What Kind of Creatures Are We?: Language


Noam Chomsky is getting older. He is undoubtably one of the most influential thinkers of contemporary philosophy and science. Though that may not itself be the most praiseworthy thing.

But with age come synthesis and summary. Chomsky’s latest writing outside of his political side have been this sort of writing. His book What Kind of Creatures Are We? is a philosophical summary of his major contributions to the science of linguistics and philosophy of cognition and morality. It moves from his most specific question, What is language? to What is cognition? to finally, What is the common good?.

For second language teachers and learners (L2TL), Chomsky is often opaque and dismissed. My own experience went from practically worshiping him (as an undergraduate linguistics student) to renouncing him (as a Second Language Education master’s student) to finally a sort of dialectical synthesis now. I find reading Chomsky imminently stimulating and, if not specifically, in general try to live and teach with the goal of moving and thinking throughout my work like Chomsky.

This is the first of three posts that will discuss Chomsky’s three questions that he poses in this book from the perspective of a L2 teacher. We’ll start with a short summary of the chapter and then discuss a few of the ideas that I think are maybe most useful.  The first question we’ll tackle then:

What is Language?


Chomsky begins this discussion of language with definitions, or in the case of language, the lack of them. People have been studying language for thousands of years but often, he notes, without clear concepts of what the object of their study is. Here, he opens up his common comparison with biology, physics and chemistry. Chomsky is very critical of contemporary cognitive science’s attempt to define language as:

“‘the full suite of abilities to map sound to meaning, including the infrastructure that supports it,’ basically a reiteration of Aristotle’s dictum, and too vague to ground further inquiry … no biologist would study evolution of the visual system assuming no more about the phenotype than that it provides the full suite of abilities to map stimuli to percepts.” (p. 6)

Grounding the concept language in a clear way is important to Chomsky. Citing  scientists like Ian Tattersall, Darwin, and Descarte, Chomsky’s pursuit of language is what he calls the “basic property” of language. “[E]ach language provides an unbounded array of hierarchically structured expressions that receive interpretations at two interfaces, sensorimotor for externalization and conceptual-intentional for mental processes” (p. 4). If we accept this basic property of language, then a focus on trying to discover and catalogue all of the expressions themselves may not be useful for understanding what is going on in the brain that led to the computation of those externalized expressions. Instead, for Chomsky, “a theory of [each] language is by definition a generative grammar … we are interested in the discovering the actual computational procedure, not some set of objects it enumerates” (p.4; bold mine).

Chomsky is most interested in what he calls the “creative character of the normal use of language … it is typically innovative without bounds, appropriate to circumstances but not caused by them” (p. 7). Like others, Chomsky is inspired by the infinite possible linguistic acts from a discrete and finite set of articulators (letters, mouth sounds, hand movements).

Chomsky demonstrates this creativity and natural processing with a now famous test phrase:

(1) “Instinctively, eagles that fly swim.”

This simply sentence demonstrates an important fact about language. It is heirarchically structured, not linearally structured as one might assume, given that language is produced sound by sound or gesture to gesture in time. To understand what he means, look at the word instinctively, which verb is this adverb modifying? fly, or swim? Obviously, it is swim. That is, eagles that fly instinctively swim. Notice that the grammatically acceptable sentence Eagles that instinctively fly, swim is not the same reading as (1). It is not a case of ambiguity.

instinctively eagles tree
A visualization of the hierarchical structure of language. Count the lines “up” from the verbs to “instictively” to get a feel for the hierarchical distance. Also, it’s been a long time since I’ve drawn on of these… it’s probably got some technical flaws. Sorry about that.

What do we make of this distance between instinctively and swim? For computation, linear order is simpliest, just process one item after the other, and yet languages don’t do this. Heirarchical structure is pervasive. Chomksy concludes from this observation, that language is not linearally ordered, but heirarchically, a principle of the language system called Minimal Computation (MC).

Still though, language is linear, in that it needs to be expressed by a sensorimotor system (the mouth or hands) in time. Here, Chomsky begins a process of piecing together the evolution of Language (not language change or variation). The incongruence of the heirarchical interpretations of language utterances and the linear order of spoken or signed language, suggests that the sensorimotor system had been in place before Language evolved in the brain and that language didn’t evolve to be externalized primarily.

This is a huge point of difference between Chomsky and the Boasian language-use field. For Chomsky, language evolved not for communication, but for thought. Language first developed as a way to store memory more effectively and recall that knowledge. Communication is a useful, but ancillary, product of Language. Chomsky makes an interesting observation on this point. He says, “It is worth noting that externalization is rarely used. Most of language use by far is never externalized. It is a kind of internal dialogue … what reaches consciousness is scattered fragments. Sometimes, full-formed expressions instantly appear internally, too quickly for articulators to be involved, or probably even instructions to them” (p. 14; bold/italics mine).

Useful L2TL concepts

Be amazed by the ordinary
For too many students and teachers alike, learning a language is more like downloading Rosetta Stone. It’s a lengthy and laborious process that mostly involves memorizing vocabulary items and training the brain to remember them.

At the same time however, every student I have come across seems to have had at least one moment where they learned something about language and said, “huh.. that’s strange.” For Chomsky, there needs to be a lot more of that in language learning and teaching in general. Not just for obscure etymologies or non-standard, rarely heard syntactic structures. But for the everyday use of language. We should be asking the “why” question much more often.

