Noam Chomsky argued that the rapidity with which children learn language proves that an important part of our language ability is innate. Particular languages are culture specific, but we learn them quickly thanks to an in-built language acquisition device, often abbreviated as LAD in the trade. There are plenty of reasons to think there is something to this idea of language learning even though it probably goes too far and not even Chomsky retails the original version these days. What interests me about Chomsky’s idea here, however, is not its ultimate validity but the way it was received. Back in the day, as I recall, it seemed revelatory and also rather obvious to people of my age. I wonder now if it seemed so obvious to older folks, especially those who had actually raised children; for even if kids do learn language with remarkable rapidity, parents do spend a great deal of time teaching them. Parents are rather less likely than 22-year old grad students to forget about the hundreds of hours of conversations, of reading out loud, of answering endless questions that go into child care in middle class American households. It’s easy to think that people learn things without being taught them if you don’t have to do the teaching. But callow grad students aren’t the only ones who need to learn this lesson.
Some revelation: you don’t know things that you haven’t found out about. Sounds more impressive in Latin: Nihil est in intellectu quod non prius in sensu. Well, one man’s cliché is another’s axiom; and, to judge from what I often read or rather don’t read in political speeches, this home truth is still news to many—I guess nobody told ‘em. I’m not just talking about all those articles about how ignorant kids or people in general are about geography or history, the ones that imply that we all ought to be born with information about the location of France and who fought whom in World War I. The more consequential examples are those in which people blame whole populations of people for what they don’t know even though they come from groups that have been systematically prevented or discouraged from learning. Centuries of effort were required to achieve what we take for granted as the intellectual patrimony of middle-class people as if it were something in the genes. That comparable work must be done to achieve the same results for those who were left out on purpose is somehow scandalous or at least surprising.
Angels have no memory; but neither do many people, at least when it comes to forgetting the secret of their own advantage. The essence of conservatism, despite its official respect for tradition, is a general amnesia, one that allows conservatives to think that the results of history, often rather recent history at that, are eternal facts. About cultural capital, it turns out most of us are conservatives. We may laugh at millionaire politicians who were born on third base and believe they hit a triple, and yet forget that we ourselves inherited a great many words if not a great many bucks.
The classic study of the issue, done back in 1995, found that the children of professional people heard an average of 45 million words in their first four years while the children of working class people heard 26 million and the children of welfare recipients heard 13 million. The lesson often taken from this result is that parents should be encouraged to talk more to their kids, read to them, encourage their questions, and so forth. There’s surely nothing wrong with this moral, but aside from expecting an awful lot from people who are often living close to the edge, it ignores the fact that a large part of the reason the parents don’t give enough words to their offspring is that they don’t have that many words themselves. Almost everybody learns the full grammar of the language they are born into, even if the dialect they acquire may not be the official version. The full possession of the resources of a language, however, is a heritage that grows over generations and requires sustained and costly efforts to foster and preserve.
Experience is a great substitute for brains, and culture is a great substitute for experience. Maybe that accounts in part for the observed fact that so many members of long-standing elites aren’t particularly bright as individuals. They don’t need to be.