|Posted on February 23, 2014 at 9:45 AM|
Written by Holly Brandon
‘Language is the Rubicon that divides man from beast’. As Max Müller observes, language is what makes us human, it is what, as Steven Pinker describes, allows us to ‘shape events in each other’s brains with exquisite precision’, whether through great works of literature, a night at the opera or a good chat. And yet, it is something which comes so naturally, that we often forget the miracle that it is.
It is a much debated subject as to the extent to which language is innate or learned. Darwin was the first to suggest that language was a biological adaptation, or instinct. In The Descent of Man, written in 1871, he describes our ability for language as ‘an instinctive tendency to acquire an art’, not dissimilar to that of a song-bird’s instinct to sing.
Since Darwin, many cognitive scientists have described language as a psychological faculty, a skill which spontaneously develops in children - an instinct. The most famous of these theories is that of Noam Chomsky, who put forward two main reasons for the innateness of language. Firstly, he noted that almost every sentence a person utters is a brand-new combination of words, expressing a unique point, as Pinker rather sensationalistically puts it, ‘appearing for the first time in the history of the universe’. Following this logic, Chomsky concluded that language could not merely be a ‘repertoire of responses’, imitations of what one has heard before. But, he suggested that the brain must contain a programme, which he called ‘mental grammar’, with the ability to build an infinite set of sentences from a finite number of words.
His second reason for believing language to be innate was simply the speed at which children develop grammar and their lack of formal instruction. He argued that children must be equipped with an innate ‘programme’ common to the grammars of all languages, which allows them to absorb the syntactic patterns of the language by which they are surrounded; this became known as Chomsky’s theory of ‘Universal Grammar’. Evidence for this inherent absorption of grammar can be heard everyday when listening to the speech of children. Although it is often thought that children learn language through imitation of those around them, when a child says ‘we holded the baby rabbits’, it is clear that their speech is not learnt through imitation. Such a child would never have heard an adult say ‘holded’, so, in using the rule wrong, because they have not yet learned the exception to the rule, they are applying their own innate understanding of grammar, in this instance that ‘-ed’ is added to make a verb into the past tense.
Of course, language must be learned from those around us to some extent, as children who are not exposed to any language will never learn to speak. And, we all learn the language we are exposed to, rather than inherently knowing all the world’s languages. However, it does seem that to a greater extent than we initially thought, language is innate. And this makes it all the more miraculous. As Oscar Wilde once said, ‘Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.’
The main image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.
Image of Noam Chomsky © Andrew Rusk, licensed under Creative Commons. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewrusk/5599588702/)