Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Why Learn Another Language: And why English

Every new school year, which begins in April here, I reconsider my reason for being as an English teacher in an institution where every first year student must take the class. What explanation should I give for this university's insistence on the importance of learning the language? What is in it for my students, and how can I add value to their lives?

As years pass, information falls through my mind that reinforms my decisions about how to organize what I offer.  This year, the most significant bit of information that is influencing my thinking on these issues is Dunbar's Number.

Robin Dunbar is an anthropologist at the University College of London who theorizes that

"this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size ... the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained."

He suggests that this size is somewhere around 150 people.

I am less interested in the specifics of this group size than I am in the evolution of the human species. The evolution of the species Homo sapien was predated by and coexistent with Homo neaderthalensis. The Neanderthals were larger, stronger, and their craniums actually contained more brain space. How did they differ? Group size.

Paleoanthropologists suggest that Neanderthal group size was around 10 to 15 including children. It is thought that Neanderthals interacted with other groups infrequently, and developed slowly. If the Homo sapien group size was larger, then we can suggest that somehow, greater interaction may have led to more rapid development, and greater success as a species.

It appears that there is a positive correlation between connectedness within a group and success. As connectedness grows, or as Terence McKenna would call it, noveltydefined as increase over time in the universe's interconnectedness, or organized complexity, humanity succeeds. Language is essential for the success of the species as well as individuals. 

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