01 Miller1990 - PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE General Article THE...

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Unformatted text preview: PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE General Article THE PLACE OF LANGUAGE IN A SCIENTIFIC PSYCHOLOGY by George A. Miller Abstract—One of the psychologists’ great methodological dif- ficulties is how they can make the events they wish to study publicly observable, countable, measurable. It is significant to note that the device most often used for con version from private to public is language. Thus speech is a crucial problem for psychology. None oftheir other activities gives the same sort of insight into another person as does their language. Since peo— ple spend so many of their Waking hours generating and re- sponding to words, and since speech is such a typically human mode of adjustment, no general theory ofpsychology will be adequate ifit does not take account of language. The abstract of this paper is a slightly revised version ofa paragraph published in 1951 (Miller, 1951, p. 3). Only two changes were required in order to bring the original passage up to date. One was to substitute “language” everywhere that “verbal behavior” occurred in the orig- inal version. And, since women also talk, the other change was to correct my generic use of “he” and “man” to “they” and “people.” Interesting stories could be told about the need for both of those revisions, but that is not my concern here. My concern today is the same as it was in 1951: I still believe that “no general theory of psychology will be adequate if it does not take account of language.” No new data are reported here; we already know far more about language than we understand. Here I am con— cerned with the larger question of where the topic of language fits in our general theories of human cognition. You may feel that the importance of language is al— ready sufficiently obvious and that contemporary psy— chological theories do now take adequate account of it, in which case you will see little reason to repeat this truism over and over. But I have observed over the years that there is a tendency for even the best scientific psychol- ogists to lose sight of large issues in their devotion to particular methodologies, their pursuit of the null hypoth- esis, and their rigorous efforts to reduce anything that Based on an address to the First Annual Convention of the Ameri- can Psychological Society held in Alexandria, Virginia, June 10, 1989. Correspondence and offprint requests to: George A. Miller, Dept. of Psychology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08540. VOL. 1, NO. 1, JANUARY 1990 (0 1989 David l-luthcox George A. Miller: Keynoter in Alexandria. seems interesting to something else that is not. An occa- sional reminder of the larger reasons why We flash those stimuli and measure those reaction times is sometimes useful. IS LANGUAGE IMPORTANT? Is language really important for psychology? The Copyright © 1990 American Psychological Society 7 PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE W m The Place of Language in a Scientific Psychology range of answers that famous psychologists have given to that question is remarkable. A small sampling should il- lustrate what I mean. First, there are those who assume that language is im- portant and tried to do something about it. If we go back to the beginning of experimental psychology, it'is clear that 'Wundt understood the importance of language. Wundt, you will recall, believed that higher mental pro- cesses cannot be analyzed experimentally; he believed that the only way to understand complex psychological processes is by analysis of their cultural products—which puts the study of language in a central role. The first two books of Wundt’s Vélkerpsychologie (1900—1909) intro- duced his theory of language, which then served as a basis for the eight additional books that followed. But it was published shortly before World War I, when anti- German feelings ran high in the United States. It is un- fortunate that the Vélke’rpsychologie was little read out- side of Germany; some students of Wundt’s writings (Blumenthal, 1970) claim that he anticipated important developments in linguistic theory, ideas that lay ne- glected until Chomsky redefined the science of linguistics in the 1950s. Biihler inherited Wundt’s mantle as the leading linguis- tic psychologist. Btihler objected to many of Wundt‘s ideas about linguistic structure and placed much more emphasis on how language is used, but he agreed with Wundt concerning the importance of language for psy- chology. Buhler wanted to collaborate with linguists. In his important Sprachtheorie (1934) he commented that “if the constantly evoked mutual assistance of psychol- ogy and linguistics is to bear fruit, specialists on both sides must dare to intervene in the others’ conceptions.