Abstract: Let us suppose that you are a research linguist, tormented by some doubts and questions about the state of your profession, and not constrained by having to repeat a catechism of “known truths” to Linguistics 101 students, and not worried about employment tenure. How would you actually go about tackling “the central problem of linguistics”, namely how we acquire and maintain knowledge of the probability of systemic relationships in a language?
Here are two simple pragmatic truths :
a) if you ask me the product of 9×8 I can tell you instantly : 72
b) if you ask me the product of 9×14 I have to calculate out each digit, then remember to add the results. It is slow and I might easily make a mistake. That is because in my primary school they only made us memorize up to 12×12.
The first act, a) is performed courtesy of my procedural memory and as a product of a physical neuronal relationship. (Procedural memories are routines acquired by practice until they become subconscious, such as the skill of driving a car. Psychologists would probably call the neuronal relationship some kind of “long term memory”). I am unlikely to ever forget the answer to 9×8, but growing that association was hard. It took a lot of childhood practice.
The second act, b) is performed by the conscious application of rules I have learned. Deliberate multiplication and addition seems to take place in a workroom next to my declarative memory. (Declarative memories are learned facts accessible to conscious recall. Psychologists would probably call the workroom “short term memory”). On a bad day I might stumble trying to apply the rules of arithmetic. Large numbers of people never become any good at it.
In one way, my knowledge of a) is somewhat similar to my knowledge of my native language. I don’t have to sit there trying to apply “grammar rules” before I can talk. Rather, the flow of words, like the result of multiplying 9×8 emerges instantly.