Language Cognition : Uncovering Mental Structures and the Rules Behind Them

Serious fields of inquiry resist simple characterizations and ready-made definitions. Cognitive science as a whole, including all its subfields, such as linguistics, is no exception. Academic terms can also be quite misleading: one should not assume that linguistics deals with language just because the two terms are etymologically related; after all, who still thinks that geometry deals with land-measurement (the literal translation of the Greek term geometria)?

At its most general level of description, the enterprise we call cognitive science is a massive effort to construct a scientific understanding of mental life,1 the product of the brain – arguably the most complex object in the known universe.2 Although some of the leading ideas reach back to the rise of modern science, the time of Galileo, Descartes and Newton (some ideas even go further back to the Ancient Greeks), the efforts to construct a genuine scientific theory of mental life began in earnest only 50 years ago under the impetus of people like Noam Chomsky, Morris Halle, George Miller, and Eric Lenneberg.

Not surprisingly, after only a few decades of intensive research, our ignorance overall remains quite profound, but there are a few areas where significant progress has already been made. One such area concerns our capacity to develop a language, and this is the area I will focus on here, touching on other cognitive domains whenever the opportunity arises.

The results achieved in the domain of language have been made possible by the adoption of what can be called the biological view of language, in which the problem of making sense of our human capacity to acquire and use a language is conceived of as being on a par with how scientists would study echo-location in bats, the waggle dance in bees, and the navigational skills of birds.

The biological approach to language will enable me to paint one of the most interesting, insightful, and coherent pictures in cognitive science we currently have, and place it right at the heart of one of the best-articulated theories of mind (and because language is unique to our species, of what it means to be human) ever produced.

My main goal in this book is to awaken your curiosity by pointing out a few facts that I suspect you never thought about, by asking questions that will cultivate your sense of wonder, and by suggesting a few answers that will whet your intellectual appetite. For this reason I will put less emphasis on results achieved in cognitive science and focus on the questions that have proven fruitful in making these results within reach.

This book should definitely not be seen as providing a sum of all we know about the mind; it is best characterized as offering a point of entry into fascinating territory, a set of perspectives from which to approach certain topics. If you are like me, you will find some of the questions cognitive scientists ask simply irresistible. By the end of the book, you will be able to turn to more advanced material that will explore these questions in greater detail.

This, I find, is the most appropriate way to introduce students to a scientific discipline. Science, by its nature, involves a constantly changing and developing body of knowledge. Today, perhaps more than ever, that knowledge develops and changes very rapidly.

Because of this fact, many recent educational initiatives have stressed the need for science teachers to develop ways to help students understand the practice of scientific inquiry, and not just its current results, which may well be outdated by the time an introductory text hits the bookstores’ shelves, especially in the case of young scientific disciplines like cognitive science.

As educators, we want students to avoid falling into the trap of a passive dependence on “experts,” and we want them to develop a critical mind. To do this, it is imperative that they come to understand how scientific knowledge is acquired, and how to derive it themselves.

Language Cognition : Uncovering Mental Structures and the Rules Behind Them