On Michael Tomasello’s “Language Is Not an Instinct” (1995) and ch. 1, 2, 8 and 9 of Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition (2003), plus the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article Innateness and Language by Fiona Cowie (posted 2008, updated 2017). Featuring Mark, Wes, Seth, Dylan, and guest Christopher Heath.
Clearly we are not born knowing language, and clearly we are (mostly?) unique among animals in being able to acquire it. But what exactly is inborn or instinctual about language?
Noam Chomsky argued starting in 1957 that while of course, we learn vocabulary and specific syntax (grammar rules) from our parents, we come equipped with an underlying “universal grammar” that’s just waiting to be filled in by these particulars. He pointed to a “poverty of the stimulus,” which refers to the sentences that we actually hear as children, vs. the novelty that children are quickly capable of delivering. Just as Plato pointed out in the Meno that we all can recognize geometrical truths and even do some basic geometry having only been shown such basic tasks as how to draw shapes with a stick in the dirt, Chomsky claimed that we’re born having done a great deal of work involved in learning a language, such that no one actually has to teach us; just speaking in the presence of a child is enough for them to learn.
Tomasello disagreed with Chomsky’s claim that “you can’t get there from here,” i.e. that the utterances that children hear are not rich enough to explain their ability to talk innovatively using complex sentence structures. Instead, Tomasello pointed to the ability of children as of around the end of their first year to understand that other people have a distinct point of view from theirs. This is called “theory of mind,” which we previously explored on ep. 172 with Dr. Drew. While animals and pre-linguistic children may be able to use signs designed to produce behavior in others, they can’t use symbols that indicate absent things. They can’t just try to draw your attention to something without trying to get you to do something about that thing (so of course a dog can “try to get your attention” for affection or food or whatever, but it can’t indicate “hey, look at that thing there; that’s weird!). Tomasello thought that this general capability we acquire to put ourselves in others’ shoes is sufficient to explain children’s rapid growth in linguistic ability.
Another related episode is our series on Suzanne Langer on symbolism.
The most popular contemporary writer espousing the view inherited from Chomsky is Steven Pinker, and the book that Tomasello’s article is actually reviewing is The Language Instinct (1994).
Why did we not actually read some Chomsky? This was on Chris’ recommendation; I believe because Chomsky is too boring and esoteric: more hardcore linguistics and less philosophy. But perhaps you listeners that have read a lot of him could recommend something that would be suitable for a Closereads episode?