Confession Time

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“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” (Noam Chomsky, Linguist)

How can ideas be both colorless and green? And, for that matter, how can ideas sleep, much less how can anything sleep furiously? That a sentence can contain these seeming contradictions and yet still be recognizable as a sentence is the very heart of the completely revolutionary theory of language proposed by Noam Chomsky in the mid-1950s.

If it’s possible to be an ideas bigot, I used to be one. And it was the work of Noam Chomsky that incited me to some form of ideas bigotry, which was an immense mistake on my part. To be fair, I wasn’t alone, but I was that guy, as they say. Don’t you be that guy, too.

If I’m going to make a confession, I should start at the beginning.

I first encountered the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky in my final year of college. A friend who was majoring in Psychology was assigned one of Chomsky’s works, a book called Language and Mind. When he finished with the book, I borrowed it out of curiosity. I found it contained some compelling ideas about language but my response was, “Interesting, but what really interests me is how language came into being and how it developed.”

A year later, immersed in linguistics classes in graduate school, I was studying that very subjects: how the sounds and grammars of language developed over time. We looked at the history of language and read all about dialects and differences between languages and language families. Most of my teachers felt that Chomsky’s theories didn’t apply to real language. They dismissed his work as trivial.

At some point,  I bought the book in which Chomsky first proposed the existence of a transformational or generative grammar that was universal in all human beings. It was called Syntactic Structures and, like Language and Mind, contained very careful and compelling arguments to support his theory. I wasn’t persuaded. But that wasn’t because of any failure on the part of Chomsky or his book.

I wasn’t persuaded by Chomsky’s ideas because my mind was mostly closed on the matter. It’s really hard to persuade someone with a closed mind. It wasn’t until I moved on to a different graduate school (Yes, I admit it. I used to be a professional student.) and began to study under a man who admired Chomsky’s work that I began to swing my mind’s door open on its very rusty hinges. That man, William Abler, taught me to be eternally curious. And to listen to others’ ideas with openness and willingness to learn.

William Abler taught me to be a scientist. While I’m no longer a scientist by profession, I still try to engage life with a fully open scientific curiosity. And I firmly believe that all speakers, teachers, and trainers should live this way.

So don’t be that guy, like me, who refuses to consider new ideas. Instead, try to be a William Abler to your students and your audiences. They will be grateful, I promise.

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