What can AI teach us about how we learn language? Some preliminary answers from “The Economist”

November 2023 Vol 5 Issue 11

Tell Your Story Newsletter (TYSN):

Specializing in Entrepreneurial and Linguistic Storytelling

Let me teach you to tell your story!

Welcome Mid-November, 2023!

As I prepare this issue of “Tell Your Story Newsletter,” Saskatoon continues to experience mild, but very grey, weather. Photos from the local TV news remind us that at this time, three and six years ago, we were inundated with snow!


By contrast, this year, fluffy white flakes descended only in late October and on November 9th; and snow on the latter date melted by midday. Bare ground in November creates such ambivalence for Saskatchewanians: while we know we need moisture for next year’s crops, the lack of snow and ice makes our daily activities so much easier.


This month, I was delighted to find photos (or descriptions) on social media of Hallowe’en hijinks! Parish Nurse extraordinaire, Laura Van Loon, dressed as a pirate, according to strict specifications provided by her grandchildren;. . . . Tech expert and community developer, Katrina German, appeared on X  as a cheerful red tomato, for a lucky 13th year! . . . . Marketing guru (and another community developer), Sara Wheelwright, appeared on Facebook as a very convincing female vampire! . . . Due to a deadline here, my paltry contribution to the festivities was to shun the candy bowl at my local gym, telling myself others needed the chocolate more than I did! (Note to self: please try to plan ahead for a costume in 2024!)


But such fun aside, has the mild start to winter 2023/24 felt significant to you, as we approached Remembrance Day? I know that the grey, mostly calm, skies and warmth (no need of heavy parkas or boots) have allowed me to reflect more consciously on the news of our world’s many conflict zones, the tragic loss of human life, and even our daily worries over escalating costs of living. Reflect–but not despair.


Readers, have you gone inward during these recent, grey  weeks, to “level-up” your emotions, as we observed Remembrance Day, again?

Turning inward to do some of this emotional work can liberate us to turn outward, again, with new hope.

No, the bombing in Ukraine and Gaza (to name only two hotspots) has not stopped, as we all want it to. But “levelling up” from despair to a calmer state of awareness, has enabled me to find at least provisional peace, as I teach, write and communicate with others.  I wish you, good readers, the same kind of peace, well deserved, even in these troubled times.

This month, in “Article One,” I share some insights from a recent newsletter of “The Economist,” on what Artificial Intelligence (AI) can teach us about how we learn language.

In “Storyteller’s Corner,” I cite the Merriam-Webster dictionary for “part two” of their posting of “bookish words for book lovers” of all varieties (continuing from last month’s issue).

In “Shop News,” I’m delighted to feature as “Entrepreneur of the Month,” Adele Paul, of “52 North.” Hailing from Saskatoon, Adele has both written and designed marketing and communications materials across multiple sectors, and has also honed her skills through studies at Centennial College (Toronto). Please visit the links shared in her promotion, to better appreciate her gifts and expertise.

And as the last six-and-a-half weeks of 2023 draw to a close, notwithstanding the conflicts around us, may each of us continue to cultivate peace, compassion and kindness for each other–to “let peace begin with us,” before moving outward.

Then, in the words our African newcomers, we will be able “to stay blessed.”




Storytelling Communications




–>ARTICLE 1: What can AI teach us about how we learn language? Some answers from “The Economist”

–> STORYTELLER’S CORNER: Five more words for book-loving readers (from Merriam-Webster Dictionary)




Article OneWhat can AI teach us about how we learn language? Some answers from staff writers at “The Economist”

Last spring, several staff writers of the “language learning” newsletter produced by “The Economist,” adopting the collective name of “Johnson” (after Samuel Johnson, the great 18th century man-of-letters), wrote this about AI: “ChatGPT raises questions about how humans acquire language.” In the piece, the writers argue that AI developers and users have “reignited a debate over the ideas of Noam Chomsky,” who at age 94, remains the world’s best-known linguist to dismiss AI in popular media.

“Johnson” writers cite the much-touted victory of “Deep Blue,” a chess computer, over world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, in 1997, as a watershed moment in the development of AI.

The victory of AI in that match also caused many to fear that machines were triumphing over humankind. In the 26 years since that fateful match, AI has developed by leaps and bounds. But none of those advancements, “Johnson” says, have “captured the public imagination” the same way as that chess match—until now.

What’s changed?

Computers are now able to use “something that we consider our defining ability” (“Johnson” says)—language, itself.

ChatGPT, the best-known of AI’s large language models (LLMS) can produce what appears to be outstanding human writing. But cultural critics have been debating “what the machines are actually doing internally; what it is that humans, in turn, do when they speak”; and in academia, what is the validity of Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories, in relation to AI.

Among Chomsky’s well-established insights are his belief that “human language is different in kind (not just degree of expressiveness) from all other kinds of communication” (“Johnson”). Therefore, Chomsky contends even the most diverse human languages bear more similarity to each other than they do to computer code or to the chatter of animals. Chomsky has frequently said that a visitor from outer space would say that “all humans speak the same language, with surface variation.”

