Does a language instinct exist? The language Instinct Debate.

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

33 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Table of Content

0. Introduction

1. Where does language come from?
1.1 Empiricist and nativist views
1.3 The return of the native – basic assumptions of Noam Chomsky.

2. Steven Pinker - The language instinct
2.1 Definition of a language instinct
2.2 Pinker’s evidence for the existence of a language instinct
2.2.1 Pidgins and creoles
2.2.2 The example of the KE-Family

3. Counter arguments to Pinker’s view: Geoffrey Sampson and Stefan Schaden
3.1 Schaden concerning pidgins and creoles
3.2 Sampson’s view towards the case of the KE-Family

4. Summary and discussion

5. Conclusion

6. References

0. Introduction

In 1994, when Steven Pinker’s book “The language instinct” was published, the linguistic world was confronted with the renewed debate, whether language comes from innate ideas or is just the result of experiencing and learning. This important debate which concerns linguistics until today will be the topic of the following work. The important question is, if a language instinct really exists and which evidence one can provide to assume that our language ability is inherited.

Unfortunately, nobody has yet found a clear answer to these important questions concerning especially psycholinguistics, because the investigation of the human brain is one of the most unexplored sciences. Nevertheless, there is great discussion and speculation about innate language ideas and the most important proponent for them nowadays is Steven Pinker. To set his nativist ideas in an appropriate context, it is necessary to explain where the ideas of “nativism” and the opposite linguistic school “empiricism” come from and what characteristics they show. This constructs a context and prepares a base for the focus on Pinker’s book. The most important founder of today’s nativist thoughts is certainly Noam Chomsky, whose ideas were the basis for Pinker’s assumption of a language instinct. For this reason, I will present a short summary of Chomsky’s ideas as the last aspect of the first chapter. Pinker’s arguments put forward in his work “The language instinct” will form the main part and second chapter of my work. I will present his definition of a language instinct and his given evidence for its existence. Because of the complexity of the pieces of evidence put forward in his whole work, I will pick up two of his most important aspects for innate language ideas: Pidgin and creoles and the case of the KE-Family. Afterwards, I will focus on two of his critics, Geoffrey Samspon and Stefan Schaden, because they composed both works being direct responses to Pinker’s “The language instinct”. This will permit us to discuss the question about its existence and which of the arguments for and against it appear more convincing. To prepare this discussion at the end, I will particularly have a closer look at Schaden’s and Sampson’s explicit refutes concerning Pinker’s main points of evidence. As a last step, I will summarize and discuss the arguments of the two sides carefully and complete my work with drawing my personal conclusion about the important question, if a language instinct really exists.

For the reason that this work compares two attitudes of different authors directly with one another, it is important to really work with the given original texts to focus clearly on their opinions. To enlighten important arguments, the immanent work of the given texts is very important and requires direct quotations of the authors when it is useful.

1. Where Does Language Come From?

As long as humans can think, they ask about language and where it comes from. How is it possible that we learn and speak language? Does the ability to speak and acquire language come from innate ideas? Are we born with the capacity to learn language, or is it only a cultural artefact determined by our society and environment? The capacity of language which only the human being commands on this planet is one of the most interesting phenomena but stays until today one of the most opaque secrets of our species. Much about its origin and evolution is unclear. Nobody has yet found a concrete answer to the question where the ‘center of language’ can be found in our minds and how this system works.

The important question about the source of language is part of the “nature-nurture controversy” (Steinberg/Nagata/Aline 2001:279) since the antiquity. In this long-standing dispute among philosophers and psychologists it is discussed whether the surrounding environment influences and forms the human being through experiencing and learning (represented by the term “nurture”), or whether genetic inheritance - our genetic make-up - is responsible for human personality and intelligence (represented by the term “nature”).

For linguistics today, especially psycholinguistics, the study of language and mind, which is concerned with how language knowledge is acquired and how it’s represented in the brain, the ancient philosophic debate is still of great importance.

When first language acquisition is explored, i.e. how children learn their mother tongue, the basic problem emerges like in no other field of linguistic investigation in a striking manner: Do children learn language just through the input of their parents or their environment, or does an innate mechanism exist at birth which enables the child to acquire language in so far as it is only necessary to let the language grow by parental input?

Many different philosophic schools gave varied reflections over the centuries about the question, where this language knowledge comes from and how we are able to appropriate it.