‘ And for a while that happened. But Buhler’s work in Vienna was interrupted in 1938 by political events, and his Sprachtheorie was never translated into English. Al- though interest in the psychology of language remained alive in Europe, events took a different course in Amer- 1ca. A second attitude toward language was suspicion and distrust. For example, James, while wearing his psycho- logical hat, listed language as a major source of error in psychology. In the Principles he complained that “lan- guage was originally made by men who were not psychologists” (James, 1890/1981, vol. 1, p. 193), with the result that it is difficult to distinguish between the thought of a thing and the thing itself. James also blamed the discreteness of words for the common failure to rec- ognize that the stream of thought flows continuously. A third point of view was that language is important, but that it can be explained in terms of something sim— 1. Taken from a translation of Chapter 7 of Sprachtheorie in Jarvella and Klein (1982, p. 17). pler. Watson pioneered this theoretical territory. In Be— haviorz'sm he proposed that all thinking is a matter of “language habits—habits which when exercised implic- itly behind the closed doors of the lips we call thinking.” Having reduced thinking to language, he next reduced language to talking: “Language as we ordinarily under- stand it, in spiteof its complexities, is in the beginning a very simple type of behavior” (Watson, 1924, p. 225). He then went on to describe, stage by stage, how children acquire their language habits. This view of language, as a complicated kind of vocal behavior not basically different from other kinds of be- havior, was adopted by many great American psycholo— gists. Tolman, for example, while admitting that speech distinguishes human beings from other animals, still claimed to find nothing extraordinary or unique about it: “Speech accomplishes the same sort of result that other behaviors would, only more expeditiously” (Tolman, 1932, p. 236). On Tolman’s view, it is not speech, but ' human intelligence—the amazing human ability to learn and to adapt—that is so extraordinary and unique. Twenty-five years later Skinner would not even admit that speech distinguishes human beings from other ani- mals. Skinner felt that early humans, before the appear- ance of spoken languages, were not very different from modern humans: “What was lacking was not any special capacity for speech but certain environmental circumstances” (Skinner, 1957, p. 461). When the envi- ronmental circumstances became favorable, humans be- gan reinforcing one another’s vocal behavior. Given ap- propriate environmental circumstances, apes should do the same. Although Skinner’s attempts to explain lan- guage in terms of his theories of reinforcement were de- veloped at far greater length than Tolman’s, the two agreed basically that human language is not unique. A fourth stance was to deny that humans enjoy any special apparatus for speaking. For example, in 1891 the young neurologist Freud devoted a monograph to dis- crediting claims that there are special centers for speech and language in the human brain: “We have rejected the assumptions that the speech apparatus consists of dis- tinct centres separated by functionless areas . . . the speech area is a continuous cortical region within which the associations and transmissions underlying the speech functions are taking place” (Freud, 1891/1953, p. 62). Freud recognized that these associations and transmis— sions are enormously complex, but he believed that the speech area is located where it is, not’because human beings inherit some unique neurological organization to support language, but simply because this area is where projections from the optic, auditory, and motor nerves overlap and associations can be formed. Why the corre- sponding areas in the brains of other primates do not also support language was not a question that he raised. VOL. 1, NO. 1, JANUARY 1990 PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE Finally, a fifth position was the most popular: Admit that language is important and then ignore it. The early Gestalt psychologists may have had this attitude, al- though they mention language so seldom that it is hard to tell. Koffka once wrote that “an ultimate explanation of the problems of thought and imagination will not be pos- sible without a theory of language and other symbolic functions. But we shall exclude the study of language from our treatise” (Koffl<a, 1935, p. 422). This exclusion was necessary, Koffka explained, because language is So complicated. But, whatever the reason, language did not play an important role in Gestalt theory—which may, after all, have been wiser than trying to reduce it to some- thing simpler. A better historian could probably find still other opin- ions about the place of language in a scientific psychol— ogy, but this sample should suffice to show that early psychologists held mixed views about it. But the attitude favored by most of our founding fathers was one of sim- ple neglect. Other mental processes were given higher priority and language was left to the professional lin- guists. IS LINGUISTICS A BRANCH OF COGNITIVE PSYCHOLOGY? Perhaps one reason that