Let's Prehend
A Manual of Human Ecology and Culture Design

LANGUAGE as a Complex System

The Second Language Acquisition, SLA, scholars - educators, cognitive psychologists, anthropologists as well as linguists - have a lot to say in this lively field, with considerable heat it seems. It looks like a fight between the progressives and conservatives, both being a bit stiff in their positions, as might be expected in an otherwise too stuffy field.

Dr. Diane *Larsen-Freeman gave a talk at UCB[ BERKELEY LANGUAGE CENTER updates programs on victor@socrates.berkely.edu , publishes *BERKELEY LANGUAGE CENTER NEWSLETTER, quarterly B-40 Dwinelle Hall #2640, UCB 94704. www.itp.berkeley.edu/blc] 4/13/99 called Chaos/Complexity Theory and Language Acquisition Research.[ Dr. *Larsen-Freeman with Michael Lory? has a book on the subject, LANGUAGE ACQUISITION RESEARCH, TRANSCENDING DIFFERENCES. She is at School for International Training, Battlesborough, Vermont. At UCB, (510) 642-0767 #10. See also the MODERN LANGUAGE JOURNAL, re language as individual - informational and interpersonal - social.] She applied chaos/complexity theory derived from the elegant and popular book CHAOS, by James *Gleick. His twelve aspects of complex systems apply nicely to language, or any other complex system:

  1. Dynamic - Language use constantly changes, synchronic and dischronic, as discussed by Woody Keller and others.
  2. Complex - Craig Reynolds studies the interactivity of flocks of birds, fish, ants as behavior emerges from the interaction of `bolds'. Complex language components include phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics ... discussed in Karl *Popper's EMERGENT GRAMMAR.
  3. Non-linear - Analogous to species, languages evolve. See Kroch's '89 work on the verb `do' centuries ago. Modern use of `I' and `me', `their' gender free for `his' or `hers', and reflexive `she and myself...'
  4. Chaotic - Changes build up, then break, like the last straw. The rigid grammar pushers finally have to give up and let the language change, except the French, of course. `Chaos' is from the Greek, `before order'.
  5. Unpredictable - Like the weather, "language has not made up its mind." The causality link demanded by recent centuries has given way to the infinite complexity of systems, while computers increasingly allow us to model them. Weather, maybe four days.
  6. Sensitive to initial conditions - The `butterfly effect', reminds us of *Chomsky and others' universal language hardware.
  7. Open - Languages have no edge, no limit, as they expand with other languages, new words, ideas, `memes'y[ see below ].
  8. Self organizing - Systems complicate themselves, grow morphogenically. Jeffry Elman, UCSD makes computer simulations that develop languages from words. Classic HUMAN DESTINY of Lecompte *du Nuit discusses hierarchy of evolutions: Second Law of Thermodynamics energy slows down, biological evolution complicates systems as the Earth cools, cultural and spiritual evolution ...
  9. Feedback sensitive - Interaction between personal usage and media, between dialects, etc. Dynamic of differentiation and conformity.
  10. Adaptive, self organizing - laser light is a simple system. Convergence among ideolects, natural selection in evolution, sleep integration for mind's DIM, languages are `learned'.
  11. Strange Attractors - Like Chomsky's basic grammar, children learn language with a very small sample of language, make up their own with minimum input, much less information than would be needed for `programming'.
  12. Fractals - Patterns are duplicated on large and small scales. Zipfs `power law'. Shroderer in 95 discovered the ten most common words made up 24% of writers with large vocabulary, and close 30% for simple newspaper writing.

Needless to say, common language learning in most schools is a tolerated disaster, slowly improving from these progressive inputs. It seems language is acquired as the learner begins with a few words and phrases, then digests them into a growing organic language, a minor system within herself.

Too often the lessons of the classroom jam the students with details that interrupt this process. An artificial, irrelevant, and distracting `grammar' is promoted to further dominate the hapless pupil's attention. Then testing confirms inadequacy of `learning' - either the pupil has not learned it, or has Aced it by learning the wrong thing. As is common in education, the lesson is "You don't know it. You don't understand it, You are not good at it. And you don't like it." The constant conflict between the RIDlys and the progressives continues, gradually corrected the wayward ways toward an organic acquisition of language.

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