The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct

According to an article I came across yesterday the idea that language is an instinct or that there is some kind of language organ in the brain is unlikely to be true. Vyvyan Evans, Professor of Linguistics at Bangor University, argues that,

“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. Then again, our bodies are language-ready too: our larynx is set low relative to that of other hominid species, letting us expel and control the passage of air. And the position of the tiny hyoid bone in our jaws gives us fine muscular control over our mouths and tongues, enabling us to make as the 144 distinct speech sounds heard in some languages. No one denies that these things are thoroughly innate, or that they are important to language.”

He explains that if language were an instinct, children would just know it once their language organ had been tuned to the specific parameters of their mother tongue(s). However it takes children several years of trial and error to grasp the intricacies of language, and they don’t usually generalise patterns they spot to all relevant words straight away. For example, a child might notice that some words have a different form when you’re talking about more than one of something, and they might only apply that change to words they know already at first. Later they might apply it to all nouns, even ones with irregular endings, and eventually they will learn the irregular forms as well.

Another aspect of the language gene/instinct argument is the idea that underlying all languages are a set of universal attributes – the universal grammar. However since this idea was proposed, more and more unusual language structures have been discovered that don’t fit the model, and one of the few elements that remains is recursion – the way sentences can be embeded within other sentences. Even that is questioned as at least one language, Pirahã (híaitíihí), possibly manages without it.

Professor Evans also argues that if there were a language organ, it would have to be passed on via DNA, and that this is unlikely given the complexity needed for such an organ, based on our current understanding of how DNA works. Genes and parts of the brain that were thought to be specific for language, or aspects of language, have been found to be involved in auditory processing or motor control.

You can read more on this in the book The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct.

Have you read the book? What is your take on this?

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