many early psychologists held this view was that the conception of language available to them at the time was not yet ready for psychological consumption. Scientific linguistics emerged during the 19th century as the study of sound changes in the evolu- tion of Indo-European languages, an undertaking that re- lied on the existence of ancient written documents. Around the turn of the century the tools developed for those studies were borrowed by cultural anthropologists and used to study exotic languages having no previous body of written literature. In the hands of anthropolo- gists, the linguistic theories of the day served largely as a guide for drawing generalizations based on transcribed samples of speech. They carefully sorted and classified these transcriptions the same way archaeologists sort and classify pots or tools. Not until the 19505 was there a scientific alternative to the anthropological approach. In 1957 Chomsky argued that language, properly conceived, is not a collection of literary texts that have been preserved or a corpus of utterances that some anthropologist has transcribed. A language is something that people know, something that children learn and adults use. Any particular corpus can contain only a small sample of the infinite variety of sen- tences that a native speaker could produce and under- stand. Linguistics is not the study of recorded instances. For Chomsky, the subject matter of linguistics is the competence of language users, not their performance. VOL. 1, NO. 1, JANUARY 1990 George A. Miller Performances—overt acts of speaking—are merely the evidence from which competence can be inferred. Describing abilities is, of course, a responsibility of psychology, so Chomsky’s redefinition had the effect of making linguistics a branch of cognitive psychology. As he himself once put it: “The theory of language is simply that part of human psychology that is concerned with one particular ‘mental organ,’ human language” (Chomsky, 1975, p. 36). A person who speaks a language has mas- tered a highly complex system of knowledge, which raises three basic questions: 1. What is this system of knowledge? 2. How does it arise? 3. How is it used? These are classical questions, as basic to human psychol- ogy as to linguistics, and Chomsky’s answers to them have been widely influential. What is a language? Chomsky pointed out that a native speaker’s knowl- edge of his language must have a generative character. Since there is no rule limiting the length of grammatical sentences, there must be an indefinitely large number of sentences that native speakers could produce and under- stand. It is inconceivable that this set of grammatical sentences could be mastered by memorizing them, one at a time. Some kind of generative system must lie at the heart of linguistic competence. Chomsky implied that careful analysis of that generative system could reveal much about the cognitive architecture of the human in- formation processing system. How does language arise? But how could such a generative system be acquired? The sample of speech that a child is exposed to is finite and every child is exposed to a different sample, yet ev- eryone in the same language community acquires the same generative system. To Chomsky, these facts meant that certain aspects of language are innate and specific to our species. The knowledge system develops as children learn to shape their innate and universal grammar to the local requirements of the particular language community into which they happen to have been born. How is language used? Chomsky assumed that the knowledge system that na— tive speakers have mastered is used both to produce and to understand grammatical sentences in that language. 9 PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE W The Place of Language in a Scientific Psychology That is to say, knowledge of the language enables native speakers to relate phonological strings to semantic inter- pretations—to relate sound and meaning. And he empha- sized that sentence production is highly creative—it is not under direct control by environmental stimuli, but can serve any purposes a speaker happens to have at the moment. (Note that Chomsky did not attempt to enumer- ate the purposes a speaker might have for using language. Chomsky’s interest in the use of linguistic knowledge ends with the assignment of semantic interpretations to phonological strings.) Chomsky’s ideas had a broad impact, on both linguists and cognitive psychologists. How to characterize the knowledge system of a person who speaks a natural lan- guage became a central problem for linguists. The collec- tion of empirical data about language acquisition was given a theoretical focus. And psycholinguistic studies of language comprehension flourished. Beginning in the 19505, therefore, one important change that cognitive psychologists introduced—one among many—was to move language into a central place in the study of human cognition. In part this move was necessary in order tojustify the detailed analyses of ver— bal protocols that became increasingly