Monday, February 20, 2006

Where Does All This Linguistics Come From?

drj asked, and I hope this answers.

I am usually autobiographical only in short bursts, referencing events in Village Idiot life solely for illustration of other points. As most of my visitors come over from psychoblogger sites where I comment, they come over expecting political, social, parenting, or mental health issues. These usually attract the most followup commentary. The linguistics are jarring, and perhaps puzzling, especially as I am not a language professional in any way.

But my interest in linguistics bears on issues of education, parenting, and meaning, so a bit of biography can be used to illustrate some other important concepts. I call it a cup hooks theory of learning. Either cup hooks or shelving must be installed if the cups are to be put away in most orderly fashion. Only when there is a framework suitable for cups present can you store more than a few with any hope of finding what you need. Once there is a framework, however, a wide variety of cups might be stored on it.

My brother became fascinated by the Civil War in 5th grade, the first subject he had shown much interest in. He became a fountain of information by late highschool. While any such monomania looks narrow at first, once the structure is erected, other things just naturally get attached to it. Almost accidentally, he picked up knowledge in related, and ever-expanding areas. He learned the geography of the eastern US. Historical events just before and just after the war were easy to incorporate. He acquired some military history, some economic history, some knowledge of slavery, and of custom. This framework was in place for all future learning.

Rejoice if your child finds a subject of fascination.

Knowledge needs a framework, or it just piles up at the bottom of your brain, unusable. Each stage of learning depends on the ones before it. My linguistics framework was built up accidentally out of other subjects of interest. I have always liked curiosities and little-known facts. I have a mind like an attic, full of charming and potentially useful things with no immediate application. As I have always liked solving puzzles, word puzzles just got dragged in for the ride. But certain specific skeins went into learning about language.

I was a folksinger because it was cool in a certain intellectual way, and began acquiring old songs via the Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, and PP&M. I never had much interest in anything but American and English/Scottish songs, but I enjoyed pushing those back as far in time as I could. History and language just came in as part of the background. I took German because everyone else was taking French and Spanish, so that was cooler.

Though many friends suggested I would like Tolkien, I didn’t read him until end of freshman year. I became an immediate fanatic, and devoured the few volumes of commentary about him available in the early 70’s. Tolkien dragged in Anglo-Saxon, King Arthur, and the whole northern mythology. I studied Beowulf, and added in Vikings because I had some Scandinavian ancestors. These in turn brought in all that heroic fantasy in children’s literature: Lloyd Alexander, CS Lewis (which tied back into Tolkien again), Alan Garner, Peter Beagle, Susan Cooper, Mary Stewart, and a dozen others. By pursuing avidly a certain sort of northern European adventure story, I found that I picked up a lot of knowledge about Wales, and Wagner, and waistcoats. I took the occasional college course about medieval literature or linguistics. Discovering Steeleye Span loosely tied the folk music fascination into the medieval adventures. Being one of the few Yankees among southerners, I defensively focused on New England history and learned about dialects, which was also useful in the theater.

From Lewis I learned Christ, and though the other loves did not go away, they receded a bit. As a new Christian I started reading the Bible, which brought in a little Greek, a little Hebrew, a little Latin, as well as older eras of history. I had little interest in Greek and Roman literature and history, and still don’t, but some came in unannounced. In reading Church history I naturally gravitated to my previous favorite eras, and so read Luther and Aquinas. More usually, I read about them and their times rather than their works directly. The word-games and etymological curiosities kept attaching themselves to the existing frameworks, and the connecting threads twined together. My fascination with Lewis has remained strong, and this has fed unexpected bits into my linguistic knowledge as well.

I have lots of interests which never quite tied into this group: sports history, number theory, science fiction, and astronomy, for example. But more often, whatever I put my mind to would weave its way in: genealogy, hymnody, learning, neurology, child development, adopting Romanians. I had studied linguistics directly only as a small part of a single college course, but found myself at age 40 with many of the pieces in place that a linguistics major would have acquired. So a book on the history of the Indo-Europeans satisfies many interests at once/

Many of the same pieces fell together in kaleidoscope fashion to give me a solid knowledge of the colonial American churches.

Later addition: I forgot Jewish history, espionage, and sexual offenders. I just keep picking up these fascinations which last for 3-4 years. I'm 52, and it eventually adds up.


Wacky Hermit said...

I like your "cup hooks" explanation. I've always found that my students learn math better when I take a little class time to teach them some of the history of math, particularly for such topics as logarithms and function notation that are rather divorced from their roots in the way they're taught nowadays.

DRJ said...

Thanks, AVI. What a thought-provoking post this is. I don't have time to do it justice right now, but be assured I'm thinking about it and appreciate what you've written.

DRJ said...

I'm about your age and it's great, isn't it? We've learned enough in our professions to feel confident about what we do, but we're old enough to know how much we don't know.

