown.

      And the sentence I gave as an example of being understandable by itself, would not necessarily be understandable in context. A person hearing that sentence, "The rose on the table is starting to wilt." might be totally confused if a table is present, but the rose is not. Perhaps in that situation, "I want a divorce" might be what is meant.

      All of this can be summarized by the principle I already mentioned: meaning might, or might not, be conveyed by any method that it possibly can be conveyed. Nothing is definitive in the conveyance of meaning by language.

      There are other ideas of language that I want to address at some time. But that will have to be in future articles.