September 27, 2010
Is the “language instinct” really a “patterning instinct”?
Steven Pinker’s theory of a “language instinct” has become highly influential in the last 15 years. But I argue in this section of my book, Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness, that it may be something more fundamental – a “patterning instinct” – that enables humans to learn languages so easily. This approach is supported by a barrage of recent criticisms of Pinker’s and Chomsky’s idea of a “universal grammar” innate in a human being.
The “language instinct”
“The language instinct” is, in fact, the name of a popular book published in 1994 by renowned cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. Pinker’s title says it all, and he makes no bones about his position in the language debate. “Language is not a cultural artifact that we learn the way we learn to tell time or how the federal government works,” he writes. “Instead, it is a distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brains.” He goes on to explain why he uses “the quaint term ‘instinct.’ It conveys the idea that people know how to talk in more or less the sense that spiders know how to spin webs.” As if to draw a line in the sand of linguistic debate, Pinker makes himself even more clear: “Language is no more a cultural invention than is upright posture. It is not a manifestation of a general capacity to use symbols.”
Pinker sees himself as following in a widely respected philosophical tradition begun by Noam Chomsky, probably the most famous linguist of the twentieth century, and generally considered to be the father of modern linguistics. Chomsky believes that every human being has an innate knowledge of language, which he calls a “universal grammar.” The differences in languages around the world merely reflect superficial variations in how the universal grammar is interpreted by different cultures. With his penchant for catchy terms, Pinker calls this universal grammar “mentalese,” explaining that knowing a language is simply “knowing how to translate mentalese into strings of words and vice versa. People without language would still have mentalese.”
If language were in fact an instinct, that would surely seem to support the “gradual and early” camp of language evolution, and indeed Pinker makes himself equally clear on this issue, arguing that “there must have been a series of steps leading from no language at all to language as we now find it, each step small enough to have been produced by a random mutation or recombination. Every detail of grammatical competence that we wish to ascribe to selection must have conferred a reproductive advantage on its speakers, and this advantage must be large enough to have become fixed in the ancestral population.”
The combination of Chomsky’s august authority and Pinker’s communicative skills have caused this theory of the origins of language to be widely influential for many years. However, a barrage of criticism has recently been leveled against this theory based ultimately on the tenet that it “ignores the central organizing theory of modern biology and all that has sprung from it.” The gist of the argument against a language instinct is that language is far too intricate and rapidly changing for any combination of genes to have evolved to control for it specifically. It makes much more sense to look for the underlying capabilities that evolved to enable language, rather than to view language itself as the result of evolution. To take a more extreme example for the sake of clarity, if someone argued that there was a “driving instinct” because of the ease with which most people around the world learned to drive a car, we’d want to argue back that we should instead look for the underlying evolved human traits that permitted cars and driving to become ubiquitous, such as our ability to see things far away, to respond quickly to changes in the line of vision, to rapidly assess changes in speed and to employ sophisticated hand/eye/foot coordination. Just as automobiles, roads and freeways took their shape as a result of our human traits and capabilities, so language evolved as a function of what our brains were capable of doing. In the words of one well-regarded team, “language is easy for us to learn and use, not because our brains embody knowledge of language, but because language has adapted to our brains.”*
An important breakthrough in the debate about a language instinct has been offered by researcher Patricia Kuhl, who has carefully studied how infants distinguish between the different sounds they hear when people speak to them. Kuhl has shown that long before infants have any idea that such a thing as language exists, they are already able to distinguish the different sounds, or “phonetic units,” that make up human speech. What’s fascinating is that an infant, in her first six months, will discriminate between all kinds of phonetic units, regardless of the language used. However, at nine months, she’s already more interested in the phonetic units of her particular language. So, for example, “American infants listen longer to English words, whereas Dutch infants show a listening preference for Dutch words.” By twelve months, the infant has learned to ignore phonetic units that don’t exist in her own language, and can “no longer discriminate non-native phonetic contrasts.” The likely reason for this is that right from the beginning, an infant’s mind uses a kind of “statistical inferencing” process, looking for patterns in the sounds she hears, and locking into the more frequent sound patterns. As time goes on, the infant gets increasingly adept at distinguishing the sound patterns of her own language and begins ignoring those that don’t fit into the patterns she’s already identified. On the basis of these findings, we can perhaps say that humans possess a “patterning instinct” rather than a language instinct. Because all infants grow up in societies where language is spoken, this underlying patterning instinct locks into the patterns of language; and it’s this second-order application of the “patterning instinct” that Chomsky and Pinker have seen as a “language instinct.”
But Kuhl’s research demonstrates something even more far-reaching in its implications than a resolution of this particular language debate. It shows, in her words, that “language experience warps perception.” By a very early age, the infant’s brain has literally been shaped by the language that she hears around her, causing her to notice some distinctions in sounds and to ignore others. This early shaping quickly hardens, like a plastic molding, for the rest of her life. As an example of this, Kuhl describes the inability of monolingual Japanese speakers to distinguish between the sounds /r/ and /l/, even though to a Western speaker this distinction seems obvious. Japanese listeners “hear one category of sounds, not two.” These results suggest to Kuhl that “linguistic experience produces mental maps for speech that differ substantially for speakers of different languages.”
If we do, indeed, have a patterning instinct, and if the patterns of the sounds we hear as infants affect the sound patterns we hear for the rest of our lives, then what does that mean for the other kinds of patterns in language? After all, language is not just about sounds. It’s also about symbols and meaning. Is it possible, then, that language shapes our perception, not just of the sounds we hear, but of the very symbols we perceive as having meaning? If this is the case, it implies that, on an evolutionary timescale, language may perhaps have been instrumental in shaping how we think, perhaps even how the connections within our pfc evolved.
 Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, New York: HarperPerennial, 4-5.
 Ibid., 44-73.
 Pinker, S. and Bloom, P. (1990). “Natural Language and Natural Selection.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 13 (4), 707-784.
 Margoliash, D., and Nusbaum, H. C. (2009). “Language: the perspective from organismal biology.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(12), 505-510.
 Christiansen, M. H., and Chater, N. (2008). “Language as shaped by the brain.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences(31 (2008)), 489-558. For other critiques of the theory of a “language instinct” and “universal grammar,” see Evans, N. (2003). “Context, Culture, and Structuration in the Languages of Australia.” Annual Review of Anthropology(32: 2003), 13-40; Chater, N., Reali, F., and Christiansen, M. H. (2009). “Restrictions on biological adaptation in language evolution.” PNAS, 106(4), 1015-1020; Deacon, op. cit., 27; Fauconnier, G., and Turner, M. (2002). The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities, New York: Basic Books, 173; Aboitiz, F., and Garcia, R. V. (1997). “The evolutionary origin of the language areas in the human brain. A neuroanatomical perspective.” Brain Research Reviews, 25, 381-396; and Tomasello, M. (2000). The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 94.
 Kuhl, P. K. (2000). “A new view of language acquisition.” PNAS, 97(22), 11850-11857.
 Fauconnier & Turner 2002, op. cit., 173.
 Kuhl, op. cit.