Noam Chomsky Talks About How Kids Acquire Language & Ideas in an Animated Video by Michel Gondry

These days Noam Chomsky is probably most famous for his consistent, outspoken criticism of U.S. foreign policy. Yet before the War on Terror and the War on Drugs, Chomsky became internationally famous for proposing a novel solution to an age-old question: what does a baby know?

Plato argued that infants retain memories of past lives and thus come into this world with a grasp of language. John Locke countered that a baby’s mind is a blank slate onto which the world etches its impression. After years of research, Chomsky proposed that newborns have a hard-wired ability to understand grammar. Language acquisition is as elemental to being human as, say, dam building is to a beaver. It’s just what we’re programmed to do. Chomsky’s theories revolutionized the way we understand linguistics and the mind.

A little while ago, film director and music video auteur Michel Gondry interviewed Chomsky and then turned the whole thing into an extended animated documentary called Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? (which is currently available on Netflix’s streaming service).

Above is a clip from the film. In his thick French accent, Gondry asks if there is a correlation between language acquisition and early memories. For anyone who’s watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you know that memory is one of the director’s major obsessions. Over Gondry’s rough-hewn drawings, Chomsky expounds: “Children know quite a lot of a language, much more than you would expect, before they can exhibit that knowledge.” He goes on to talk about new techniques for teaching deaf-blind children and how a day-old infant interprets the world.

As the father of a toddler who is at the cusp of learning to form thoughts in words, I found the clip to be fascinating. Now, if only Chomsky can explain why my son has taken to shouting the word “bacon” over and over and over again.

To gain a deeper understanding of Chomsky’s thoughts on linguistics, see our previous post:  The Ideas of Noam Chomsky: An Introduction to His Theories on Language & Knowledge (1977)

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Related content:

Michel Gondry’s Finest Music Videos for Björk, Radiohead & More: The Last of the Music Video Gods

Noam Chomsky & Michel Foucault Debate Human Nature & Power (1971)

What Makes Us Human?: Chomsky, Locke & Marx Introduced by New Animated Videos from the BBC

Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

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Comments (11)
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  • Amani Saleh says:

    The idea of how language is Acquires , is complicated because our brain is created in amazing way – Subhan Allah . I wish I know the truth about how language is exist in our brain . In fact , I agree in 50% with Chomsky theory . We observe that in normal day . The kid who surrounded by educated people his language is effected by that community .
    ^^ I like how Michel Gondry produced this film .

  • yup yup says:

    The solution is simple: your son must have the hard-wired ability to understand bacon! Well done, dad.

  • Astrom says:

    He talks about how kids acquire language and ideas?
    Talk to them about these ideas. They will learn the language and the ideas. They must be exposed to both. This is what teachers do and the kids education will be enhanced if parents do this as well.

  • Lee says:

    Rupert Sheldrake’s Morphic Resonance is the missing piece of the puzzle.

  • John P. S. says:

    The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein has a few interesting ideas on how children lean language. See his “Philosophical Investigations”.
    John P. S.

  • Theodoros Hadjichristodoulou says:

