Nancy Holt & Richard Serra, Boomerang, 1974
Nancy Holt & Richard Serra, Boomerang, 1974

In a corner of my mom’s closet there are diaries with nearly every new word my brother said for the first three years of his life. There’s also a box of old 9mm videotapes of him playing in my living room. The footage of a baby playing on the carpet seems coated with the hazy nostalgia of a forgotten home video.

These diaries and tapes are now twenty-four years old and were the raw materials for my mom’s PhD dissertation on child language learning. Her method: study my brother’s baby babble as though it were its own foreign language, not the nascent stages of English grammar. This choice – and her findings – challenged the renowned theories of the linguist Noam Chomsky.

She based the method off of her earlier fieldwork research of Hmong, a language that in 1991 had never been written down. Hmong people expressed their language through images, not written words. They oftentimes sew complex picture tapestries to express ideas. In order to understand the structure of Hmong, my mom joined with linguist William Bright and listened to hours of native Hmong speakers and transcribed the completely foreign communication. They searched for patterns in order to understand how Hmong works and wrote down the grammar.

“It was gibberish at first to me,” my mom explained to me over the phone. “I don’t know the language, Bill didn’t know the language, we just listened to it. We figured out what the phonetic structure was, what the phonemic structure was, what the grammatical patterns were, does it use subjects, what word order, does it have verb tenses…”

She applied the same questions to what many parents see as their toddler’s nonsense. Like many linguists, she chose to study her own child for the sake of access: she would be there to hear and record every new word that my brother came up with. As a mother, she would be able to get to know her son’s personality in the most intense way.

Treating my brother’s early gibberish as logical led to remarkable results. Instead of forming sentences through an English structure – through the standard, defining word order subject-verb-object, or SVO – my brother’s sentences often took on structures of other languages.

“Let me give you an example which you might like because you’re in it,” my mom told me during our phone conversation. The example was from November 8th, 1994. I was just a few months old and my dad picked me up. My brother said: “Yaya take Dada”. (I’m Yaya; my brother at that age, like most toddlers, had a hard time pronouncing Ls and Rs). What he actually meant was that my dad was picking me up, but it was the opposite word order: object-verb-subject instead of English’s defining subject-verb-object pattern.

“What was going on,” my mom explained to me, “was that whoever was more interesting was put in front. You were put in front not because you’re the subject but because he topicalized you, like a lot of languages do. Japanese does and the Karennic languages [from Myanmar] do.”

The idea that a child surrounded by native English speakers would use such a foreign grammatical structure was seen as an anomaly in 90s American linguistic circles. When my mom presented her research in conferences in Boston and San Sebastian, Spain, other researchers would stand up and challenge the findings, asking if the same sentences could be interpreted in a different way as examples of English structures. But my mom’s diaries and videos had hundreds of examples to prove that my brother’s speech had very little consistency with any single linguistic structure, and certainly not with English.

These conference critics self-identified as Chomskians. To be specific, they believed in Noam Chomsky’s theories of the existence of a Language Acquisition Device, or LAD. Linguists Paul Ibbotson and Michael Tomasello explain Chomsky’s LAD theory – and then why it must be wrong – in the article “Evidence Rebuts Chomsky’s Theory of Language Learning” published just this fall in Scientific American.

“Young children come equipped with the capacity to form sentences using abstract grammatical rules.” This is what Ibbotson and Tomasello explain as the central stipulation to Chomsky’s theories of language learning. “Most universal grammar approaches postulate that a child forms a question by following a set of rules based on grammatical categories such as ‘What (object) did (auxiliary) you (subject) lose (verb)?’ Answer: ‘I (subject) lost (verb) something (object).’ If this postulate is correct, then at a given developmental period children should make similar errors across all wh-question sentences alike.”

My mom’s research on my brother shows this to not always be the case. Not only did he use non-English structures, but he also didn’t consistently use the topicalizing structure of the Yaya example. His “errors” were inconsistent and he expressed his thoughts drawing on grammatical structures from a variety of languages, learning piece by piece what applied to English.

My mom used my brother to vie for a usage-based linguistic theory, the same one that Ibbotson and Tomasello argue for in Scientific American with large data pools. The idea is that children have, as Ibbotson and Tomasello put it, “general-purpose tools – such as categorization, the reading of communicative intentions, and analogy-making” that allow the kids to build grammar from what they hear around them. Rather than having one universal tool or device for learning language, children have a mental Swiss Army knife.

It’s an idea that has been long-contested in linguistics. My mom remembers that Chomsky’s ideas dominated on the East Coast during her entire undergraduate and graduate education.  Thinking back to the many cold winters spent in Cornell from 1974 – 1982, she described Chomsky as an almost godlike figure: “You didn’t challenge Chomsky. You read Chomsky and you quoted from Chomsky,” she said. “Everyone did it that way.”

In 1989 my mom moved to Colorado not for sun or skiing but to study linguistics the way she wanted: to see how context and culture influenced speech, to challenge that there could be a universal structure underlying every global language. She saw that researchers challenging Chomsky were more concentrated in the west of the United States.

Now, usage-based linguistics is increasingly accepted. My mom felt vindicated when the Scientific American article was published. The ideas that she dedicated her life to – that she studied in the earliest utterances of her own son – were confirmed by thousands of children across the world.

“Evidence has overtaken Chomsky’s theory, which has been inching toward a slow death for years,” Ibbotson and Tomasello say. “It is dying so slowly because, as physicist Max Planck once noted, older scholars tend to hang onto the old ways: ‘Science progresses one funeral at a time.’”

Many linguists would maintain that Ibbotson and Tomasello and my mom are wrong.  It is, to an extent, impossible to answer with certainty the question of how language comes to be. But the clues lie in those old videotapes and diaries in my house; they lie not in theories or intuition but in the first phrases of young children like my brother. In that sense, science actually progresses one birth at a time.