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A question for Acid Christ


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Hey there,

If anyone else has looked at this thread thinking 'I wonder what this will be?', to save you time I'll just say don't bother as this is a very unusual topic of little interest to most people. There, I warned you.


Anyway, AC, can I ask, why are you getting into Noam Chomsky lectures? Is it something work related or just out of interest, and what aspect of Chomsky's theories are you investigating? What do you think of Chomsky and his work in general? I just saw you mention his lectures in your signature and thought it was odd that you'd be interested in his work without having to look at it out of obligation, as it's an unusual topic of interest.

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I think the phrase "Jack of all trades, master of none" would probably apply to my habits. When I had the internet at home (my previous flat, before I moved back to my Mum's for a spell) I became a 56k downloading demon. I became a bit impatient with waiting for anything other than audio files to download. My mate Roj' suggested Audio Books and, sure enough, typing "Audio Book" into WinMX brought up hundreds of fantastic things.


Noam Chomsky's a name I hadn't heard until about two months ago. It was a pretty quiet day on WinMX (i.e.: not many good files popping up) so I clicked on "Linguistics and Philosophy" on a whim. To hear someone talking about why a dictionary is almost useless in discovering what the meanings of words are to a native speaker was strange - but it did make sense. The fact that someone thought it necessary to think about WH-fronting (where we put the "What" or "Who" or what-have-youat the start of the question, instead of the end) is intriguing.


The other two lectures are regarding Hypocrisy, War and Terrorism. His dissection of America's policy regarding various UN policies is just beyond astounding. The way that America purports itself to be the bastion of freedom and yet ignores any view that doesn't correlate with its own is incredible.


Anyhoo, like I said I'm a "Jack of all trades, master of none": I'm very faddish so I like to learn new things - you'll be pleased to note that I'm trying to learn Spanish by listening to that other audio book. I'm as far as the -ibles and the -ables, the -entes, the -antes and things like I have/you have &c. Not sure how long it will last, especially as I'm taking up French again this summer.



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I think it's cool that you can expand your horizons in those ways. I know for instance that I wouldn't ever really choose to learn chemistry on a whim, so I think it's great that you can open up to these things. Good luck learning Spanish, a lot of people take the piss out of those 'In Three Months' range of books (Hugo probably do the best ones) but if you already have some idea of the structure of the language group you can probably get some use out of them as you'd already have some idea of where you need to go with Spanish (you said you had already had a go at French which like Spanish is a Latin based language, so the structural similarities can help you know what to seek and how things ought to work). If there's anything tricky where you think a simple explanation might help, and you think I might know, give me a shout.


As for Chomsky, rather than his work itself I'm currently in the process of having to consider others who have followed up on his theories in discussing unaccusative, or ergative, verbs (not very interesting at all, and confusing), which means I'm also familiar to an extent with his theories on WH fronting where they are relevant in terms of how they can apply to Spanish (QU fronting, as WH words in English become QU words in Spanish - for example, 'cómo' or 'como' originates from the Latin 'quo modis'). His theories can be applied within a certain limited context, such as the idea that dictionaries are not what helps a native speaker understand the meanings behind words. He's not the ony person to have said this (many modern TEFL courses train teachers based upon the same principles), but he did take the theory further than most before him. It is when he attempts to further this basic principle that I disagree with him. His main achievement as a linguist consists of glamourising the field of translation studies, which was really considered a secondary activity until his theories attempted to present translation according to a scientific format, and people were taken in by the glossy presentation.


I don't really go along with the general trend of praising him to the hilt basically because I don't believe in his 'deep structure' theory. The idea that all languages' versions of a certain phrase all have the same underlying meaning in my view doesn't really work and is a bit too idealistic. For instance, if we were having a conversation for the first time and then I said to you 'I have to go now to meet my brother', the deep structure thing works when we look for other English equivalents. Using the same deep structure of me being obliged to leave my current location presently and arrive at a destination at which another male person is situated who has the same mother and father as I do, you can come up with different surface structure phrases sharing the deep structure of 'I have to go now and meet my brother'. It would be possible to say 'I must go to meet my brother now' or 'I have to meet my brother, I have to go now' without altering the deep structure of the sentence.