    Όλοι οι άνθρωποι ξεκινούμε σαν παιδιά και γι αυτό στις έρευνες θα πρέπει να μην ξεχωρίζουμε τα παιδιά από τους ενήλικες. Όπως όλα τα ζώα, αποκτούμε τις βιολογικές μας ικανότητες από την πρώιμη ηλικία. Αυτό που δεν ορίζει ο Chomsky είναι τον κοινό παρονομαστή ο οποίος μεσολαβή ώστε σαν είδος να αποκτούμε όμοια γνώση από όμοιες αισθητηριακές πληροφορίες και τον μηχανισμό με τον οποίο η γνώση των αισθητηριακών πληροφοριών μετατρέπεται σε γλώσσα ομοίως κατανοητή. Όταν λέμε ότι γνωρίζουμε κάτι, σημαίνει ότι έχουμε τη δυνατότητα να το αναφέρουμε με γραφή ή με ομιλία. Η γλώσσα είναι ο τρόπος εξωτερίκευσης της γνώσης. Ο Τσόμσκι αναφέρει ότι έχουμε βιολογικά προγραμματιστεί να έχουμε γλώσσα, που σημαίνει ότι είμαστε βιολογικά προγραμματισμένοι να έχουμε γνώση του κόσμου, αφού η γνώση είναι αυτό που εκφράζεται με τη γλώσσα. Σε αυτά όλοι συμφωνούμε. Αλλά το μεγάλο ερώτημα που ποτέ από κανένα δεν απαντήθηκε είναι: πώς αποκτούμε όμοια γνώση από ένα πράγμα και πως η γνώση μετατρέπεται σε γλώσσα; Πώς συμβαίνει όταν διαβάζουμε ή ακούμε μια λέξη, όλοι να καταλαβαίνουμε το ίδιο πράμα; Ποια στοιχεία διαμεσολαβούν στο μυαλό ώστε με τη χρήση της γλώσσας κατανοούμε όμοια πράγματα; Αυτή είναι μια καυτή ερώτηση που ο Τσόμσκι (και γενικά οι γλωσσολόγοι) δεν τολμά να αγγίξει. Ο Τσόμσκι λέγει ότι ο μηχανισμός της γλώσσας μοιάζει με τον μηχανισμό της όρασης, αλλά αυτό είναι λάθος αφού η βιολογική διεργασία της όρασης τελειώνει με τη μεταφορά στο μυαλό των αισθητηριακών πληροφοριών και όχι με την αναγνώριση (των αισθητηριακών πληροφοριών) τους από το μυαλό. Η διεργασία της αναγνώρισης των αισθητηριακών πληροφοριών είναι διεργασία στην οποία κύριο ρόλο έχουν τα διαμεσολαβούντα στοιχεία τα οποία οντολογικά προϋπάρχουν στο μυαλό (υπερβατολογικά στοιχεία) των άλλων αισθητηριακών πληροφοριών ώστε σε αυτά (στα υπερβατολογικά) να αναφέρονται τα δεύτερα (αισθητηριακές πληροφορίες) για να αναγνωρίζονται και να μετατρέπονται σε γλώσσα. Για τον Τσόμσκι αλλά και για όλους πριν από αυτόν, το μεγάλο καυτό άγνωστο είναι τα στοιχεία τα οποία στο μυαλό εισέρχονται πρώτα και γίνονται η πρώτη γνώση η οποία χρησιμοποιείται για αναγνώριση και γλωσσοποίηση του κόσμου. Την πρώτη γνώση, κάποτε ο Ηράκλειτος την ονόμασε Λόγο και επειδή ( από κάποιους που όντας ξύπνιοι κοιμούνταν) δεν έγινε αντιληπτός, τον αποκάλεσαν ¨σκοτεινό¨ φιλόσοφο.

  • Tim says:

    Deaf blind – mentioned – and then someone decided to but crap back ground noises over the conversations.

    Clearly not a clever way to send info out. :(((

  • Bea says:

    very interesting topic- how the deaf acquire language. I believe we are hardwired for it. There is a wonderful Ted Talk of a deaf woman who is a superb musician.
    Having a deaf/blind person with their hands on another’s face and neck, even with their ear to a guitar or piano is probably something parents have done for their deaf child for a long time now. I don’t think this is a new concept.
    What Chomsky left out of his 1 day old newborn and how they have acquired language already even if not expressed in language we know, it’s because, in utero, there is already communication between the baby and the outside world. If they are deaf they understand and communicate through the bond formed between mother and child in utero. This is my experience and a vital understanding is needed here.
    We are quick to say the fetus is just a fetus. Well, the bonding between mother and child begins in early stages. That bonding is “communication” maybe “body Language” and no pun intended here. If we’re hardwired for social and language inherently, its from the beginning.

  • Bruce taylor says:

    Perhaps your child was Francis bacon in a previous life…or someone associated to Francis bacon, show your child some Francis bacon paintings, look for a latent artistic talent..
    One never knows….

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