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Chomsky Explains Language Acquisition In A Short Animated Film By Michel Gondry


The US linguist has said for decades that children “are born” with a pre-existing structure making them ready to develop language.

Professor Noam Chomsky has always been suspicious (if not frankly critical) of the psychoanalytic theory and psychological explanation of the behavior of human language in general. For decades he has been a commentator on the most diverse geopolitical events, but the heart of his theory (at least since his first publications) has always been linked to infants’ language acquisition: how do babies know what they know about language?

We could suppose that a baby seems to know very little about language: they gesticulate, cry and express their needs in many ways using a code that seems to be only decipherable by their mothers or guardians, but according to Chomsky’s thesis, babies in reality know more than what they say.

French director Michel Gondry interviewed Chomsky in the documentary Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? (which can be seen in its entirety on Netflix) to talk once more about one of Chomsky’s most questioned theses: the correlation between the acquisition of language and a prenatal and even genetic grammatical tool that ensures the acquisition and formulation of language so that the baby survives in its social context. Chomsky has even compared this process to a programming that technically makes us remember things that we do not know, as Plato affirmed more than twenty centuries ago, when he talked about the world of ideas. For Plato and his followers, the process of the acquisition of knowledge is in reality a memory process: in reality we do not learn anything, we simply remember things we see as they were (and always will be).

In this clip we can see Gondry talk of memory from his experience as the director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a wonderful science fiction drama where a company offers the possibility to selectively erase painful or traumatic fragments of people’s memories; Chomsky talks about how people with sight or hearing difficulties acquire language, concluding that “children know a lot about language, even more than one could expect, before they are able to demonstrate that knowledge.”

As the philosopher John Locke said, a child’s mind appears to act like an empty canvas upon which the world leaves its impression; David Hume also spoke of a perception mechanism that relies on memory to learn and apply past experiences to events in the present, centuries before Freud would talk about trauma in terms of a tortuous memory that a child’s mind is unable to communicate.

Gondry’s animation allows us to visually appreciate how the stimuli of the world pass through the sieve (and the remix) of the perceptive organs of a child and are translated (even before they become language) into signals that a child can interpret and use.

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