It would be too complex to present all these developed thoughts here in this work so that I will concentrate on the dominating streams of thoughts which infected today’s linguistics: This is the mentalist view with its two directions e mpiricism on the one hand and nativism on the other hand. The terms nativism and empiricism are used for views emphasizing the role of nature and of nurture respectively.

In the precedent chapters, these two different directions will be opposed by the theories of Steven Pinker, who is regarded as a radical nativist and the antithetical view of Geoffrey Sampson and Stefan Schaden holding the empiricist view. The following short summarized presentation of the two linguistic schools and the developments of their thoughts will permit to create a context in order to classify and understand the specific oppositional theories better afterwards.

1.1 Empiricist and Nativist Views

In opposition to the materialistically inclined theories like the behaviourism according to which the study of mind and consciousness is irrelevant and focuses just on the exploration and observation of the physical body, most modern-day psychologists and linguists are mentalists.

The mentalists hold the view that mind is of a different nature from matter.

“Thus, there are qualitatively two kinds of substances in the universe, the material and the mental” (Steinberg/Nagata/Aline 2001: 279ff). Such a doctrine goes back to the ancient Greeks as Aristotle (4th cent. BC) and was took up by John Locke (1632-1704) and René Descartes (1596-1650). The mentalist perspective stresses that the study of consciousness and mind is essential for the understanding of the intellectuality of human beings, particularly language. All mentalists agree on the existence of mind and that it contains ideas, but at the important point how the ideas got there, two directions are cut off from the mentalist belief.

The first one to mention is the empiricist view, which emerged in tradition of mentalist assumptions. It emphasizes that ideas in the mind of a human being are only gained by experience. Therefore, the empiricists believe that a mind of a new born baby does not contain any ideas that can be regarded as knowledge. The English empiricist Geoffrey Sampson (1997:1) claims: “We are born knowing nothing (…) but we have a natural curiosity, a propensity to come up with new ideas and put questions to Nature by practical experiment.” When we have a look at the development of empiricist ideas over the centuries, the philosopher and contemporary of Descartes, John Locke, took a radical position. He was the principal proponent of the view that, at birth, the mind is a ‘blank slate’ or a ‘tabula rasa’. The latter expression derived from Latin (blank board) and is a symbol for the human state of mind with no content which goes back to Aristotle as well.

“How comes [the mind] to be furnished? ... Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience “ (Locke 1887:§1.2). Locke recognized that human beings are innately equipped with minds capable of a variety of operations, but he denied that this initial endowment includes any particular ideas or knowledge.

Nowadays, in the face of the scientific progress and our knowledge today, this argument seems too radical. By the time this position changed. Jean Piaget (1896-1980), a French psychologist of the 20th century, has argued that human minds at birth contain “undifferentiated schemas” (Steinberg 1993:135). With experience and behaviour reflecting these experiences, intelligence derives from these schemas. “Just what these schemas consisted of Piaget did not say. In any case, Piaget preferred to derive intelligence from action and experience” (Steinberg/Nagata/Aline 2001: 288). The contemporary philosopher Hilary Putnam, a thinker of the twentieth century (1967) goes further: he asserted that humans are born with an innate intelligence that begins to operate with the child’s experiences of life. It formed itself through the evolution. The empiricists do not see intelligence as itself but as a means for acquiring knowledge. The latter is only gained through experience.

The second direction deriving from the mentalist concept is the nativist view: Its supporters believe that knowledge is biologically built-in or native to the human mind. The origins of these thoughts go back to Plato (428-348 BC), a scholar of Aristotle, who is regarded as the first nativist. “According to Plato, a child begins life with knowledge already present within him — there is no such thing as learning new things, what we call learning is really just recollection”[1] Later on, René Descartes took over these ideas in the 17th century. They expressed that basic ideas like God, world, justice etc. are already innate. To activate these ideas, one uses reason (Greek: ratio) in conjunction with experience. In this tradition of thought, experience of the human being does not provide knowledge but rather serves to activate the knowledge being already represented in the mind.

To go further in detail with the direction of today’s nativism, it is necessary to put the focus on a linguist regarded as the new founder of nativism in the middle of the 20th century - Noam Chomsky. (*1928)

In the following chapter I will present shortly his basic points of his view towards language and its implication for today’s linguistics.

1.2 The Return of the Native - Basic Assumptions of Noam Chomsky

Today, the expression “nativism” is irreversibly connected with the name of the American linguist Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the most prominent and most quoted theorist in linguistics nowadays.