I took anthropology and linguistics courses in college on the way to a liberal arts degree, and I confess I haven't pursued it since. On occasion, such as when our son took Latin, I would be reintroduced to some aspects of linguistics. I work in the legal profession where terminology is important, so it's always lurking there, too. Finally, our youngest child is profoundly autistic, which means we've spent a great deal of time learning how people learn basic skills including language.

I agree with Wacky Hermit that your cup-hooks analogy is quite good. I read that one of the reasons we don't remember things from our early childhood is because the brains haven't developed a method of organizing thoughts, so it can't store memories in a way that let's us access them. Learning to read is a form of organization that lets us categorize information and remember it. That's why our earliest clear memories are usually from the time we start learning to read, and the memories become more clear and retrievable after that.

Which is my long-winded way of saying linguistics has application to everyday life and it makes things more interesting, too.

I've visited your website for the mental health blogging and related entries and I continue to be interested in those areas. But every now and then if you feel like adding in some linguistics, I'm interested.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thank you. Have you run across the recent speculation about the genetics of the autism - Asperger's spectrum, suggesting that they are found in families with high concentrations of engineers and scientists? It would go some way to explaining its persistence in the gene pool.

A dear friend who is a psychologist is stepmother to two boys on the spectrum -- one mild, one profound. Their father is a physicist, and she finds that she understands them through him better than he understands his own children.

Cappy said...

I was in to Bored of the Rings in the early 1970's.

DRJ said...

Hi AVI, and thanks for being willing to discuss autism. It's one of my favorite subjects for obvious reasons but not many people want to talk about it. I suspect it's because it seems so foreign or sad.

I am not familiar with the specific studies you allude to but I do know that there is a much higher incidence of autism in the families of professional parents. There are several theories but nothing compelling to explain it.

It does appear that genetics is more and more relevant, and personally I subscribe to the concept that it is an immunological disorder. A well-regarded immunologist wrote and presented papers as early as 1995 suggesting that autism might be a neuroimmunological disorder in susceptible invidividuals triggered by an autoimmune disorder, an immunization, or other immunological insult.

As you probably know, autism is a spectrum disorder which includes Asperger's Syndrome, ADHD, ADD, hyperactivity, dyslexia, and even stuttering. In general terms, autism is at one end of the spectrum and is the most severe manifestation, while stuttering is at the other end of the spectrum. The rest are aligned in between. There is convincing evidence that some forms of all of these disorders have a genetic component, although it might simply predispose someone. In other words, many might have the capacity to develop a disorder but it takes an immunological trigger at the right time to make it happen.

I do notice the traits you describe in family members. My spouse is quite gifted in math and at times I notice what might be termed autistic behavior. But, in fairness, I notice some things in myself and in others that could also be viewed as autistic. Bottom line, I think autism is a disorder that magnifies certain traits and makes them more noticeable. Our autistic son has an extreme personality but, thankfully, it is still clearly a human personality.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, autism seems to be a double-dose of some more adaptive mechanism. Have you read "The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime?" It has an autistic boy as narrator, and captures his approaches well.

Though OCD is classified as an anxiety disorder, I think it will prove to be related to the autistic spectrum as well. Most mind impairments are multideterminate, involving both a genetic predisposition and an early or prenatal exposure. Thankfully, gone are the days when it was attributed to cold, rejecting parenting.

I am also hopeful that some features will be treatable by medical intervention, not just environmental design.

Check out the recent Smithsonian magazine that had an article on the genetic diseases of Amish children also. Instructive and inspiring.

DRJ said...

This is an inspired pairing, you and I, because you are the only person I have ever run into who links OCD and autism.

There is a doctor who was and I think still is at the NIH named Susan Swedo. She is known for her theory that OCD in children may be caused by exposure to strep, and she has successfully treated some cases of OCD with antibiotics. She calls her theory PANDAS which if I recall correctly stands for "pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with strep". Our autistic child manifests many OCD behaviors and has a medical condition that only responds to long-term penicillin, so it would be an understatement to say I am intrigued by OCD and PANDAS.

Our son is being treated and has had a positive response, but his treatment is not based on OCD. We're fortunate, but I wish that someone could pursue this in case it would help others.

There are many organizations - especially the Autism Research Institute, Cure Autism Now, and the Autism Treatment Network - that are putting significant time and money into serious medical (which I define as not behavioral) research.

You said that "autism seems to be a double-dose of some more adaptive mechanism". I have a guess but I don't really know what that means. I don't want to take too much of your time, especially on an old thread, but I am interested in understanding this if you ever have time to explain it to me.

Finally, it's interesting that you mentioned the cold mother theory. Our family pediatrician was in his 50's when our son was young. Apparently his continuing medical education didn't involve autism, because for an entire year he referred to that theory as the reason for our son's problems. He still has a lot of patients, too.

DRJ said...

Oh, one more thing. I think the Amish research was done by the same group at the NIH who worked up our son. Is this a small world or what?