Blogs > Stone Age Brain | Rick Shenkman > Are we born with a universal grammar?

Apr 1, 2015

Are we born with a universal grammar?

tags: language,grammar

This is not an issue historians generally deal with.  But anybody who writes for a living has to wonder about our capacity for language.  How come we get language and no other species does (save for chimpanzees that can learn rudimentary sign language)?

What's going on in our head when we speak? A linguist who thinks he has the answer is Vyvyan Evans, Professor of Linguistics at Bangor University in Wales, UK and the author of The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct (2014).  Here he explains his theory, which is grounded in the latest neuroscience research.


[B]y 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.

How much sense does it make to call whatever inborn basis for language we might have an ‘instinct’? On reflection, not much. An instinct is an inborn disposition towards certain kinds of adaptive behaviour. Crucially, that behaviour has to emerge without training. A fledging spider doesn’t need to see a master at work in order to ‘get’ web-spinning: spiders just do spin webs when they are ready, no instruction required.

anguage is different. Popular culture might celebrate characters such as Tarzan and Mowgli, humans who grow up among animals and then come to master human speech in adulthood. But we now have several well-documented cases of so-called ‘feral’ children – children who are not exposed to language, either by accident or design, as in the appalling story of Genie, a girl in the US whose father kept her in a locked room until she was discovered in 1970, at the age of 13. The general lesson from these unfortunate individuals is that, without exposure to a normal human milieu, a child just won’t pick up a language at all. Spiders don’t need exposure to webs in order to spin them, but human infants need to hear a lot of language before they can speak. However you cut it, language is not an instinct in the way that spiderweb-spinning most definitely is.

But that’s by the by. A more important problem is this: If our knowledge of the rudiments of all the world’s 7,000 or so languages is innate, then at some level they must all be the same. There should be a set of absolute grammatical ‘universals’ common to every one of them. This is not what we have discovered.

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