The problem for many traditional L2TL classrooms however is that a “why” question without some answer is at best uncomfortable and at worst an indictment of the teacher. For Chomsky, an unwillingness to be puzzled about the most basic features of language is an unfortunate waste.

“For millennia, scientists had been satisfied with simple explanations for familiar phenomena: rocks fall and steam rises because they are seeking their natural place; objects interact because of sympathies and antipathies; we perceive a triangle because its shape flits through the air and implants itself in our brains, and so on. When Galileo and others allowed themselves to be puzzled about the phenomena of nature, modern science began–and it was quickly discovered that many of our beliefs are senseless and our intuitions often wrong. The Willingness to be puzzled is a valuable trait to cultivate, from childhood to advanced inquiry. (p. 9-10; bold mine).

Beyond establishing a general framework of curiosity and trust between learners and teachers, a willingness to be puzzled frees the learner from the tyranny of completion. Or the idea that once they accomplish X, they will be Y. We can stop going from “language learners” to “speakers” to simply language users, at every stage.

This perspective has obvious benefits for the beginners and intermediates, but I suspect that advanced learners may get perhaps the most advantage from this perspective. I notice a general trend amongst advanced students. Once they become communicative, once other speakers seem to understand them easily and they understand other speakers without too much difficulty, a focus on language forms fades. And with it, a general direct purpose for their language learning also. In my classes, when I ask advanced students what they want from our classes, the answers are generally vague. Something like, “to learn advanced expressions” or “to use the language”. They don’t have a clear idea of what their next step should be.

For many of them, instilling the “why” question again is a good starting place. Why do people start so many statements with “so..” or end a question with “or..?” Questions like these help re-frame an advanced learner’s perspective back to curiosity about language itself. And from there, they can begin learning forms they had been ignoring for so long.

Externalized language is a small percentage of Language
Chomsky uses his thoughts about being puzzled by language to make his observations about the hierarchical structure of language and the linear order of externalization. From here, he explores an area of language that is difficult to research empirically, the relationship between thought and language.

This relationship is one both Socio-cultural theorists (SCT) and nativists find interesting. Chomsky cites Vygostsky’s own writing on this relationship to introduce his own intuitions. For SCT, language and thought grow together and need each other. As a human learns language, they are able to think more higher-order thoughts, and with higher-order thinking comes more complex language. This fundamental observation motivates much of SCT, including Language Awareness (LA) and Negotiation of Meaning (NfM).

For Chomsky though, his insight is slightly different. Regardless of this relationship, the vast majority of language is never externalized. Remembering his previous observations about the difference between the hierarchy of language structure and the linear structure of externalization, Chomsky notes that much of thought and thinking is organized in a way that is not similar to externalized language and the sensory-motor system.

“It is worth noting that externalization is rarely used. Most use of language use by far is never externalized. It is a kind of internal dialogue … what reaches consciousness is scattered fragments. Sometimes, full-formed expressions instantly appear internally, too quickly for articulators to be involved, or probably even instructions to them. This is an interesting topic that has been barely explored, but could be subjected to inquiry” (p. 14).

For Chomsky, the main take-away from this observation is to combat the idea that language is for communication– A concept most L2 teachers would strongly disagree with. Still, we can perhaps gain some insight from this line of thought. In particular, the phenomona that we and all learners experience: not being able to say what you want to say.

Too often students consider their inability to say or write something as a lack of forms. But if we understand language as primarily a way of organizing our thoughts, then we can give ourselves some slack. Perhaps we do lack some language forms that would help us communicate. But what our thoughts really are, are never the externalized language. Not totally. Not entirely. And this idea, that we never truly understand one another is a useful perspective. Breakdowns in communication both big and small are simply to be expected. Not just in our second languages, but in all communication. Thought is not language.

This helps to explain, in part, “disfluency”. Teachers often judge, too harshly, the starts and stops of language learners in communication. We strive to improve their fluency without acknowledging that to start with one thought, change, move to a different one before finally switching the language forms entirely is a feature of all communication. If a student is truly exhibiting a “disfluency” we need to be more sure about what we are saying to the student and that it is actually something to be fixed.

Hierarchical structure is interesting but…
As a linguistics student, generative grammar was one of the most impressive and inspiring theories I had come across. The ambitious predictions made by heirarchal structure opened up language for me in ways that I hadn’t realized before.

We, as language teachers, may not think that Chomsky’s theories of language have much to do with us. But, I suspect that heirarchal structure may be one aspect that language teachers may think is useful. I am not so sure. It is important and it may be useful. But there are other insights from Chomsky’s thought on language that I think may be of more use in structuring our own thinking about L2TL.


One thought, misguided in my thinking, some may have when examining Chomsky for second language teaching ideas is that he doesn’t have much to say about the phenomena. And on the surface, this is true. Chomsky explicitly states that those interested in the minimalist program are not interested in the set of outputs of the Language system (i.e. individual languages) but the systems and functions that create those outputs (i.e. merge).

But Chomsky’s second point on this is that the only way we can know anything about Language (the internal system) is through examination of the outputs (the languages). Early SLA was dominated by a pursuit of the Language Acquisition Device, and we’ve moved social since then, but there are still aspects to be taken from generative thought.

Next, we’ll examine Chomsky’s thinking about the cognitive system itself and what L2 teachers can learn from it.

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