Another of Chomsky’s most notable theories is that the ease and speed with which young children learn their native languages reflect a “predisposition for language [that] is built into the human brain.” Children astonish us by their capacity to learn languages until about age 12, despite the inaccurate and intermittent words and sounds they hear when they are young. Chomsky has argued that AI cannot match (much less outdo) that.

But, as “Johnson” writers observe, plenty of linguists disagree with Chomsky and are adopting the capacities of LLMS to communicate, in rebuttal to his theories.

Basic linguistics tell us (as “Johnson” says) that grammar has a “hierarchical, nested structure involving units within other units. Words form phrases, which form clauses, which form sentences, etc.” Chomsky theorizes that humans “merge” or glue together “smaller units . . . to form larger ones that can then be operated on further (and so on).”

He and at least some of his followers have argued that AI cannot think or use language in this kind of cognitive processing, as humans do, and that LLMS function only by predicting “the next word in a string of words.”

But as the “Johnson” writers say, we don’t yet know enough about AI to understand what LLMS “think.” The “programming and training data” of commercial LLMS (e.g. ChatGPT) are “proprietary. And not even the programmers know exactly what is going on inside.” AI is not at all a level playing field of functioning or influence.

But when linguists have tested LLMS’ knowledge, the models “seem to learn nested, hierarchical grammatical structures, even though they are exposed to only linear input—i.e. strings of text.”  LLMS pick up new words and discern parts of speech.

An earlier form of LLMS, GPT-3, was trained on about 1,000 times the data that a 10-year-old child is exposed to, suggesting that children do have an “inborn tendency to grammar, making [children] far more proficient than any LLM.” But in other experiments, LLMs trained on only the text that children are exposed to, have shown that computers can use even “rare grammar.”

The “Johnson” writers report, however, that when other researchers trained an LLM on only the words children hear, the LLM performs far worse than children. So Chomsky’s theory that the human brain is “built for language” cannot be too easily displaced.

Both camps of linguists (pro- and anti-Chomsky) are implementing LLMS to argue their theories; “Johnson” concludes that if Chomsky’s theories are to survive AI, “his camp will have to put up a stronger defense” than they have, thus far.

What do you think will happen if/when LLMS surpass our human capacities to speak and write?

And now it’s your turn: Do you think that AI threatens our acquisition of language?

What opportunities and threats should we identify and act on? And what action would could we take?

Please write in; I’d be delighted to hear from you.



STORYTELLER’S CORNER: Words, Stories, Riddles and Jokes on Writing and Editing . . .

This month: Five more words for book-loving readers

This month, I share a final five of 11 words that describe “bookish” and book-loving readers, as compiled in a recent blog posting of the American dictionary, Merriam-Webster. (The last issue of TYSN featured the first six.)


If you can’t think of any occasion when you could use the following words, why not have some fun by trying them out, in your daily parlance?


(7) “Omnilegent”: Formed from two Latin parts (“omnis” meaning “all,” and “legere” meaning “to read”), this word refers to someone who reads (or has read) everything—that is, someone known for encyclopedic reading.  For example, “a book by the usage specialist Bryan Garner (of Garner’s Modern English Usage), will allow even the most omnilegent to learn new words.”


(8) “Bookery”: An alternate word for a bookstore. Its ending (the “—ery”) adds the meaning of a “place of doing, keeping, producing or selling,” to the noun, “book.” For example, “I spent a fascinating afternoon in our local bookery, Peryton Books, unearthing titles that will make the best Christmas gifts for my family.”


(9) “Bibliokept”: A person who steals books. For example, “The charismatic collector of rare manuscripts turned out to be nothing more than a bibliokept.”


(10) “Bibliotaph”: Formed from the French “biblio,” meaning books, and the Greek word “taphos,” meaning tomb, this word refers to a person who hides away or hoards books. For example, “Among the artists in the community existed a bibliotaph who retained so many  overdue books that he deprived common library readers from their reading rights.”


(11) “Bouquiniste”: A term given to a dealer in second-hand books. This word comes from the French “bouqin” (meaning “old book”) and the ending of  “–iste.” For example, “When visiting Europe, readers should allow time to meet bouquinistes, often eccentric characters who sell used books, posters and memorabilia.”


With these five book-related words, Merriam-Webster lightheartedly concludes its blog posting on “11 Bookish Words for Book Lovers.”


Will you use one or two of these terms when conversing with colleagues or friends? 

Please share your words, stories, riddles and jokes on language. I’d be delighted to use them in another issue!



Featuring Entrepreneur of the month: Adele Paul, of “52 North: Professional Writing and Design”

Adele Paul is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer and designer who is another member of my collaborative writers’ group, “Saskatoon Freelancers’ Roundtable.”

She joined our group in 2018 and is November’s  “Entrepreneur of the Month.”

Adele writes of her business, “52 North: Professional Writing and Design: “Idylwyld. Meewasin. Spadina. If you have a story to tell, and you have no doubt as to the pronunciation of these words, you are in the right place!”

Adele says that she “knows, loves, and lives in Saskatoon.” Her passion is helping local people and businesses develop beautifully written and designed communications that stand out from their competitors.

