Conventional thinking is that human babies are born with an intact, generalized language instinct. A kind of universal grammar seems to be, somehow, already preconfigured in their brains. Can this be the case?
Andrew Brown (2005) Figures. Acrylic on canvas.
Infants have the ability to discern and respond to the phonemes of all of the world’s languages. The language, or languages, actually acquired are determined by the contingencies of birthplace and upbringing. As childhood marches on towards puberty, the ability to reproduce spoken sounds, like a native, diminishes steadily.
We are preconfigured for language in general, but the acquisition of a specific language begins spontaneously in babies with exploratory babbling. Successful utterances in the ambient language are reinforced. This process is usually accelerated by the melodious “motherese” used by mothers and care givers of all ages. Young children are natural born, grammatical geniuses. Care givers reveal the synytactical particularities of the local language, but deliberate lessons in the fundamentals of grammar seem quite unnecessary.
Andrew Brown (1994) Cherubs (Detail). Acrylic on canvas.
SOURCES FOR IS THERE A LANGUAGE INSTINCT?
Steven Pinker (1994: 26-27) writes that “the universality of complex language is a discovery that fills linguists with awe.” This is a primary reason for suspecting that it is “the product of a special human instinct rather than purely cultural invention.” Language then, unlike other cultural developments, is always highly sophisticated. “There are Stone Age societies, but there is no such thing as a Stone Age language.” He quotes anthropological linguist Edward Sapir, who declared, “When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Asam.”
Pinker (1994: 22) echoes Chomsky when he writes, “virtually every sentence that a person utters or understands is a brand-new combination of words. Furthermore:
[C]hildren develop these complex grammars rapidly and without formal instruction and grow up to give consistent interpretations to novel sentence constructions that they have never before encountered. Therefore, he argued, children must innately be equipped with a plan common to the grammars of all languages, a Universal Grammar, that tells them how to distill the syntactic patterns out of the speech of their parents.
YOUNG CHILD AS A GRAMMATICAL GENIUS
Pinker (1994: 19, 32) regards complex language as “part of our biological birthright.” Language is “universal because children actually reinvent it, generation after generation―not because they are taught, not because they are generally smart, not because it is useful to them, but because they just can’t help it.” He goes on to declare (p. 276-277):
The three-year-old, then, is a grammatical genius―master of most constructions, obeying rules far more often than flouting them, respecting language universals, erring in sensible, adultlike ways, and avoiding many kinds of errors altogether. How do they do it? Children of this age are notably incompetent at most other activities. We won’t let them drive, vote, or go to school, and they can be flummoxed by no-brainer tasks like sorting beads in order of size, reasoning whether a person could be aware of an event that took place while the person was out of the room, and knowing that the volume of a liquid does not change when it is poured from a short, wide glass into a tall, narrow one. So they are not doing it by the sheer power of their overall acumen. Nor could they be imitating what they hear, or else they would never say goed or don’t giggle me. It is plausible that the basic organization of grammar is wired into the child’s brain, but they still must reconstruct the nuances of English or Kivunjo or Ainu.
IN PRAISE OF MOTHERESE
Pinker (1994: 278-279) notes that Motherese―which is “slower, more exaggerated in pitch, more directed to the here and now,” and more than 99% grammatical―certainly engages babies and enhances language acquisition but “is not indispensable curriculum.” Apparently, in some cultures adults rarely adddress infants and toddlers, although other children are certainly speaking to them. Thus:
A better way to think of Motherese is to liken it to the vocalizations that other animals direct to their young. Motherese has interpretable melodies: a rise-and-fall contour for approving, a set of sharp, staccato bursts for prohibiting, a rise pattern for directing attention, and smooth, low legato murmurs for comforting.
PINKER, STEVEN (1994) The Language Instinct. Harper Perennial. New York.
American Linguist [1954- ]
Chomsky quips that if “someone came along and said that a bird embryo is somehow ‘trained’ to grow wings” or that “kids are trained to undergo puberty because they see other people,” we would “just laugh” He holds that “universal grammar is the inherited genetic endowment that makes it possible for us to speak and learn human languages.” He declares that:
[L]anguage development really ought to be called language growth because the language organ grows like any other organ… The language organ interacts with early experience and matures into the grammar of the language that the child speaks. If a human being with this fixed endowment grows up in Philadelphia, as I did, his brain will encode knowledge of the Philadelphia dialect of English. If that brain had grown up in Tokyo, it would have encoded the Tokyo dialect of Japanese. The brain’s different linguistic experience—English versus Japanese —would modify the language organ’s structure.
Language deprivation experiments on humans are forbidden and evidence from a few isolated cases of feral children is unreliable. Chomsky makes a parallel with the visual system for which there is a wealth of experimental evidence performed on animals. It seems that the visual system reaches a high degree of articulation only after receiving data during infancy. Chomsky notes that:
MIT psychologists Richard Held and Alan Hein showed some time ago, for example, that a kitten raised in a cage with walls covered by bold, black vertical lines will display good sensitivity to vertical lines as an adult, but poor horizontal-line sensitivity. Lack of stimulation apparently causes the horizontal-line detectors to atrophy.
Things No Amount of Learning Can Teach. Noam Chomsky. Interviewed by John Gliedman. Omni, 6:11, November 1983
American Linguist and Political Activist [1928- ]
A POPPERIAN REFUTATION OF THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT
British linguist Geoffrey Sampson concludes that “there is no Language Instinct.” Citing Karl Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations (1963) he holds that languages are wholly culturally-evolved and individually-learned systems of behaviour:
The obvious alternative to linguistic nativism is the idea that children learn their first language through a process similar to the process of scientific advance, as described by Sir Karl Popper. The child formulates hypotheses to account for small-scale observed regularities, tests them against further experience, abandons those hypotheses which are refuted, and builds on the unrefuted hypotheses by formulating higher-level, more inclusive conjectures―so that he gradually builds up a model of the language, starting with simple features, and moving on to its large-scale architecture.
SAMPSON, GEOFFREY (2005) The ‘Language Instinct’ Debate Continuum International. London and New York.
Andrew Brown (2006) Lynching (Detail) Oil on canvas.