Debate Magazine

Non-Instinctive Language

By Cris

In terms of intellectual history, cognitive science is largely built on the Chomskyian idea that humans have an evolved language “instinct,” “organ,” or “module.” This facultative idea forms the premise of Steven Pinker’s bellwether book, The Language Instinct (1994), and establishes the foundation from which all manner of cognitive extensions have sprung. When Lawson and McCauley inaugurated the cognitive science of religion with Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture (1990), Chomsky was front and center. Given these origins, it would be a foundational problem if Chomsky was mostly wrong.

Chomsky’s claims have of course undergone considerable revision since he first presented them five decades ago. Some might even say that the revisions have been so considerable that almost nothing is left and that his current claim bears little or no resemblance to the initial claim. But the essential, or essentializing, residue of the initial claim remains in the form of an evolved language instinct and Universal Grammar that is somehow encoded in our genes and manifest in minds. So if this were to go, or shown to be wrong, what then?

Though he does not answer this particular question or slide down this slippery cognitive slope, linguistics professor Vyvyan Evans argues that Chomsky and Pinker are wrong: there is no language instinct. While I have not yet read Vyvyan’s book, The Language Myth: Why Language is Not an Instinct (2014), I just read his Aeon article on the same topic. It’s a cogent statement of the criticisms that have been leveled against the notion of an evolved, if not encapsulated, language module. Here’s the bold lede:

Imagine you’re a traveler 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.

While criticism of Chomsky is nothing new, this kind of full frontal assault is. Because it’s so contrarian and counter to received wisdom, I’m guessing many will be tempted to dismiss it without delving deeper or reading Vyvyan’s book. This would be a mistake, as this article is only a sketch. I will say, however, that some of the strokes are pointed, if not compelling.


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