Cognitive science is a pretty large field, but three questions have been driving a lot of the research effort, almost from the start.
What is language ?
First notice that it is a two-faced coin, there’s external language and internal language. Everybody knows what external language is : it is that particular set of sounds and signs whose shapes and sequences convey some conventional meaning. This convention is formalized into rules, exceptions and templates, and examplified in googles of more or less beautiful instances in everyday life.
Internal language on the other hand is how the brain represents the external language environment to itself. It is the set of neural mechanisms and representations by which we humans can write and read, speak and understand speech –that is to say, by which we can in turn contribute to external language. Cognitive science is interested in internal language.
There is a longstanding disagreement among researchers concerning the mere mechanisms and representations of language. The so-called classical school holds that it’s all rules and symbols, in direct legacy of Turing’s universal machine. This school has reached a venerable age but it is alive and very influent, with prominent researchers such as Chomsky, Pinker or Fodor to give a few names, and the next generation lead by very smart people such as e.g. Marcus. In its strongest Fodorian form –admittedly not the most widespread- the classical school adheres to the principle of multiple realizability stating that brain features are utterly irrelevant to understand internal language: the brain is just a transparent implementational device.
The connectionist school of thought starts from the opposite premise : the brain does set constraints on how we implement language. So this school must work within neural-like frameworks, and it studies the behaviour of devices made of numerous parallel and distributed processing units connected to one another. The knowledge of the network is embedded in its architecture and in the strength of its connections. So at bottom, connectionism holds that it’s all about associations and network states. Connectionism has been very seriously criticized all along its history, to the point of being sometimes left for dead, but it has grown stronger from every blow. This tradition has pioneers such as McClelland, Rumelhart, Hinton or Elman; and with a new generation perhaps lead by people like O’Reilly, Seidenberg, Smolensky and Plunkett. Ok, as you'd have guess, I for one am a connectionist.
There are two remaining questions I would like to describe in a another post: Is language innate? And is there a language module ?
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