Why Only Us: Language and Evolution

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Why Only Us: Language and Evolution [Reading] ➸ Why Only Us: Language and Evolution Author Robert C. Berwick – Polishdarling.co.uk We are born crying, but those cries signal the first stirring of language Within a year or so, infants master the sound system of their language a few years after that, they are engaging in conversati We are born crying, but those cries Us: Language PDF/EPUB ✓ signal the first stirring of language Within a year or so, infants master the sound system of their Why Only Kindle - language a few years after that, they are engaging in conversations This remarkable, species specific ability to acquire any human language the language faculty raises important Only Us: Language Kindle Ó biological questions about language, including how it has evolved This book by two distinguished scholars a computer scientist and a linguist addresses the enduring question of the evolution of languageRobert Berwick and Noam Chomsky explain that until recently the evolutionary question could not be properly posed, because we did not have a clear idea of how to define language and therefore what it was that had evolved But since the Minimalist Program, developed by Chomsky and others, we know the key ingredients of language and can put together an account of the evolution of human language and what distinguishes us from all other animalsBerwick and Chomsky discuss the biolinguistic perspective on language, which views language as a particular object of the biological world the computational efficiency of language as a system of thought and understanding the tension between Darwin s idea of gradual change and our contemporary understanding about evolutionary change and language and evidence from nonhuman animals, in particular vocal learning in songbirds.


10 thoughts on “Why Only Us: Language and Evolution

  1. William Adams William Adams says:

    The core idea in his monograph is that humans understand language hierarchically, an ability Chomsky and co author Robert Berwick call Merge Two mental objects can be merged into one, and that new, compound object can be processed linguistically as if it were a single object Explained in a review in The Economist March 26th, 2016 , a cat wearing a hat can become a cat in the hat, a noun phrase that functions grammatically as a single mental object It can be merged with the to become The core idea in his monograph is that humans understand language hierarchically, an ability Chomsky and co author Robert Berwick call Merge Two mental objects can be merged into one, and that new, compound object can be processed linguistically as if it were a single object Explained in a review in The Economist March 26th, 2016 , a cat wearing a hat can become a cat in the hat, a noun phrase that functions grammatically as a single mental object It can be merged with the to become the cat in the hat, and with other elements to become The cat in the hat on the mat Whole sentences can in this way become single mental objects, as in The cat in the hat on the mat came back Such compound mental objects can then be merged with other sentences to produce complex systems of thought Thus, language and thought are joined by this single ability, called Merge, which allows humans to think hierarchically The gene for this hierarchical ability allows advanced thought, which confers evolutionary advantage so is conserved over generations Leaving aside the presumptive genetics, for which there is little or no evidence, the hypothesis reduces to, Humans think hierarchically because language is processed hierarchically But we must allow that the causal arrow could run the other direction Perhaps language is or can be processed hierarchically because we innately think and perceive hierarchically e.g., due to Gestalt formation , not the reverse Another fundamental problem with the Merge hypothesis is that cat and hat are not free standing mental objects, nor are any linguistic terms Linguists, and most philosophers, labor under the illusion that there are such billiard balls of experience, each with attached linguistic label.Rather, I think that such mental objects are generated post experience, from social interaction Language is derivative of social interaction as Wittgenstein convincingly argued Words never stand as self existent mental objects with their own reality the way numbers supposedly do.The so called Merge gene is thus not necessary Humans do not have complex thought because they process language hierarchically We process language hierarchically because our social interactions are fundamentally holistic from the beginning Only later, with education, do we learn to analyze our complex, emotional, and prelinguistic social relationships into elements like words and conceptualized mental objects It s a thought provoking read but should be absorbed with plenty of critical thinking to get past reflex biological scientism


  2. Heather Browning Heather Browning says:

    Most of this material came across as highly speculative, and the scientific backing was thin An interesting theory language for thought rather than communication but would need a lotdetail and empirical backing to be convincing.


  3. Zalina Zalina says:

    , .