He was responsible for a turn in linguistics in the middle of the 20th century, when the linguistic regard was dominated by the behaviouristic view. In short, the behaviourists tried to explain learning without referring to mental processes. They assumed that the behaviour of an organism is reflexive exposed to certain stimuli. The main aspect of the behaviourist view is that experiencing and learning is possible owing to stimulus-response mechanisms.

Chomsky published his first book “Syntactic structures” in 1957, presenting a theory of a generative rule-governed grammar. In addition, he wrote a devastating and well-justified review of the book “Verbal Behaviour” by Skinner in 1959. This was the beginning of the disassembly of behaviourism, and Chomsky as its leading head.

The 1950s are regarded as the new revolution of nativism, (Sampson 1997:7) because with his assumptions, Chomsky goes further than any other theorist of the past in the tradition of nativism. From Chomsky’s point of view, we are born with basic ideas already in our minds. He further advocates the existence of a distinct language nature. Chomsky holds that humans are born with minds containing innate knowledge concerning a number of different areas. One of these faculties or “mental organs” in the brain is language. With this concept, Chomsky is a proponent of a “specific nativism”, a distinction drawn by Bates, Thal and Marchman (1991:29ff). According to this definition, “general nativism” means that general cognitive capacities are the source of language while “specific nativism” stresses that language is an autonomous module, a view hold by e.g. Chomsky, Fodor or Pinker. The language faculty is seen as part of our biological endowment and as such it is largely genetically determined. Two fundamental features of language got evident to Chomsky. After him, every sentence uttered by a person is a completely new combination of words. It could not be possible that language is just a “repertoire of responses. The brain must contain a recipe or program that can build an unlimited number of sentences out of a finite list of words. That program may be called a mental grammar (…)” (Pinker 1994:22).

The second important fact is that children learn complex grammars very rapidly and without formal instruction. They utter sentence constructions they have never heard before from their parents. “Therefore, he argued, children must innately be equipped with a plan common to the grammars of all languages” (Pinker 1994:22). This plan or set of innate finite grammar rules he calls “Universal Grammar” (UG) (Formerly, he used the term LAD meaning Language Acquisition Device.) The universal grammar enables children to abstract the syntactic patterns out of the speech of their parents and their specific mother tongue. Consequently, the UG is responsible for language acquisition of the child in combination with the language input of the parents. Neither intelligence, nor logic or reason is involved.

This is a contradictory argument to former nativists like Plato and Descartes, who determined reason as the motor of activating innate ideas in coherence with experience. What Chomsky has in common with the others is the aspect of experience. In reference to language he has never denied that the need of language input and experience is extremely important to acquire language. The first reason for this assumption is the simple fact that a child learns the language his environment speaks and that all children of the world do not speak the same language. In his later work “Knowledge of language.”(1986) which introduces the “principles-and-parameters model” of UG, he states clearly that the system cannot function without experience. He writes:

“We may think of UG as an intricately structured system, but one that is only partially “wired up”. The system is associated with a finite set of switches, each of which has a finite number of positions (perhaps two). Experience is required to set the switches. When they are set, the system functions” (Chomsky 1986:146ff).

His described model of the UG lets us understand the modified idea of the UG by Chomsky in 1980s. He began to think of Universal Grammar as a system of innate principles combined with a certain number of (probably binary) parameters whose values are not genetically fixed. These parameters get set by the particular linguistic input of the parental language the child is confronted with. Hence, language acquisition is a process of parameter setting, and the fundamental ways in which human languages differ can be characterized in terms of the values of these parameters.

In Chomsky’s nativistic thoughts, language is seen as an autonomous system interacting independently like other faculties in the mind which operate relatively independently of one another. When focussing these concepts, it becomes clear that Chomsky’s theory had large consequences both for linguistics and for cognitive science since the middle of the twentieth century.

The second wave of nativism overwhelmed the linguistic world in the 1990s with the publication of Steven Pinker’s book “The language instinct” (1994). In his work, Pinker continues of Noam Chomsky’s line of thoughts and reinforces the idea of an independent language organ - his so-called “language instinct”.


[1] Sampson, Geoffrey:

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Does a language instinct exist? The language Instinct Debate.
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Department of English Linguistics)
Developments in modern Linguistics
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Does, Instinct, Debate, Developments, Linguistics
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Magister Kommunikationswissenschaft Linda Neuhaus (Author), 2005, Does a language instinct exist? The language Instinct Debate., Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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