Language acquisition and chess

Warning: Rampant groundless speculation follows. My brother and/or anyone else should feel free to contribute their own ideas or simply ridicule mine. 

The first thesis I will never write was about the similarity between Bobby Knight and Bobby Fischer (that’s my third Reassembler post ever).

My second unwritten thesis is about the similarity between language and chess. The un-done research piece of this thesis is a search for a correlation between chess ability and facility with multiple languages.

Chess seems like an artificial, ultra-simplified version of a language, in some respects. It’s got components (the pieces = morphemes/phonemes/semantics) which must obey certain possibly arbitrary rules (grammar) to construct output (play, or a game, like speech) which can be correct or incorrect (illegal moves = ungrammatical speech) but furthermore may be adjudged a legal-but-poor. Good, better, best. Beautiful. So there’s correctness according to the rules, and according to the internal logic of chess which makes some moves bad, but also according an aesthetic, subjective dimension.

It resembles language, yes, but also math in certain aspects. Math’s rules seem non-arbitrary to me; that’s a critical difference from chess but perhaps not from language. Linguistics features, or used to feature, observations about universal rules of grammar shared by all languages and debate about whether those rules arise from some hardwired aspect of the human brain. I.e. a biological basis for certain restrictions on how any language must be structured.

Music – now is that closer to math or to language? The basis of chords and keys is mathematical, or maybe it would be more correct to say they can be described mathematically. (Howard? George? Harvey? Matt? Anyone else wanna dive in here?) This stuff has percolated in my mind for years. It resurfaced yesterday in part because of a conversation with my co-worker Kate Walsh.

For an American I am pretty good at chess, percentile-wise, though my play is more volatile and ‘appealing’ in the barbaric sense than it is in the sense of correctness. 

Like most of my colleagues, I am “good at language” (that’s why we’re writers and editors) but not so “good at math”.

I learned German pretty well (although my Langue was ahead of my Parole) but I never understood musical keys particularly though I played tenor saxophone for about six years; I could learn to play by rote, but never quite grasped the whys behind  music or calculus or trig or the treble clef.

Ah, the mysteries of the mind. I suppose this has all been hashed out by Pinker and others – I’ll get around to reading someday…


16 thoughts on “Language acquisition and chess

  1. I’ve thought about this too, but have not come to any conclusions more constructive that what you’ve written. (It’s fun to draw analogies, yet what’s to say we’re not pulling these analogies out of our ass?) I’m still on Chapter 3 of The Language Instinct (Pinker). It will be a while until I finish, but, even when I do, I don’t think it will provide any revelation. Most of my formal eduaction is in math/science/engineering. I might read books about the brain, but I don’t really know anything about the brain. This is the pessimist in me talking. Pinker’s second book about language, Words and Rules, might provide additional insight.

    Chess is chess. There is no analog. Although, here’s an empirical observation: nodoby ever seems to talk about “language prodigies,” but people talk about music and math prodigies all the time. Why’s that?

    When I finish The Language Instinct maybe I’ll have a more optimistic view about this topic; unfortunately, I’ve got a number of books being read in parallel, as well as chess study. Last night I lost to Epp in what, for me, could be an instructional game, and I’m determined to start seriously analyzing my losses. This analysis and the study it spawns could take hours. Who has time to read about how the mind learns? Just do it. :) (Maybe Nike was on to something.)


  2. I hear about language prodigies at least as much as math and music prodigies. Perhaps the difference is that language prodigies are not usually labeled as “prodigies”. Instead, they are simply described as “able to speak X languages fluently by the tender age of Y”.

