There is no language instinct. Chomsky was wrong

Vyvyan Evans writes: Imagine you’re a traveller in a strange land. A local approaches you and starts jabbering away in an unfamiliar language. He seems earnest, and is pointing off somewhere. But you can’t decipher the words, no matter how hard you try.

That’s pretty much the position of a young child when she first encounters language. In fact, she would seem to be in an even more challenging position. Not only is her world full of ceaseless gobbledygook; unlike our hypothetical traveller, she isn’t even aware that these people are attempting to communicate. And yet, by the age of four, every cognitively normal child on the planet has been transformed into a linguistic genius: this before formal schooling, before they can ride bicycles, tie their own shoelaces or do rudimentary addition and subtraction. It seems like a miracle. The task of explaining this miracle has been, arguably, the central concern of the scientific study of language for more than 50 years.

In the 1960s, the US linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky offered what looked like a solution. He argued that children don’t in fact learn their mother tongue – or at least, not right down to the grammatical building blocks (the whole process was far too quick and painless for that). He concluded that they must be born with a rudimentary body of grammatical knowledge – a ‘Universal Grammar’ – written into the human DNA. With this hard-wired predisposition for language, it should be a relatively trivial matter to pick up the superficial differences between, say, English and French. The process works because infants have an instinct for language: a grammatical toolkit that works on all languages the world over.

At a stroke, this device removes the pain of learning one’s mother tongue, and explains how a child can pick up a native language in such a short time. It’s brilliant. Chomsky’s idea dominated the science of language for four decades. And yet it turns out to be a myth. A welter of new evidence has emerged over the past few years, demonstrating that Chomsky is plain wrong. [Continue reading…]

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2 thoughts on “There is no language instinct. Chomsky was wrong

  1. hquain

    This is, alas, a very confused account of the issues. It’s all so simple! If there is a cognitive apparatus specialized for language (‘universal grammar’), then learning should be ‘trivial’, languages should not vary in ways that a casual observer can easily notice, there should be one ‘place’ in the brain for language , etc. etc. Retreating to rationality, we observe that the author doesn’t cite specific premises advocated by researchers in the area (‘Chomsky’), and doesn’t attempt to show how such premises lead to these conclusions or to others that have been falsified.

    Does generative phonology in any of its variants predict that languages must have the same sounds? It does not, and never has. Does generative syntax require that every language display recursion, or does it merely make this available as an option? Surely the latter, though to untangle the question you’d have to look at actual theories and how they’re implemented in actual theories of learning. Much duller than running on brightly in the journalistic mode about how some theory is ‘wrong’.

    To be fair to the author, the discussion in the literature can be similarly obtuse. But it seems to me less than acceptable to address such remarks to a public that isn’t equipped to evaluate them. If I were to cite two key warning signs that ought to alert the general reader to slippery argumentation in the area, they would be these: (1) the absence of specific hypotheses, with (in their stead) broad analogical gestures appealing to naive plausibility, and (2) hasty recourse to a ‘capacity for associative learning’, which sounds like it ought to refer to something powerful, mechanistic, and well-understood but (in the absence of specified mechanisms) amounts to the little more than the hope that such a thing exists.

  2. Paul Woodward

    This 4,200 word article is, as far as I can tell, a teaser for Evans’ 300-page book, The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct. How robust his reasoning is, and how convincingly he falsifies the theories of others, is probably better judged by reading his book than purely on the basis of this article.

    Evans writes: “For a Universal Grammar to be hard-wired into the micro-circuitry of the human brain, it would need to be passed on via the genes. But recent research in neurobiology suggests that human DNA just doesn’t have anything like the coding power needed to do this.” At least one citation would have been useful at that point.

    At the core of the idea of language emerging as a result of a genetic mutation is the poor soul first blessed with speech that no one else could understand.

    The alternative seems to be that a host of genetic changes (many of which probably long predate hominids let alone modern humans), collectively gave rise to a set of conditions within which language emerged not as a neurological artifact but as a product of collective social behavior. In other words, language emerged in the space connecting groups of individuals while simultaneously shaping the ways in which those individuals used their brains.

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