However, the deep structure theory really doesn't work when several other languages are applied. In Serbo-Croat for instance, the word brother has two translations, one meaning 'older brother' and one meaning 'younger brother'. If, upon first conversing with someone in Serbo-Croat, I then want to say the sentence above, how can it be done while maintaining the same deep structure? Surely, since any Serbo-Croat surface structure phrase with one of the two words equating to 'brother' will carry information about the relative ages of the speaker and the sibling to which the phrase refers, the factor of age becomes an implicit part of the deep structure if you want to translate a sentence involving a brother from Serbo-Croat to English?


In Japanese another problem arises, as depending upon the social class and/or relation between the speaker and the person of whom they speak, different surface structure phrases complicate matters. If we talk about your father and you mention him, then you may refer to him in a familiar and not as respectful manner. However, when I reply, also mentioning your father, I have to use a more respectful term for him. Then, if you are talking directly to your father, you have to use the same more respectful term as I used! The basic underlying 'deep structure' meaning is still 'your father', but don't these terms of varying respect interfere with the deep structure?


Deep structure works on one level whereby you consider the deep structure first and then attempt to construct various surface structure phrases or convey the deep structure meaning. However, when you look at a surface structure sentence and have to formulate an equivalent alternative surface structure in a different language (as is normally the case in practical translation), it isn't always possibly to conjure up an implicitly equal deep structure, as anyone can see from those examples.


It's like the Emperor's new clothes though, because Chomsky had these new ideas (at the time) and translation studies was gaining recognition as a more respectable discipline, many people jumped on the bandwagon and were afraid to say anything. One guy (can't remember who now) even called Chomsky the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. I wouldn't go that far. Admittedly I haven't read what he has to say on hypocrisy, war and terrorism, I might do soon as it would proabably be quite an interesting read, but linguistically I can only really appreciate him in a limited context. For example, what you have been reading about native speakers undertstanding more through context and experience than dictionaries, and how deep structure can apply with the confines of one language (going from native language surface to structure to deep structure and vice versa) is interesting, but in translating between different languages the deep structure theory and with it Chomsky's idealistic hypotheses cease to function, or at least that's the way I've seen it until now.


Jack of all trades is the best way to be though Acid, keeps things fresh, fun and interesting. :xyx

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Man, you said a mouthful there! I'm not going to pretend to understand the business about parts of speech &c. I couldn't even describe a verb! However, these things have never struck me as useful in constructing grammatically-correct sentences in your own tongue. It almost seems natural to phrase things the way we do. This may be the time to take this over to the grammar thread...
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In fact the idea that grammar classification knowledge isn't relevant to learning correct phrasing in a person's own tongue is where Chomsky's discussions best relate to TEFL and language learning. In TEFL (or teaching any language as a foreign language), teachers are supposed to be trained to appreciate the difference between language learning (i.e. studying grammar, syntax, that sort of thing) and language acquisition. Language acquisition is something we've all done here, where context and experience teaches you the meaning of words rather than study or deliberate investigation.


For instance, how did you come to know the meaning of 'John reads the book', or that an alternative could never be 'the book reads John' nor 'the reads John book'? It wasn't by consciously thinking that 'book' and 'read' are semantically interdependent (meaning that the use of one implies the need for the use of the other), that John is a pronoun and must be the agent of the phrase, that 'reads' is a third-person singular present tense verb or that 'the book' is a noun phrase and that 'book' is the patient of the whole phrase. Doing that would be language learning. Instead though, you just learnt through repeated exposure to that sentence type that 'John reads the book' is the correct sentence structure and know what it means. This is language acquisition.


With TEFL, they try to train English teachers to attempt as best as possible to recreate language acquisition conditions within classroom situations. This means foreign students, pretty much from the beginning of trying to learn English, will only be addressed in English. As they aren't likely to understand the English immediately, gestures are used to help. The teacher has to act like a tourist! The difference is that they can guide their classes so as to begin with easy to understand gestures until the class have enough vocabulary to understand some basic instructions and eventually be able to handle classes which are entirely in English. The same applies with other languages. When I first started doing Spanish at high school I had no idea what the teacher was saying to us, it was sort of comical and perplexing, but after about three or four weeks I knew basic speech, understood the teacher's instructions and was in a position to be able to improve quickly. Not everyone can get interested in grammar, so when you can create language acquisition circumstances, where it is in everyone's practical interests to pay attention and learn by necessity through context and experience, overall it seems to work better.


In short, I see what you mean about natural understanding being more important than appreciating the difference between verbs, nouns, pronouns, prepositions, adjectives, articles and that sort of thing, while it seems to be generallyh accepted that what you say is the best way to go about learning any language, whether native or otherwise.

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