I recently finished reading a book by Norman Doidge, “The Brain That Changes Itself,” and it gave me a tremendous number of resources for further study. Probably the most surprising name that I saw in Doidge’s book was that of Sigmund Freud. Admittedly, I’ve always disregarded Freud as being focused on sexual repression and essentially unrelated to the field of linguistics or language acquisition. I had no interest in Freud all through college and it seemed unlikely that he had anything to offer other than bizarre anecdotes about small boys in the Victorian era catching a glimpse of their aunt’s ankles and developing neurotic attachment to shoestrings forever after. However, Doidge’s book gave me a new respect for the importance of psychoanalysis and I – grudgingly – decided to give Freud a chance.
So, I went to my local library and borrowed a book called “The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud” because it seemed like a good, quick overview of Freud’s work. Doidge discussed Freud mostly due to the ability of psychoanalysis to actually change the physical connections in the brain. Although Hebb is generally regarded as the father of neuroplasticity, Freud’s “law of association by simultaneity” (neurons that fire together, wire together) actually pre-dates Hebb’s work in the field. I was still suspicious – surely anything pertinent to my field would be terribly vague and buried in pages and pages of Freud’s legendary preoccupation with sex as a driving force in the human psyche. I told myself if it was too hopeless, I could always just put it back in the bookdrop and that would be the end of it.
As I sat down to read the book, I was wondering if it would help me in any way get closer to my goal of improving my language acquisition techniques. After the first two paragraphs of “Forgetting of Proper Names,” a little lightbulb went on in my head – forgetting proper names is very similar to forgetting foreign vocabulary. It was starting to look like this book might be more related to my goals than I had expected. Imagine my surprise when I turned to the next chapter, titled “Forgetting of Foreign Words.” This was getting a little weird… I turned to the table of contents. Several chapters had titles like, “Forgetting of Names and Order of Words,” “Mistakes in Speech,” and “Mistakes in Writing.” (They’re all from “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.”) I had no idea Freud had so directly discussed language, let alone foreign vocabulary!
In closing, I feel the need to apologize to the esteemed Dr. Freud for underestimating the practical applications of his work in my field. I had judged him too quickly, based on a sensationalized pop-culture image of him as a sex-obsessed shrink. I’m very curious about my upcoming reading, which I will be posting about here. I also ordered Freud’s book, “On Aphasia,” which pre-dates his work in psychoanalysis, but argues against the localizationism which was the accepted view at the time, using examples of people who had problems with language production. The Wikipedia article on the book says it even includes some speculation on language acquisition.