  4. Rhys Rhys says:

    I thought this would be writtenfor public consumption I found that the text warped from loose discussions around evolution to very specific and jargon filled discussions around brain functions and development For whom was this book intended, I wonder


  5. Nevzat Nevzat says:

    Most books on linguistics are focused on primatology or theories of cognitive evolution without a deep structural understanding of language, and many are focused on linguistics without a detailed approach to evolution This book bases its core arguments mostly on computer sciency linguistics and a detailed understanding of evolution It s important to note the difference between human language including sign language and other forms of communication animals use.The core idea they propose is Most books on linguistics are focused on primatology or theories of cognitive evolution without a deep structural understanding of language, and many are focused on linguistics without a detailed approach to evolution This book bases its core arguments mostly on computer sciency linguistics and a detailed understanding of evolution It s important to note the difference between human language including sign language and other forms of communication animals use.The core idea they propose is the simplest form of recursive operation, which they call Merge basis of universal grammar is special to humans, and this led to the internal language i language , that have later turned into communicative language as we now it today So as a summary, what this book suggests is that, language didn t start as a means of communication but as an organiser of thought.Naming complex internal thought skills i language it s not a language creates a confusion and evenwhen, I think, Merge is proposed as Chomsky s famous universal grammar because when there is the word grammar involved, most people, even linguists tend to think of it not as a cognitive feature butlike the grammar of spoken languages today This leads to a waste of energy in a field already very complex Tomasello s recent universal grammar is dead article is a good example While the authors describe Merge and the hierarchical nature of language in very much detail, the examples they give on these topics are solely based on spoken language As their main argument is the basis of language had nothing to do with communication, I think examples unrelated to spoken language would serve the argument better It s pretty hard to imagine how Merge would work in a world without words and the writers agree It s an area to be thought upon.If Merge is purely an internal process and had nothing to do with communication, why this operation is not also usable in other types of cognitive processes besides language like tool making If it is used, why call it UG and make it only about language There is also the between the lines fact that, if you accept the theory of Merge as basis of human language and accept that it has evolved relatively rapidly in evolutionary terms, you also have to accept that there is no semi merge and therefore no proto language This is a bold claim and I think it needed to be putstrongly in the book.But the advantage of this book s theory is that because the book starts its language history from mental operations an earlier step in the history of human evolution rather than theories about the usages and advantages of communication, it s one step behind from most of the other popular linguistics books and this can help their arguments to be used as a based upon other language theories For example, when Tomasello says language is based on gestural communication and I can t see why gestural communication could t be based upon Merge


  6. Michael Michael says:

    Makes an important case for a narrow definition of what has evolved as language Universal Grammar and the Merge syntactic operator, enabling internal language as a cognitive tool importantly, not as a communication tool This leaves to the side both externalization whether speech, writing, or signing and other general thought capacities These other components of what we commonly call language must have evolved separately to UG, as they are at least partially shared with other animals The ar Makes an important case for a narrow definition of what has evolved as language Universal Grammar and the Merge syntactic operator, enabling internal language as a cognitive tool importantly, not as a communication tool This leaves to the side both externalization whether speech, writing, or signing and other general thought capacities These other components of what we commonly call language must have evolved separately to UG, as they are at least partially shared with other animals The argument relies heavily on comparisons to the Bengalese Finch, to delineate complex auditory externalization, and signing chimpanzees Nim , to demonstrate the lack of Merge The idea is that those other components could be tied together in language in a sort of evolutionary recombination of whatever was at hand.One important work accomplished in this book is correcting many common and subtle misunderstandings of evolution, through the lens of other attempts at understanding how human language could evolve.However, I would say it is most useful as a bibliography if I need to knowabout any tangentially related subjects, such as language externalization, computational grammar, evolution of different linguistic and cognitive capacities, theories of UG, etc., I would reach for this book, which at times seems like a survey of these disparate areas of ongoing research.I have only one real criticism of this account I felt it offered a handhold for each subject discussed, and crucially each aspect of the nature of language relevant to its central argument Even when the research on a given aspect is far from being definitive about anything, the authors were brave enough to put forward some speculation, offering an avenue to read up on other researchers attempts and even guide future research.In contrast, there is one subject where they leave the reader completely in the dark the hypothesized interface been internal language and other general thought capacities On one level, this is understandable of the many discussed, it s probably the biggest unknown in the whole book It seems the authors carefully avoid saying anything about this other than asserting its logical necessity for the argument, and quoting a few poetic platitudes about how language enables that most divine and awesome human ability of human imagination, or whatever I don t think it would have been out of place to include some discussion of the possible nature of that interface and what others have said about the cognitive side of language, no matter how fraught or vague the state of the art might be right now Not only would it thereby offer a handhold for future reading or research, it would actually bolster the argument by demonstrating the authors had performed due diligence, so to speak, in all the aspects of language required by their argument.As it is, this lack felt quite glaring, and left me wondering what theory of mind could fit with this hypothesis It seems the authors could land anywhere from I language is the basis of all thought, to I language is sometimes invoked for special processing, and there isn t really any discussion of what that would mean You can start to narrow down the possibilities pretty quickly, but the fact that the authors leave that mostly as an exercise is both concerning and annoying