Her mission is to bring the stories of Saskatoon people and brands “to the wonderful people who call this city home: Whether it is a feature story for the University of Saskatchewan, a jazzed-up guide for Nutrien Wonderhub, or web content for a local business,’ ” Adele writes, “my  goal is to uncover the voice of your brand and to use it to deliver content that is meaningful to our community.”

After almost ten years of working in education, Adele decided to repurpose her skills into freelance writing. She began as an editor at Family Fun Saskatoon Inc. where she was pivotal in building the brand from the ground up.

Over the course of her five years there, she was lucky enough to combine the three loves of her life: family, writing, and her hometown of Saskatoon.

In the years since then, she has honed her craft and expanded her writing pursuits to include magazine writing, content creation, social media management, graphic design, ad copy, and web design.

In April 2021, she completed the Post-Graduate Communications—Professional Writing program at Centennial College in Toronto. There she dug “deeply into the art and science of successful communication in our digital age.”

In that program, Adele expanded her portfolio to include technical communications, plain language, policy and procedure writing, and visual design.

To talk projects with Adele about learn more about her services, you can find her at “52 North.”


And in other spaces and places . . . .

A change of pace for me this month included taking in a concert by Canada’s Celtic songwriter, adapter, and singer, Loreena McKennitt, with my colleague and friend, Martha Fergusson. Thank you to my family, for the gift of my ticket–an early Christmas present!

McKennitt, who hails from Morden, Manitoba, sang once before in Saskatoon, nearly 30 years ago, at The Broadway Theatre. Since it was late April “final exam” time at the U of S, I missed that concert, to my great disappointment.

A friend who did attend, however, spoke warmly about McKennitt’s exquisite voice and her adaptation of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott.”


But the friend spoke of being disappointed that the singer “said nothing between the pieces,” by way of stories and banter.


By contrast, during last Saturday’s concert, McKennitt shared vivid, humourous stories that reflected her international research of Celtic history and culture, her 30 years of experience as a performer in Inner Mongolia, Latin America, much of Europe (e.g. Royal Albert Hall, before royalty), the US (Carnegie Hall) and beyond. 


“The Visit,” McKennitt’s breakout album from the early 1990s, was well “revisited” last Saturday, as we heard live those familiar, enchanting melodies embodied in Loreena’s hauntingly lyrical voice. 


Named in 2014 as an Honourary Colonel in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), a uniformed McKennitt also sang our National Anthem at Saskatoon’s Remembrance Day service, several hours before taking to the stage for her own concert.


McKennitt continues to live her aesthetic and community values by reading deeply, purchasing, renovating and now directing the Falstaff Family Centre in Stratford, ON, which offers programming pertaining to the Arts.


Her many international awards include The Order of Canada, Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee medals, and the rank of “Knight of the National Order of Arts and Letters” by The Republic of France. 


But when performed live, in particular, Loreena McKennitt’s music transports her listeners’ minds, so that both my friend Martha and I floated home, afterward.


A deep thank you to the Board and staff of Luther Heights Intermediate Care Home, which my elderly mother now calls home.


It takes time for seniors to adapt to new surroundings and to make friends with whom to share conversation and activities. But Luther’s staff have been caring and supportive, earning my gratitude and that of many other families, too.


My visits during the past three weeks, including some moments spent with other residents, have reminded me of how many seniors in our communities could benefit from receiving more visits.


Do you have a contact who lives in a care facility, these days? Could you make time to visit them, even if just for 30 minutes, to brighten their day with some conversation and diversion? There are puzzles to be done, adult colouring books to colour, chair yoga and more to do!


So many beautiful souls languish in care homes. It takes as little as a half-hour visit for seniors’ neurological functioning to benefit—including memory and mood.


Ten years ago, along with fellow freelancers Asheigh Mattern and Julie Barnes, whom I’d met at a local International Association of Business Communicators’ event (IABC), I co-founded “Saskatoon Freelancers’ Roundtable,” a writers’ group that continues to flourish, today. We invite new members but equally encourage other creatives to start their own groups.

 For more information about our group and what we do, please read our collectively written articles in the “Writers Ask” section, forthcoming in the next (quarterly) issue of the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild magazine, “Freelance.” 


Co-authors include Julie, Ashleigh, Ashlyn George and Adele Paul—all blazers of diverse writerly trails in SK and beyond.


There are always new ideas, experiences and businesses to promote and discuss.

Please write me to share your stories.

But for now, this is a wrap for mid-November!



Between 2011 and December 2018, Elizabeth Shih Communications chronicled the stories of B2B marketing and communications on the Prairies and across the country.

Effective January 1, 2019, I rebranded as “Storytelling Communications.” I now  help newcomers to Canada to secure better jobs by improving their language skills; I help small- and medium-sized businesses to close more sales by communicating more effectively; and I help major companies to tell their legacy stories.

Interested in learning more? Please contact me through my CASL-compliant website (www.elizabethshih.com).

After I receive your message, I’ll be pleased to discuss projects with you!

Please visit my website for more information (www.storytellingcommunications.ca).