The Ascent of Babel: An Exploration of Language, Mind, and Understanding

The Ascent of Babel: An Exploration of Language, Mind, and Understanding

The Ascent of Babel: An Exploration of Language, Mind, and Understanding

The Ascent of Babel: An Exploration of Language, Mind, and Understanding

Synopsis

The brain holds some 10 billion neurons, an truly amazing number. But taken one at a time, there is nothing amazing about a nerve cell. If you stimulate one, it will stimulate other neurons to which it is connected. And that is all that a neuron does. And yet arising from this great mass of simple cells is every one of our mental faculties, including perhaps the most marvelous of all, our use of language. How do neurons take tiny vibrations on the ear drum and somehow capture meanings about the world? How does the brain understand written words and how does it form a reply? In The Ascent of Babel, psycholinguist Gerry Altmann offers a state-of-the-art look at what we now know about the miracle of language. Here is a wide ranging, engaging tour of how we use language. Altmann begins even before we are born, revealing that the fetus in the last trimester is already listening to the language of its parents and that, within days of birth, it can distinguish its parents' language from other languages. He discusses the incredible progress the child makes in language recognition (expanding from 100 words at age one to some 60,000 words by adulthood) and he looks at the neural activity involved in language perception, revealing for instance that the pattern of neural activity evoked by a sentence like "the bald man ate a big fish" is probably quite similar to that evoked by actually seeing a bald man eat a big fish. There is an illuminating section on spoken language, highlighting some of the differences between various tongues (English has some 12,000 syllables, for example, while Japanese uses fewer than 120, which explains why Japanese words tend to have many syllables). Altmann shows how errors we make when speaking--such as malapropisms and spoonerisms (garbled utterances such as "The lord is a shoving leopard")--can tell us much about how we plan and execute a spoken sentence, and he explores what happens when the brain misfunctions, as it does in aphasia, dyslexia, and other forms of language deficit, such as Pure Word Deafness (where patients can read, write, and speak normally, but can't understand words spoken to them). Finally, in one of the most intriguing sections of the book, the author provides a fascinating account of recent experiments in artificial neural networks, describing how scientists simulate neuronal activity on a computer, and explaining why their results seem to provide an alternative to the theories of Noam Chomsky about innate structures in the brain. The Ascent of Babel is a journey of discovery, illuminating how, through the workings of the brain, we use language to reach out and touch each other's minds. Up to date, authoritative, and engagingly written, it will be must reading for everyone curious about the mysteries of language or of the mind.

Excerpt

Most people I meet stop to think about language for no longer than it takes them to notice that the instructions on how to program their CD- player have been written in a language that defies understanding. They care more about how their CD-player should work than how their language actually works. When I started writing this book I wanted to rise to what I saw as a challenge: to write the equivalent of a manual that would explain not the insides of a CD-player, and how it turns thousands of little indentations on the surface of the CD into sound, but the insides of the human mind, and how it turns thousands of little vibrations on the surface of the ear-drum into meaning. The difference is, CD-players are simple, even if their instruction manuals are not. Minds are complex, and they do not come with instructions. That, of course, is what makes them so challenging, and so exciting.

I wanted to write this book so that it would be readable by non- specialists. I wanted to convey to them the excitement and challenge of psycholinguistics--the study of how the mind turns language into meaning, and back again. I am mindful of the preface to Doris Lessing The golden notebook, where she invites the reader to skip as much of the book as is necessary in order to maintain interest. The reader of this book should also skip as necessary. Or at least, skip any chapters that seem less interesting. The first chapter, 'Looking towards Babel', is an attempt to convey the excitement of psycholinguistics, and the mysteries that are on offer. Probably, it should not be skipped, except in emergency. The other chapters fill in the details. I have written each chapter so that it is self-contained, although occasional pointers are given, both forwards and backwards, if there is relevant material in other chapters. Inevitably, because different chapters are about different topics, some may seem, to different readers, more interesting than others.

I have also written this book for my students, who are a good example of a non-specialist, although admittedly captive, audience. Many students find psycholinguistics a mysterious and impenetrable subject. So I have designed this book so that it could in principle accompany the kinds of psycholinguistic courses they may take. It is not written like a textbook (nor is it written in textbook-speak). There are . . .

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