  7. Billie Pritchett Billie Pritchett says:

    This book by Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky, Why Only Us, tackles the question that why humans, of all living creatures, possess language and other animals don t They are quick to differentiate that by language, they don t mean communication The claim is that while it is very possible that several higher organisms have communication systems, only human beings have language.So what is language It s this system in the brain that takes words and expressions and orders them According to Berwi This book by Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky, Why Only Us, tackles the question that why humans, of all living creatures, possess language and other animals don t They are quick to differentiate that by language, they don t mean communication The claim is that while it is very possible that several higher organisms have communication systems, only human beings have language.So what is language It s this system in the brain that takes words and expressions and orders them According to Berwick and Chomsky, humans, perhaps some 80,0000 years ago through a genetic mutation, evolved this ability to organise their thoughts They call the internal system that emerged Merge It can take any two words or expressions and form them into evercomplicated sets For example, read and books to form read books Then I and read books to form I read books And so on.If we think about communication as something like the sounds you make with your mouth or the way a songbird sings, that s something external to the mind brain and which relies on linear order But if we think about language as some system internal to the mind brain, we quickly see that it doesn t rely on linear order but hierarchical order So here s an example Take the sentence The man who is tall is happy. Every young English speaking child knows that if you want to make that into a question, you take the is closest to the adjective there Is the man who is tall happyVirtually no child makes the mistake and says Is the man who tall is happyand this is important even if they ve never heard the correct utterance This has to do with phrase structure rules inside the brain, which don t respect the linear order If language were just a matter of communication, it would makesense to take the is closest to the beginning of the sentence This doesn t occur because it isn t a function of how the phrase structures work in the brain.Very very fun book, one of my favourites of the year Occasionally technical, but in general not extremely


  8. Kevin Gross Kevin Gross says:

    A fascinating book surveying the history of current theory and understanding of the origins and mechanisms of natural language, largely the neuroscience The title refers to a core question pursued why are humans the only creatures that possess language capability that meets the standard of what the authors call the Basic Property And the book does include interesting explanations of why primates and birds are not truly using a language The book is not a primer and you re very much jumping i A fascinating book surveying the history of current theory and understanding of the origins and mechanisms of natural language, largely the neuroscience The title refers to a core question pursued why are humans the only creatures that possess language capability that meets the standard of what the authors call the Basic Property And the book does include interesting explanations of why primates and birds are not truly using a language The book is not a primer and you re very much jumping into the deep end of the pool in picking it up For the most part, Berwick and Chomsky lay out credible reasoning for their positions on a wide range of questions However, two recurrent problems, to my thinking, dog their expositions The first is a rigid insistence on syntax as the sole mechanism for parsing meaning from language My belief is that syntax alone is not enough If we take the phrase the deep blue sea as an example, syntax will never make clear whether deep binds to blue or to sea There is inevitably a place for context, history, and semantics etc in assigning meaning to language.My second issue is the authors repeated dismissal of problematic issues with a phrase such as we don t have the time to delve into that here I didn t see a clock on the wall, and at 167 pages, they could easily add a fewto properly tie up these loose ends.Despite these quibbles, a wonderful book, a great resource with many pointers to further explore the topics it covers


