Non-Instinctive Language

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 Evans’ 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 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.

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 Evans’ 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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7 thoughts on “Non-Instinctive Language

  1. Dominik Lukes

    It is interesting how much Chomsky persists in the general academia (despite his long standing irrelevance within most language research). I blame the philosophers who are always about 20-30 years behind what’s current in the study of language. The most popular post I ever wrote was on this subject:

    I’m glad you’re taking this criticism of Chomsky into account but please note that this “full frontal assault” is anything but new. Vyv is getting at it from a particular cognitive linguistic tradition (which is very much mine – we’ve crossed paths at many a conference) but I’m not sure how much new substance he brings. In a comment on a previous post, I pointed you towards Tomasello and Lakoff who did not just reject Chomsky but the entire intellectual tradition going back to Descartes (which Lakoff labeled ‘objectivist’). Lakoff showed on extensive analysis of language data and Tomasello on language acquisition data that Chomsky’s approach to language is so limited as to be virtually useless. They did not do it as some lone-wolf scholars but instead building on the work of many others who have been studying language as is rather than as some sort of idealized formal system.

    But even in general language studies without a particular programmatic or paradigm building bent (which I share with but acknowledge in Lakoff’s work), you can see ruthlessly uncompromising breaks with Chomsky and the formalist tradition. I recommend Geoffrey Sampson’s ‘Educating Eve’ ( which is an excellent account of everything that is wrong with the Language Acquisition Device/Universal Grammar hypothesis (and it is pretty much everything). Sampson shows (completely convincingly to my mind) how preposterously thin all the assumptions surrounding this are. There is no measure of learnability, there’s no definitive proof of what the supposedly impoverished stimulus is or what is the minimum amount of stimulus necessary (although this is one argument I buy even if I don’t agree with the conclusions), there’s no even remotely plausible account of how the vaunted parameters are set from these universal principles, there’s only a handful of UG ‘rules’ that anyone studies (or agrees on), there’s no account for the acquisition of the lexicon which is as complicated as syntax, etc. It beggars belief how much currency this nonsense is getting outside of linguistics (or even among linguists who don’t study the relevant areas and have never closely looked at the literature).

    I haven’t read the book – since I’m quite familiar with the literature, so I was a bit puzzled by the statement “A welter of new evidence has emerged over the past few years, demonstrating that Chomsky is plain wrong.” Most of the substantive arguments have been around for decades. All the relatively new evidence I know of comes from the work of people like Ewa Dabrowska on language acquisition. There was much discussion of Everrett’s recent ‘findings’ that Piraha does not have recursion which I consider to be a complete sideshow to the substance of the critiques. I also noticed that Vyv got a few things unhelpfully wrong. For instance, it is far from a sure thing that “SLI is really just an inability to process fine auditory details”, there were some studies to suggest a connection but none that really refuted all the other evidence for it being a more general language processing issue. There are better ways of accounting for language pathologies but they cannot be dismissed out of hand with one sentence. Also, he conflates Pinker’s adaptationist approach which differs sharply from Chomsky. See here: Personally, I found the Aeon article mildly unconvincing and I don’t think it will give the battle hardened UG apologists much pause (or would be difficult to rebut) but I’m glad it’s out there flying the flag of the alternative stimulating debate.

    I’ve been working on a post giving an overview of some of these issues but it’s been slow going – it really seems like a book-length kind of issue.

  2. Cris Post author

    Many thanks for this Dominik; I’ve been meaning to substantively respond to your earlier comments but have been out of town and crazy busy. But I would not have had much to say about your comments other than “thanks” and “I need to do a bunch of reading.” This is your field, not mine, though it is important for anyone working within or around the cognitive science of religion. While I am not such a person, as an intellectual historian slash anthropologist, I find these kinds of arguments, and recommendations from you, hugely valuable. So thanks!

  3. Chris Kavanagh

    I read the article and had the reaction Dominik mentioned i.e. “I found the Aeon article mildly unconvincing” since some of the shots it took that I have some knowledge of (i.e. the Everrett saga or the recursive abilities of starlings) seemed to be overstated and oversimplified and I’m no devotee of Chomsky.

    I also think for many this summary from the article: “our species exhibits a clear biological preparedness for language. Our brains really are ‘language-ready’ in the following limited sense: they have the right sort of working memory to process sentence-level syntax, and an unusually large prefrontal cortex that gives us the associative learning capacity to use symbols in the first place” would make them a little confused about where the conflict lies. For linguists I realise it is clear and that such a statement is so broad as to be meaningless, but I think it also indicates that there is a general acceptance amongst linguists of there being some ‘innate’ propensity for language. The existence of a ‘universal grammar’, or that recursion is the core property of human language, are certainly more questionable claims but it seems that in the rush to dismiss Chomsky (et al.) occasionally the baby of innate biological propensities for language goes with them.

    Anyhow, enjoyed Dominik’s informed post above and like you Cris I feel I need some time to dig through the literature properly.

  4. Gyrus

    Thanks Dominik and Chris for your responses. Being quite an outsider to the academic debate, I still had a similar response. It was partly prompted by exactly the quote Chris highlights above. The run-in to that quote (‘But let’s back up a little. There’s one point that everyone agrees upon…’) ended up seeming like a rhetorical trick, immediately following the bald claim that ‘Chomsky is plain wrong’.

    Obviously it’s standard populist publishing fare, to polarise, but I’m used to Aeon’s titles and taglines spinning things this way, only for the article itself to be more nuanced. In this case, the author’s statements were exactly in tune with the arresting but distorting header material.

    Again, as an outsider to the disciplines involved, I can’t help but sense the simplistic ‘culture’ / ‘nature’ divide at work here. One dominant argument avoids the complexities between these two by erring too far on one side, then the simplicity of that argument’s debunked by erring too far on the other side. I guess we need the sparring to whittle things down a little, and the complexity ends up sidelined in short summaries.