fashionable (Eric- sson & Simon, 1984). But a deeper reason was a growing realization that the capacity for human language really is extraordinary and unique. Today many cognitive psy- chologists agree that language is a central problem for our science. But what is meant when we say that today is not what I had in mind in 1951; today our reasons for saying it are much more persuasive. In 1951 I argued for the importance of language by considering its role in the study of perception, learning, thinking, and the other standard chapter headings of in— troductory psychology (Miller, 1951). In fact, I thought of that 1951 book as an introductory text in which all of the examples were taken from studies of speech and lan- guage. In repeating the argument here I want to take a different approach. I have, rather arbitrarily, selected two issues for dis- cussion, one that has received more attention than it de— serves during the past thirty years, and another that, until very recently, has received less. The first is “the innate- ness question”: what does it mean to say that language is innate? This question is distinguished by the heat that it has generated, but I think it is worth discussing because it establishes that we cannot deal with such issues in the absence of a sophisticated theory of linguistic knowledge. The second question has forced itself to the attention of psychologists as the importance of situational contexts has become increasingly apparent. My way of consider- ing situational influences on linguistic communication is to ask: What is the relation between language and com— munication? 10 IS LANGUAGE AN INNATE CAPACITY? Some of the heat over the claims of innateness was generated because many psychologists had been raised with a healthy distrust of nativism. To assume that some complicated pattern of behavior is innate without exhaus- tively eliminating alternative hypotheses has all the ad- vantages of theft over honest toil. Talk of the innateness of language triggered some deep prejudices. But claims that the capacity to learn human language is innate now have many persuasive arguments in their favor: 1. The acquisition of language unfolds in much the same way in all normal children; 2. Language is species-specific—even the most‘isolated human groups have language, yet extremely intelli— gent apes do not; 3. The basic design features of human languages are uni- versal; and 4. Specialized neurological structures devoted to the production and perception of speech have been iden- tified. More than twenty years ago Eric Lenneberg (1967) wrote a forceful summary of this evidence, and the major claims he made then have not been successfully refuted. Given the weight of evidence, even skeptics have be- gun shifting their position: instead of simply denying that the capacity for language is innate, they now demand a more precise characterization of what the claim of innate- ness entails. The claim is different for different components of lan- guage. Anyone who has studied a foreign language knows that there are three kinds of things to be learned: pronun- ciation, grammar, and vocabulary, corresponding respec- tively to the phonological, syntactic, and lexical compo- nents of language. The Phonological Component As far as I know, no one has ever seriously challenged the assumption that the ability to make and recognize the sounds of natural language is innate and species-specific. The nature of those sounds depends intimately on the neurophysiological structure of the speech organs, and that structure is a part of our genetic inheritance. Learn- ing to use that structure for linguistic purposes is largely a matter of learning which subset your own language hap- pens to have selected from the finite set of possible ar- ticulatory coordinations. There is much still to be learned about the subject, but the existence of innate constraints on the phonological component can hardly be doubted. VOL. 1, NO. 1, JANUARY 1990 PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE George A. Miller The Lexical Component The lexical component of language stands at the op- posite extreme. The knowledge of words and their mean- ings is learned. No serious scientist would claim that vo- cabulary is innate. The nature and organization of the lexical component has been my special interest in recent years and I have many stories I could tell about it, but none of them could be used to argue for innateness. Ex- cept, perhaps, in the ultimate sense that the ability to learn is itself innate. The Syntactic Component The major battle-over innateness has centered on the syntactic component: is syntax more like the lexical or the phonological component? It resembles phonology to the extent that a relatively limited variety of rules can characterize all known languages, but it differs from pho- nology in that no obvious anatomical or neurophysiolog- ical basis for those universal features is known. Those who argue for innateness generally do so by producing examples of linguis...
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