Chasing Me!

In a quiet square in Edinburgh’s Old Town the other day I came upon a little girl of about 2 or 3, running happily around trying to catch a fairly unperturbed pigeon, and as she ran after it she repeatedly and delightedly chanted: “Chasing me! Chasing me!”

What on earth was going on there? Was she confusing subject with object, getting the roles of chaser and chasee wrong? Was she confusing self and other, visualizing herself in the pigeon’s role and voicing its conjectured thoughts? Was she failing to get that tricky first/second person distinction shifting reference that makes your me my I and your you my me, clear on the roles but wrongly imagining that she was correctly informing the pigeon that she was chasing it?

I do not know. I thought about it during the rest of my walk home. All I will say about it is just this: I’m going to continue being very cautious about assuming that children have innate knowledge of how language works.

It is not going to be easy work, solving the puzzles of developmental psycholinguistics and evaluating the position that philosophers call linguistic nativism. Linguistic nativists say that innate knowledge specifically relevant to language structure plays a role in acquisition; nonnativists say it doesn’t—what we’re innately equipped with is just general-purpose cognitive readiness.

The linguistic nativist, on observing (as I did) a child going through an acquisition stage that involves behavior that doesn’t match the speech of its parents, will cry: “You see? The child is guided through these stages by an innate schedule of development that does not match anything obtainable through observation of adult linguistic behavior!”

The antinativist on observing exactly the same thing will cry: “You see? The child is making mistakes as it struggles to figure out by trial and error the right patterns of speech to use, not just clicking things into place through some innate schedule of development, but trying to make sense of adult linguistic behavior!”

But it’s much too facile to draw an immediate conclusion favoring one’s preferred view from some observed incident like the one I happened upon. You can observe a lot just by watching; Yogi Berra was right there. But drawing a conclusion is another matter.

This battle of philosophies has been going on intensively for at least 50 years; some would say more like 400. The antagonists often heighten the drama by ignoring the fact that at least some parts of their rivals’ view must be right. (Obviously: At least some built-in aspects of the child’s brain are essential, and at least some learning must be based on observed examples of linguistic behavior in context.) It isn’t resolved, this dispute, and it won’t be any time soon.

And I haven’t a clue why the little girl was shouting “Chasing me!” at that pigeon.

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