RE: Sticky Memes

From: Price, Ilfryn (
Date: Wed 25 Jan 2006 - 12:23:53 GMT

  • Next message: Kate Distin: "Re: Sticky Memes"



    From: on behalf of Kate Distin

    >There seems to be some debate about what factors are involved in easing
    the learning of a second language. I suppose there's a sense in which it's meaningless to say that your first language blocks others, as by definition we can't have a second language until we've got a first . . .
      But I suspect the thing you and I are both sort-of remembering is more to do with pronunciation than language acquisition per se: that our vocal equipment learns to pronounce certain sounds and we perhaps underestimate what vast amounts of practice were involved in this. So when we try to pronounce the unfamiliar sounds of another language it feels impossible and we don't work at it hard enough: e.g. the "h" sound for non-English speakers, the "s" or "v" sound for non-Spanish speakers, etc.>>

    I think that is correct. However we tend to think in that first 'sole' language. I can recall being taught Latin, French and a smattering of Russian but I thought of what I was trying to say in English. Later living in Norway I was immersed in Norwegian and began to feel myself, occassionally, thinking in it (which did not last)

    >>>Anyway that's just speculation on my part. But what I did find that
    fascinated me in a memetic context was a paper by Ulrike Jessner of the University of Innsbruck, "Metalinguistic Awareness in Multilinguals: Cognitive Aspects of Third Language Learning", The argument, which struck me as highly convincing, is that becoming bilingual raises metalinguistic awareness. And this, in conjunction with the more efficient learning strategies of an experienced language-learner, makes it easier to learn subsequent languages.>>

    As you say it seems convincing. Her bi lingual sample being taught a third language, had to acquired ones to fall back on and seem to have been less 'blocked'

    >For the relevance of which, see below.


    Here is a possible explanation for all this, which has the virtue of being very simple in memetic terms. Are the stickiest memes simply those which do not have any competitors?

    (By "stickiest" here I mean the ones with the most lasting impact on our behaviour and beliefs, rather than just best-remembered ones.)>>>

    I think this is closer to my trivial versus significant distinction. There are the truly sticky memes which impact, and as Keith has suggested may actively block competitors. There are memorable or even hard to get rid of (e.g. some jingles) which may not have competitors to block, they find a bit of empty mind space

    >>So when you live in a community that is closed with respect to a given
    meme or meme-set, the primary allele (i.e. the one you get first) will be immensely sticky because there's no competition. And if you go for long enough without being exposed to the alternatives then you will have become more and more attached to that primary allele and will put up strong emotional resistance to any alternatives that you do encounter later. Or to put it another (and compatible) way the primary allele will have become so firmly embedded in your existing set of memes that it will be immensely resistant to competition.

    Natural language, as you say, does seem to be the stickiest of all. Perhaps because language is (necessarily - it being about being able to communicate with each other) the respect in which communities tend to be the most closed of all.

    This explanation seems also to work for languages of all kinds, and for parental attitudes and beliefs - including Santa, because although children can suss the ontology for themselves, the related behaviour turns out to be much stickier in a society that is essentially closed to its alleles.

    And then the point from Jessner's paper, above, kicks in because as soon as you do encounter alleles you begin to metarepresent - to reflect on the similarities, choose between them, look for further alternatives, etc. Having encountered one allele you become more open to others: it opens your mind to the fact that there could *be* alternatives. It opens the doors to competition.

    What d'you reckon?>>>

    I agree. Kids raised with more encouragement to question may acquire something analagous to Jessners Meta-linguistic skills. They are less blocked to alternatives, less 'linguistically programmed' (counting the concepts embedded in the descriptions of a particular set of alleles.

    Absent that ability to actively inquire and you see the behaviour Keith mentions in the paper he cites to automatic responses to particular words. Southern US creationists think something like 'satan' when they here 'Darwin'. Dawkins seems to have (IMO) a similar reaction to the word 'religion'. In the part of the world where I live 'George Bush' or 'Mrs Thatcher' trigger the same automatic reflexes and 'meme' still triggers an automatic negative reaction in many mainstream sociological / psychological communities.

    It is easy to conceive of the survival qualities of such routines and I hope this does not launch another round of just so stories. I cannot help feeling however that the development, nurturing or whatever, of greater immunity to such auto-reactions is, on balance beneficial.


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