  3. The thing that strikes me about all of these areas is how naturally they are acquired by young minds. Kids in multi-language environments have no trouble learning two, three, even four languages. Good writers seem to have one thing in common; they were voracious readers when young, and still are. Chess prodigies immerse themselves in the game with countless blitz and/or bughouse games, constant tactical problem solving, etc. Music prodigies practice for hours on end, each and every day. And math weenies, well, they’re just weird. :)

    But this brings up another thought I’ve had; is excellence in these areas anything special? I think everyone is capable of, and in fact exhibits, excellence in whatever they do the most of. Car mechanics know more about the systems of an automobile than I could ever hope to. Secretaries know every key shortcut in Excel, and people are amazed that I know (and understand!) the syntax to the “find” command in Unix.

    We’re all geniuses.


  4. Peter – that’s funny. Although I try. Describing a classic chess game in terms of football makes it more accessable to the non chess-junkies.

    Matt – I don’t understand the question. (heh.) No actually, I agree that “there are all kinds of smart.” I have no sense of direction; somebody wanna tell me a sense of direction is not a valuable form of intelligence, regardless of what IQ Tests measure?

    Greg & Howard. Good thoughts also. I am reminded as an aside of the strip where Calvin says “I’m so brilliant – I think I must be a child progeny.” And Hobbes rolls his eyes and says “Most of us were.”

  5. Chess and football have a lot in common, although I’ve never seen anyone tear an ACL playing chess. Both have three distinct phases (opening, middlegame, ending; offense, defense, special teams), both obviously require substantial strategy, planning, trying to play to one’s strengths and to exploit the opponents weaknesses, etc. Heck, NFL announcers are always saying that there’s a chess match going on, so the analogy must be valid!

  6. I love math and English. I consider myself more than proficient in English–reading, writing, and teaching, and I did make it through college Calc with a B….I don’t know the first thing about chess. The only thing I can compare it to is other things I don’t know about…for example, chess is like Unix–I don’t know the first thing about either. ;-)

  7. Greg,

    My wife is a bilingual (American Sign Language is her second language) speech therapist, and we’ve been debating the benefits of teaching our daughter Sign, as well as a third language. The debate has always been around the time and money costs of such a task — there’s nothing prodigious about our daughter’s intelligence. Because my wife has always been around bi- and tri-lingual people her whole life, teaching our young daughter three languages didn’t seem like such a remarkable task. (In the end we’re not doing it, based on time and money reasons rather than for her lack of ability.) It always seemed to me that the brain was somewhat hard-wired for language (a la Pinker), thus speaking multiple languages that were learned at a young age does not seem that impressive to me. Math and music, OTOH, seem to require more advanced concepts that necessitate prodigious genetics. Just a layman’s thought.

    BTW, I think you’re on the right track about the frequency of rating reports. It certainly does make the ratings more accurate. As long as the kids play a lot, and as long as the number of games is a lot, the kids should have an accurate rating.


  8. Ah, nature versus nurture, a classic and frequently divisive debate.

    Prodigious intellect aside, it seems reasonable that you acquire whatever you’re surrounded with, be that multiple languages or a musical household.

    That’s why I leave my chessboard out all the time, so my daughter will become an expert by proximity/osmosis. :)

  9. As someone very interested in languages and chess, I’d like to put forward my own speculation as to the connection between chess and languages and good methods which could be applied to both areas.

    One of things I’ve come to realise about language learning is that the area that seems best to focus on most is reading and listening to native material and trying to understand it before moving on. Usually starting with relatively simple material.

    Doing this, and looking up words and occasionally grammar notes, makes some use of the mechanism we have which helped us learn our native languages. Through massive input our brain start to notice patterns and stores them subconsciously, reinforcing them over time.

    Seeing everything in context is important since the aim of learning is to deal with the language in its proper context eventually anyway. Grammar drills have their uses but putting the emphasis on this from the get go might slow your potential progress compared to soaking up the patterns from constant input, providing you look things up as you go along.

    When I left my textbooks alone and started doing this, my ability to understand and to communicate in Norwegian developed far more quickly.There is at least one online community of language learners devoted to this principle who often get impressive results compared to people learning through classes and textbooks.

