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Words End, Start

Whatever Twitter is for, it does (depending on whom you follow) create some interesting juxtapositions of themes. Today’s juxtaposition was language acquisition (this Perri Klass piece from the NYT about babbling) and language attrition (also from the NYT, a piece by Gina Kolata about correlations between memory decline and age of retirement, as well as another from the Wall Street Journal about how bilingualism may or may protect against Alzheimer’s). These are two themes that are fascinating me these days — looking for them, I find them everywhere.

The WSJ piece talks about”cognitive reserve,” which isn’t the right metaphor for the phenomenon, I think. “Neural surplus” is better: it means that whatever baseline amount of brain tissue you need for daily activities, you can lose neurons and not affect cognition. (The phenemonon was observed in postmodern brains of Alzheimers patients, some of whom had shown behavioral affects of the disease, others who hadn’t.) Ellen Bialystok uses “cognitive reserve” to explain why bilingualism might be a protective factor against dementia. She wants to say that a brain with surplus can afford to lose more, but instead she ends up talking about “fuel.” “But greater cognitive reserve,” goes the article, “means the ‘same as the reserve tank in a car: Once the brain runs out of fuel, it can go a little farther,’ she says.” But what’s lost isn’t fuel; it’s the capacity for power.

Still, all of the articles were pieces of an emerging story about language across the lifespan that differ from the mainstream linguistics that I was exposed to in the early 1990s. Part of the new story is that babies learn to do what they do more than we think — even babbling — thereby wresting some of the story away from innatist explanations.

…The consonants in babble mean the baby is practicing, shaping different sounds by learning to maneuver the mouth and tongue, and listening to the results. “They get there by 12 months,” Professor Stoel-Gammon continued, “and to me the reason they get there is because they have become aware of the oral motor movements that differentiate between a b and an m….”

There’s also attention being paid (which has been going on for a while, so it’s not far to call it new) to communication dyads, usually mothers and babies, which set the stage for language per se. (I touched on this in my earlier post about the meaning of “ka.”) One of the main arguments for components of innatism has been the “poverty of stimulus” argument — that babies don’t really get enough good interaction to help them generate the complexity of utterances they eventually have. If you come from a strictly “language” perspective, that’s probably going to look like the case, but if you come from a “meaning-making” or communicative perspective, then you won’t see the poverty.

So that’s on the language acquisition side. On the attrition side, what’s new is the attention to cognitive skills and resources that undergird language itself — that sometimes what’s lost is the language itself, but what can also be lost are the resources that serve language, and that those are really the more widespread, costly ones. On the mature side of things, there seems to be no argument that environment plays a huge role in providing other protective factors: educational attainment and occupation.

Sadly, however, not Sudoku.

And research has failed to support the premise that mastering things like memory exercises, crossword puzzles and games like Sudoku carry over into real life, improving overall functioning.

“If you do crossword puzzles, you get better at crossword puzzles,” said Lisa Berkman, director of the Center for Population and Development Studies at Harvard. “If you do Sudoku, you get better at Sudoku. You get better at one narrow task. But you don’t get better at cognitive behavior in life.”