Into the Intro: The Language Myth

Go Into the Intro of The Language Myth

Go Into the Intro of The Language Myth

In this week's excerpt, Vyvyan Evans questions the very foundation of studying language in The Language Myth, arguing that language is not the instinct from birth we've previously thought it to be.

Language and mind rethought

This is a book about language, and about its relationship with thought and the mind. It is also a book about how we acquire language, and why different languages are so diverse in their sound systems, vocabularies and grammars. Language is central to our lives, and is arguably the cultural tool that sets humans, us, apart from any other species. And on some accounts, language is the symbolic behaviour that allowed human singularities – art, religion and science – to occur. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the celebrated African-American writer, Toni Morrison, put things this way: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Language is clearly a big deal.

Is language innate, something we are born with? Or does language emerge from use, based on more general mental skills and abilities?

This book addresses a controversy that has raged in the behavioural and brain sciences since the middle of the last century: is language innate, something we are born with? Or does language emerge from use, based on more general mental skills and abilities? The dominant view, until recently, has been the former: we come into the world hard-wired with the rudiments of language. But this view now looks to be on increasingly shaky ground.

But what might it mean to claim that language is innate? Clearly our species, Homo sapiens, is biologically pre-prepared to acquire language in a way no other species is: we have evolved the articulatory capabilities to produce a complex set of distinct and discrete sound units – and these sound units vary from language to language; we have the musculature to control and facilitate the production of these sounds; we have the memory capabilities to produce and recall sequences of sounds in order to facilitate well-formed strings of sounds, making grammatically well-formed sentences; and we have complex statistical processing abilities allowing us both to perceive and to recognise sequences of sounds. Crucially, we recognise fellow humans as being intentional agents, and, hence, are predisposed to interpret their sound sequences as meaningful. And, most significant of all, any given speech community has agreed a bewilderingly complex set of linguistic conventions – a language is nothing more than a set of linguistic conventions – allowing us to transmit and comprehend complex ideas: in English we agree that the sound units that make up the word cat represent the idea that is associated with the sound segments that in French are signalled orthographically as chat, or in Hindi as billi.

Conventional wisdom has maintained, over and above this physiological pre-preparedness for language, that we are born with a set of grammatical rules (universal knowledge structures), stored somewhere in our minds, that allow us to acquire grammar almost effortlessly. The idea is that the grammar that underlies all of the 7,000 or so of the world’s languages is essentially the same. In short, our species has evolved a specialised grammar module, embedded in our brains, and genetically encoded. And this provides us with the ability to acquire language in the first place: our grammar faculty is in place at birth.

This idea is often referred to as Universal Grammar: all human languages, no matter the variety we happen to end up speaking, are essentially the same. Whether someone learns English, Japanese, Swahili, Tongan or whatever, when you get down to it, they are all alike. Sure, each of these languages has different vocabularies. And each language makes use of a different, although partially overlapping, set of sounds. But underneath it all, the essential ingredient of language – our grammar – is preprogrammed in the human genome: we are all born to produce language because of our common genetic heritage, our Universal Grammar. Just as all of us grow distinctively human organs – brains, livers, hearts and kidneys – so too we develop language: a consequence of our grammar organ, which grows in the human brain, and which no other species possesses. And it is this innately specified knowledge of grammar that underpins our ability to develop and acquire language – any language – in the first place.

This book, and the range of ideas I cover, are presented from the perspective of linguistics – the scientific study of language – my home discipline. While linguistics covers many more areas and sub-disciplines than are represented here, I’ve chosen the range of topics on show, in the chapters to follow, for a very specific reason. The majority of the evidence, viewed with objective eyes, now appears to show that language is not innate in the way just outlined.

In a nutshell, I aim to convince you of the following: language doesn’t arise from innately programmed knowledge of human grammar, a so-called ‘Universal Grammar’. I will argue that language reflects and builds upon general properties and abilities of the human mind – specifically our species-specific cultural intelligence; it reflects human pro-social inclinations for intersubjective communication. I will seek to persuade you that when we acquire language in infancy, we do so by acquiring the language of our parents and caregivers, painstakingly, and by making many mistakes in the process. Language is not something that emerges automatically, and effortlessly. It arises primarily from the language input we are exposed to, from which we construct our mother tongue. Moreover, human infants, I will show, are not empty vessels that come empty-handed to the language learning process. We come ready-equipped with a battery of various general learning mechanisms that make us adept at acquiring our mother tongue(s).

But why should this discussion matter at all? Why should we care? The study of language, for perhaps obvious reasons, is central to a great many other disciplines; after all, if language is the hallmark of what it means to be human, if it is the measure of our lives, then this stands to reason. And because of the centrality of language to all else, it is crucial our understanding of it is accurate. It is also critical that we understand how language relates to other aspects of mental function and social life. And perhaps more than this: language is an index of our very humanity. What would Shakespeare be without his ability to invent, and re-invent the human psyche through language? Language is more than the paradigm example of cultural behaviour, one that sets us apart from any other species on the planet. We all have a vested interest in it: it makes us who we are, and allows us to explore ourselves: our emotional highs and lows. We should all care about language, even when we take it for granted, for without it we are barely human.

And here is the really important part. While I, and a great many other professional linguists, now think the old view is wrong, nevertheless, the old view – Universal Grammar: the eponymous ‘language myth’ – still lingers; despite being completely wrong, it is alive and kicking. I have written this book to demonstrate exactly why the old view is a myth; and to show what the reality is. This book is thus a users’ manual for all language users, and for all thinking people. And, it is also, I hope, a reasonably accessible overview of the way language really works.

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