Noam Chomsky Talks About How Kids Acquire Language and 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?.

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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Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in March 2015.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Direc­tor Michel Gondry Makes a Charm­ing Film on His iPhone, Prov­ing That We Could Be Mak­ing Movies, Not Tak­ing Self­ies

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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