  9. Jamshid Jamshid says:

    This book is was a concise and informative analysis of the evolution of language It argues that the faculty of language is not a mere communication ability but an important tool for thinking and imagination, which separates humans from other animals hence only us It then gives a somewhat detailed reasoning that the evolution of language must have happened in a much slower pace than classic Darwinian process The discussion includes evidence from biology, genetics, linguistics and even comp This book is was a concise and informative analysis of the evolution of language It argues that the faculty of language is not a mere communication ability but an important tool for thinking and imagination, which separates humans from other animals hence only us It then gives a somewhat detailed reasoning that the evolution of language must have happened in a much slower pace than classic Darwinian process The discussion includes evidence from biology, genetics, linguistics and even computer science fields It s a great book for those who seeks to knowabout the origins of language as a general human ability, and evengenerally, whether we, as a species, are really too different from other animals The only reason that I didn t give full score to this book was that it somewhat had a heavy language especially when they talked about genetics, where I have null background For such a detailed analysis that the authors tried to make, a 166 page volume is too short I wish they had made the book little longer and the language simpler It took around three months for me to finish this small book


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10 thoughts on “Why Only Us: Language and Evolution

  1. William Adams William Adams says:

    The core idea in his monograph is that humans understand language hierarchically, an ability Chomsky and co author Robert Berwick call Merge Two mental objects can be merged into one, and that new, compound object can be processed linguistically as if it were a single object Explained in a review in The Economist March 26th, 2016 , a cat wearing a hat can become a cat in the hat, a noun phrase that functions grammatically as a single mental object It can be merged with the to become The core idea in his monograph is that humans understand language hierarchically, an ability Chomsky and co author Robert Berwick call Merge Two mental objects can be merged into one, and that new, compound object can be processed linguistically as if it were a single object Explained in a review in The Economist March 26th, 2016 , a cat wearing a hat can become a cat in the hat, a noun phrase that functions grammatically as a single mental object It can be merged with the to become the cat in the hat, and with other elements to become The cat in the hat on the mat Whole sentences can in this way become single mental objects, as in The cat in the hat on the mat came back Such compound mental objects can then be merged with other sentences to produce complex systems of thought Thus, language and thought are joined by this single ability, called Merge, which allows humans to think hierarchically The gene for this hierarchical ability allows advanced thought, which confers evolutionary advantage so is conserved over generations Leaving aside the presumptive genetics, for which there is little or no evidence, the hypothesis reduces to, Humans think hierarchically because language is processed hierarchically But we must allow that the causal arrow could run the other direction Perhaps language is or can be processed hierarchically because we innately think and perceive hierarchically e.g., due to Gestalt formation , not the reverse Another fundamental problem with the Merge hypothesis is that cat and hat are not free standing mental objects, nor are any linguistic terms Linguists, and most philosophers, labor under the illusion that there are such billiard balls of experience, each with attached linguistic label.Rather, I think that such mental objects are generated post experience, from social interaction Language is derivative of social interaction as Wittgenstein convincingly argued Words never stand as self existent mental objects with their own reality the way numbers supposedly do.The so called Merge gene is thus not necessary Humans do not have complex thought because they process language hierarchically We process language hierarchically because our social interactions are fundamentally holistic from the beginning Only later, with education, do we learn to analyze our complex, emotional, and prelinguistic social relationships into elements like words and conceptualized mental objects It s a thought provoking read but should be absorbed with plenty of critical thinking to get past reflex biological scientism


  2. Heather Browning Heather Browning says:

    Most of this material came across as highly speculative, and the scientific backing was thin An interesting theory language for thought rather than communication but would need a lotdetail and empirical backing to be convincing.


  3. Zalina Zalina says:

    , .


  4. Rhys Rhys says:

    I thought this would be writtenfor public consumption I found that the text warped from loose discussions around evolution to very specific and jargon filled discussions around brain functions and development For whom was this book intended, I wonder


