The idea that we have brains hardwired with a mental template for learning grammar—famously espoused by Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—has dominated linguistics for almost half a century. Recently, though, cognitive scientists and linguists have abandoned Chomsky’s “universal grammar” theory in droves because of new research examining many different languages—and the way young children learn to understand and speak the tongues of their communities. That work fails to support Chomsky’s assertions.
The research suggests a radically different view, in which learning of a child’s first language does not rely on an innate grammar module. Instead the new research shows that young children use various types of thinking that may not be specific to language at all—such as the ability to classify the world into categories (people or objects, for instance) and to understand the relations among things. These capabilities, coupled with a unique human ability to grasp what others intend to communicate, allow language to happen. The new findings indicate that if researchers truly want to understand how children, and others, learn languages, they need to look outside of Chomsky’s theory for guidance.
I refuse to read books. Coming from a critic, this confession sounds both imperious and ignorant, but, truth be told, all of us, especially scholars of literature, refuse to read books every day. I remember someone telling me at a party in graduate school that my adviser — a famous Americanist — had never read Moby-Dick. Was it true? I did not dare ask him. Did the very idea amplify his bad-boy critical aura? Of course. (Recently, I did ask him. "For a while it was true," he said; "and then, forever after, it wasn’t.")
Perhaps the novel also gained a certain clarity in translation, for I first encountered It, as a child growing up in Germany, as Es. While the Freudian resonances were lost on seven-year-old me — Es was Freud’s plain German name for what English translators have far more pretentiously termed “the id” — some of the word’s primal grandeur was not: an “it,” after all, can be any critter or animal, while an es seems to reach deeper into our collective mental topography. “Wo es war, soll ich werden”: “where it was, I shall be,” Freud declared. For the longest time, wherever I was, It was not.
I realize now that I can’t even remember when I finally picked up one of these errant copies of It and started reading. But perhaps that’s a strangely appropriate mode of reception for a horror novel that reserves its greatest terror for the vagaries of memory. It features relatively little of the kind of horror that has protagonists shining their flashlights into dark corners to face unseen abominations. Instead, it dwells on the horror of having lived with something terrifying all along, of having become blind and numb to it. It strikes me only now, rereading the book decades later in English, that there’s something distinctively American about the pervasive, dreamlike fog of amnesia that envelops the town of Derry, Maine, in King’s novel. Not for nothing does It make its home in the town’s sewers; as one character puts it: “Nobody knows where all the damned sewers and drains go, or why. When they work, nobody cares.”
I love restaurants. I’m a serial eater-out, prowling New York for an uncommonly delicious dinner, at a decent price, cooked by someone else. And never mind if the meal turns out to be disappointing. There is always the promise of the next meal, the next new place, and, besides, the pleasures of eating privately in public tend to compensate for most culinary catastrophes that do not involve a trip to the emergency room after the latest hole-in-the-wall around the corner serves me last week’s clams. My husband says that I never learn; if there’s a new restaurant in our neighborhood, I try it.
Given that Paul Freedman’s new book, “Ten Restaurants That Changed America” (Liveright), is largely a history of eating out in this country, it’s worth noting that the word “restaurant,” at least as food scholars define it, is as recent historically as the experience it describes. It comes from the French restaurer, to restore, and was coined in the seventeen-sixties, supposedly when a nutritionally minded Frenchman known only as Boulanger (his first name has disappeared from the annals of gastronomy) decided to open a place in Paris offering a menu of “restorative” meat broths, along with tables to sit at, wine to sip, and, possibly, a bit of cheese or fruit to end the meal. (“Boulanger sells restoratives fit for the gods,” the sign on the door said.)
Canada needs to stop pretending that it cares about the North. Decades of false rhetoric has created expectations among those few who do live up North that someone “has their back.” No one does. They’re on their own and they have been for generations. We tell the world the North is ours, that we are protecting our sovereignty and our vast mineral wealth. But the truth is we aren’t, and those resources are so far from the nearest railhead they may as well be on the moon.