  5. jaap

    Dominik, you’re awfully well-read, and please don’t be offended, for I’m only tentatively in your domain, asking to be excused …. It has always seemed to me that anyone who starts off constructing a grammar, leaving the semantic component quite empty pending construction work, is doing very big things in nowhere-land. But I love this guy, probably quite unreasonably. I’m a child of the 1960s, and I grew up on Chomsky’s criticism of US-foreign policies. Well-informed (it seemed to me then) he attacked all the right people with all the right, as well as all the wrong arguments, and I was always reinforced with the feeling: at least there’s somebody out there who cares … When I quit my literature studies and went into teaching, I always remembered that he never said ‘grammatically incorrect’, but ‘counterintuitive’. And frankly, that was all I needed when I was called upon to bring students’ talents to the fore. I’m talking 1980s now, and going by the book did not achieve anything! So why do it? All my colleagues said: ‘Because it’s in the book! We don’t need to reinvent the wheel!’ I figure I don’t need to tell you much more about what I then learned about ‘learnability’ and black pedogagy (‘you have to work (suffer) before you get anything’). I then needed to teach my students about what they had already! I needed to guide them back to themselves … Suffice it to say that from this moment I had no more ‘dyslectics’, or any other learning difficulty … And we stopped working! We had fun, to the dismay of those who wanted work and no fun … We watched interesting films and documentaries, discussed them and wrote about them. Then we went home and watched BBC … That wasn’t work. And I stopped using my red pen, I stopped correcting my students, or at least tried to … Sometimes an arsehole can’t help himself … And my students learned English just as they had before. Somewhat better on the productive side (language-intuitions!), certainly not worse. But they did so in another vein, with more room in their minds, and with much more awareness of context. I suppose Stephen Krashen was a greater help to me than Chomsky ever was. The latter has been notoriously wrong on many issues, sometimes painfully so, but this man has always been a flag. And I can’t let him go like this.

  6. Dominik Lukes (@techczech)

    Jaap, I completely understand your attitude. Chomsky’s politics is what brought a lot of people to him and they perceive all disagreement with him as personal attacks coming from one source. But Chomsky has explicitly kept the two completely separate (except for occasionally giving lecture series with a bit of both). In fact, it’s a little known fact that he chose to study linguistics because his teacher shared his politics. I am broadly sympathetic to his politics and I fully appreciate his contribution to linguistics. He provided useful formal models for the structuralism of his day. But he did this at the cost of function the study of which was progressing alongside his work all the time. And, as it turned out, his model was only useful for a subset of syntax. Where he and his followers go disasterously wrong is in assuming that what Chomsky was modelling was actual language. And when it turned out (in the late 60s) that it wasn’t, their recourse was to modularity (see Fodor) which later morphed to massive modularity (Pinker). Chomsky himself wasn’t very active in the modularity debates but kicked them off with the notion of Language Acquisition Device which was ever at best Syntax Acquisition Device and Universal Grammar which was ever at best a Universal Handful of Oddball Syntactic Constraints.

    It is possible to do linguistics that blends nicely with politics (Lakoff’s ‘Moral Politics’ is a much underappreciated example). My own work is focused entirely on linking the linguistic, the cognitive and the social. Many people (including myself) are now looking at some of the linguistic processes involved in ‘manufacturing consent’. But Chomsky can’t because of his modular commitments.

    I have spoken to many teachers who felt that Chomsky was a liberating force for them. In fact, Pinker is a worthy foe of all prescriptivism today. But it was more political than linguistic. No matter how I tried, I could never see how Chomsky’s linguistics (as I knew it) made any difference to teachers. I suspect that they were mostly fed the outcomes of the work of Michael Halliday and connected it with Chomsky. I’m not surprised that you found Krashen more useful. I love his model of language processing. It is, of course, as completely made up as Chomsky’s but it somehow provides more insight into some crucial aspects of language learning than Chomskeans could ever dream of.

  7. jaap

    Dominik, thanks a lot for such a well-considered reply! I’ve been studying the replies to Vyvyan Evans’ article on Reddit, but frankly I don’t know what I’m looking at … A representation of a ‘language organ’? Or some ‘oddball syntactic constraints’? What I do know is that all my efforts to ‘teach grammar’ to the intellect only produced frustration: all my creativity there was completely wasted. Whereas ‘exposing (my students) to language in a meaningful context’ really delivered! I could tell, for I had an intensive testing-system (reading, listening, productive skills) monitoring progress. The trick here was to highlight context, and to disregard form as best as I could (which was confusing when the red pen suddenly reappeared in the writing-tests! Even if I used crayon, and only underlined unintelligeable passages, no one was deceived …). Of course I (mis?)used the term ‘language-instinct’ as spin to convince parents and colleagues. I could completely trust them not to know the literature … And I must confess that the probability of my young colleagues being confronted with the outcry: ‘Read your literature! There’s no such thing as a language-instinct!’ really bothers me. I have always thought that Chomsky’s work on language form sort of predicted the ease with which my students picked up on quite complicated language structures. Well, it’s not my fight anymore, I’ve had my 40 years in the desert (30 actually), but I would hate for the manna-supply to dry up suddenly!
    PS I enjoyed Pinker’s book, especially his style: this is what academic writing should be like. But even with him I have not found the insight that learners need reinforcement on the semantic level, and not on form. Is there anyone who has remarked on this phenomenon? (Consciousness of form hinders the vast majority of learners – there are some interesting exceptions! – in their parsing as well as their speech).
    PPS This has led me to believe that even if the circuitry for language is in the cortex, the steering must be somewhere else, somewhere ‘older’.

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