  5. Nevzat Nevzat says:

    Most books on linguistics are focused on primatology or theories of cognitive evolution without a deep structural understanding of language, and many are focused on linguistics without a detailed approach to evolution This book bases its core arguments mostly on computer sciency linguistics and a detailed understanding of evolution It s important to note the difference between human language including sign language and other forms of communication animals use.The core idea they propose is Most books on linguistics are focused on primatology or theories of cognitive evolution without a deep structural understanding of language, and many are focused on linguistics without a detailed approach to evolution This book bases its core arguments mostly on computer sciency linguistics and a detailed understanding of evolution It s important to note the difference between human language including sign language and other forms of communication animals use.The core idea they propose is the simplest form of recursive operation, which they call Merge basis of universal grammar is special to humans, and this led to the internal language i language , that have later turned into communicative language as we now it today So as a summary, what this book suggests is that, language didn t start as a means of communication but as an organiser of thought.Naming complex internal thought skills i language it s not a language creates a confusion and evenwhen, I think, Merge is proposed as Chomsky s famous universal grammar because when there is the word grammar involved, most people, even linguists tend to think of it not as a cognitive feature butlike the grammar of spoken languages today This leads to a waste of energy in a field already very complex Tomasello s recent universal grammar is dead article is a good example While the authors describe Merge and the hierarchical nature of language in very much detail, the examples they give on these topics are solely based on spoken language As their main argument is the basis of language had nothing to do with communication, I think examples unrelated to spoken language would serve the argument better It s pretty hard to imagine how Merge would work in a world without words and the writers agree It s an area to be thought upon.If Merge is purely an internal process and had nothing to do with communication, why this operation is not also usable in other types of cognitive processes besides language like tool making If it is used, why call it UG and make it only about language There is also the between the lines fact that, if you accept the theory of Merge as basis of human language and accept that it has evolved relatively rapidly in evolutionary terms, you also have to accept that there is no semi merge and therefore no proto language This is a bold claim and I think it needed to be putstrongly in the book.But the advantage of this book s theory is that because the book starts its language history from mental operations an earlier step in the history of human evolution rather than theories about the usages and advantages of communication, it s one step behind from most of the other popular linguistics books and this can help their arguments to be used as a based upon other language theories For example, when Tomasello says language is based on gestural communication and I can t see why gestural communication could t be based upon Merge


  6. Michael Michael says:

    Makes an important case for a narrow definition of what has evolved as language Universal Grammar and the Merge syntactic operator, enabling internal language as a cognitive tool importantly, not as a communication tool This leaves to the side both externalization whether speech, writing, or signing and other general thought capacities These other components of what we commonly call language must have evolved separately to UG, as they are at least partially shared with other animals The ar Makes an important case for a narrow definition of what has evolved as language Universal Grammar and the Merge syntactic operator, enabling internal language as a cognitive tool importantly, not as a communication tool This leaves to the side both externalization whether speech, writing, or signing and other general thought capacities These other components of what we commonly call language must have evolved separately to UG, as they are at least partially shared with other animals The argument relies heavily on comparisons to the Bengalese Finch, to delineate complex auditory externalization, and signing chimpanzees Nim , to demonstrate the lack of Merge The idea is that those other components could be tied together in language in a sort of evolutionary recombination of whatever was at hand.One important work accomplished in this book is correcting many common and subtle misunderstandings of evolution, through the lens of other attempts at understanding how human language could evolve.However, I would say it is most useful as a bibliography if I need to knowabout any tangentially related subjects, such as language externalization, computational grammar, evolution of different linguistic and cognitive capacities, theories of UG, etc., I would reach for this book, which at times seems like a survey of these disparate areas of ongoing research.I have only one real criticism of this account I felt it offered a handhold for each subject discussed, and crucially each aspect of the nature of language relevant to its central argument Even when the research on a given aspect is far from being definitive about anything, the authors were brave enough to put forward some speculation, offering an avenue to read up on other researchers attempts and even guide future research.In contrast, there is one subject where they leave the reader completely in the dark the hypothesized interface been internal language and other general thought capacities On one level, this is understandable of the many discussed, it s probably the biggest unknown in the whole book It seems the authors carefully avoid saying anything about this other than asserting its logical necessity for the argument, and quoting a few poetic platitudes about how language enables that most divine and awesome human ability of human imagination, or whatever I don t think it would have been out of place to include some discussion of the possible nature of that interface and what others have said about the cognitive side of language, no matter how fraught or vague the state of the art might be right now Not only would it thereby offer a handhold for future reading or research, it would actually bolster the argument by demonstrating the authors had performed due diligence, so to speak, in all the aspects of language required by their argument.As it is, this lack felt quite glaring, and left me wondering what theory of mind could fit with this hypothesis It seems the authors could land anywhere from I language is the basis of all thought, to I language is sometimes invoked for special processing, and there isn t really any discussion of what that would mean You can start to narrow down the possibilities pretty quickly, but the fact that the authors leave that mostly as an exercise is both concerning and annoying