    Regarding chess, one thing it definitely has in common with understanding language is pattern recognition. For beginner to intermediate chess players it is often recommended to spend ones time predominantly on tactics problems (usually 50% or more). While this certainly helps, these are generally positions which are out of context. You just get presented a position where you have a possible tactic which you could exploit but nothing about how the player reached that advantageous position in the first place.

    I’m beginning to wonder if in fact a larger portion of a chess player’s study regime should be going over master games, 19th century games at first such as those from Morphy, Anderssen etc, and then once comfortable with all that moving on to more modern play where the depth of complexity at top-level play seems much higher than that of the old masters.

    For a beginner to intermediate player, going over many many games by the old masters would be a good way to absorb principles of good play and it need not be necessary to spend long periods of time for each game. Play it over quickly a few times and then slow down and try to consider the reasoning behind chosen moves and how things progressed to a point where a winning tactical combination or mate became possible. For games of around 30 moves, I generally do this in about 10 minutes, do another few games, then just quickly play through them again.

    By doing this over many games, and thus many contexts, the brain shouldl absorb and solidify beneficial patterns which come up again and again, just as a child gains an intuitive grasp of grammar from hearing its use in different contexts, and adults too when focusing on input and just trying to understand it.

    Tactics problems have their place, but if equal time were spent on tactics and going over master games, a symbiotic relationship of sorts could arise and would be very beneficial for ones chess intuition which is simply the work of the subconscious based on experience.

    Anyway, sorry for the long comment. Hope someone might find it interesting to try out. Certainly seems to be helping me more than doing tactics alone.

  10. Hello everybody!
    This is so interesting. I’d like to add a few points to this brilliant post.
    Learning a language and improving at chess (both of them never ending processes, btw) share kind of the same methodology in my humble opinion.
    My best improvements at chess have started when I decided to dropped books and lessons and simply started playing with an app called ChessPro. This app, in short, allows you to play against the machine on different levels of difficulty, and any time you want it can show you the best move or moves on the board. When I play, I think what my best move would be and then, before playing it, I check if that one is recommended by the machine. if it’s not, I simply check the move the machine would make and look at the continuation that is provided, seeing where it is better than mine. Then I play that right move and keep playing in that direction, abandoning what could have been my strategy or my interpretation of the position. Sometimes I realized there were tactical motives I had missed or moves that would improve the position in a better way. In short, it’s like playing having a grand master next to you that corrects you every time you make a mistake and shows you the better path, and then go on playing on that new path. Playing in this way, a little every day, with no cramming or too much intensity (consistency and enjoyment) gives me on the long run the best benefits. I noticed that now my way of thinking while I play is completely changed and I like it a lot, and all of that just by playing having fun.
    The reasons of my improvements are, as I said, consistency and enjoyment, neither rush nor deadlines. And the fact that I learn not by studying but by assimilating. Plus, I improve and learn tactics (the most important aspects in chess improvement) by playing my own games (position I most likely will tend to find myself into it, since my style of playing will naturally bring me there) and not by solving self-made positions and games of other people.
    Talking about language learning, one of my favorite course to start a new language is Assimil. Check it out and you’ll understand my point better.
    The Assimil method is based on consistency, slowness instead of rushing, enjoyment and learning by assimilating the right and most necessary structures that specific language you are studying is based on. It’s a top-down approach, as well as ChessPro. Learning to speak a language with someone that corrects your mistake instantly and suggests you better and right way to express what you mean for you then to repeat them and use them again is the best, in fact.
    That being said, there’s no arm in checking the grammar to shed some light on a conjugation of a verb or opening “My System” to check some principles in strategy and tactics. But this should come as a second option and only to verify something, and maybe understand it on a more rational level.
    In fact, to finish, chess and speaking a language are both intuitive skills and that’s why they share a lot in common. A language speaker intuitively will use a particular way of expressing themselves with the language in the same way that a chess player will intuitively see candidate moves. That’s because they have unconsciously assimilated the right way to think.
    Hope I added interesting points to the discussion.

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