  7. Billie Pritchett Billie Pritchett says:

    This book by Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky, Why Only Us, tackles the question that why humans, of all living creatures, possess language and other animals don t They are quick to differentiate that by language, they don t mean communication The claim is that while it is very possible that several higher organisms have communication systems, only human beings have language.So what is language It s this system in the brain that takes words and expressions and orders them According to Berwi This book by Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky, Why Only Us, tackles the question that why humans, of all living creatures, possess language and other animals don t They are quick to differentiate that by language, they don t mean communication The claim is that while it is very possible that several higher organisms have communication systems, only human beings have language.So what is language It s this system in the brain that takes words and expressions and orders them According to Berwick and Chomsky, humans, perhaps some 80,0000 years ago through a genetic mutation, evolved this ability to organise their thoughts They call the internal system that emerged Merge It can take any two words or expressions and form them into evercomplicated sets For example, read and books to form read books Then I and read books to form I read books And so on.If we think about communication as something like the sounds you make with your mouth or the way a songbird sings, that s something external to the mind brain and which relies on linear order But if we think about language as some system internal to the mind brain, we quickly see that it doesn t rely on linear order but hierarchical order So here s an example Take the sentence The man who is tall is happy. Every young English speaking child knows that if you want to make that into a question, you take the is closest to the adjective there Is the man who is tall happyVirtually no child makes the mistake and says Is the man who tall is happyand this is important even if they ve never heard the correct utterance This has to do with phrase structure rules inside the brain, which don t respect the linear order If language were just a matter of communication, it would makesense to take the is closest to the beginning of the sentence This doesn t occur because it isn t a function of how the phrase structures work in the brain.Very very fun book, one of my favourites of the year Occasionally technical, but in general not extremely


  8. Kevin Gross Kevin Gross says:

    A fascinating book surveying the history of current theory and understanding of the origins and mechanisms of natural language, largely the neuroscience The title refers to a core question pursued why are humans the only creatures that possess language capability that meets the standard of what the authors call the Basic Property And the book does include interesting explanations of why primates and birds are not truly using a language The book is not a primer and you re very much jumping i A fascinating book surveying the history of current theory and understanding of the origins and mechanisms of natural language, largely the neuroscience The title refers to a core question pursued why are humans the only creatures that possess language capability that meets the standard of what the authors call the Basic Property And the book does include interesting explanations of why primates and birds are not truly using a language The book is not a primer and you re very much jumping into the deep end of the pool in picking it up For the most part, Berwick and Chomsky lay out credible reasoning for their positions on a wide range of questions However, two recurrent problems, to my thinking, dog their expositions The first is a rigid insistence on syntax as the sole mechanism for parsing meaning from language My belief is that syntax alone is not enough If we take the phrase the deep blue sea as an example, syntax will never make clear whether deep binds to blue or to sea There is inevitably a place for context, history, and semantics etc in assigning meaning to language.My second issue is the authors repeated dismissal of problematic issues with a phrase such as we don t have the time to delve into that here I didn t see a clock on the wall, and at 167 pages, they could easily add a fewto properly tie up these loose ends.Despite these quibbles, a wonderful book, a great resource with many pointers to further explore the topics it covers


  9. Jamshid Jamshid says:

    This book is was a concise and informative analysis of the evolution of language It argues that the faculty of language is not a mere communication ability but an important tool for thinking and imagination, which separates humans from other animals hence only us It then gives a somewhat detailed reasoning that the evolution of language must have happened in a much slower pace than classic Darwinian process The discussion includes evidence from biology, genetics, linguistics and even comp This book is was a concise and informative analysis of the evolution of language It argues that the faculty of language is not a mere communication ability but an important tool for thinking and imagination, which separates humans from other animals hence only us It then gives a somewhat detailed reasoning that the evolution of language must have happened in a much slower pace than classic Darwinian process The discussion includes evidence from biology, genetics, linguistics and even computer science fields It s a great book for those who seeks to knowabout the origins of language as a general human ability, and evengenerally, whether we, as a species, are really too different from other animals The only reason that I didn t give full score to this book was that it somewhat had a heavy language especially when they talked about genetics, where I have null background For such a detailed analysis that the authors tried to make, a 166 page volume is too short I wish they had made the book little longer and the language simpler It took around three months for me to finish this small book


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