Re: Natural Language and Natural Selection

Date: Fri Apr 19 1996 - 12:20:42 BST

Is language a biological capacity or a cultural invention ( or both ) ?

Human language is much more than speech, it is a system for
representing knowledge that lies at the very core of human thought.
( Fromkin and Rodman, 1993. Cited in principles of Behavioural
Neuroscience 1995 ). It is organised to say things about things. Even
single word utterances are usually understood as propositions. For
example, if a child says the word " sweet " we take that to be the
expression of the wish, " Give me some sweets. " But we usually speak
in sentances , or sentance fragments, that are full propositions, in
which information about things is sought or given.

Language is an intergral part of every human society. It is one
of the most complex systems a person ever learns, but children in a
wide range of different enviroments learn to use and understand
language in a relitively short period. The issue of language and
whether it is a biologically based factor or a cultural invention is
a very complex one which has caused a lot of disscussion and

The first part of this essay will concentrate on views put
forward in favour of language being a biological capacity. Pinker for
example believes that the ability to use a natural language belongs
more to the study of human biology than to culture. However, one of
the main proponents of this view is Chomsky. He proposed that the
human nervous system contains a mental structure that includes an
innate concept of human language. He believes that certain universal
features common to all languages ( verbs for example ) are innate.
His view is that language is an abstract system of rules which cannot
be learned by traditional learning principles. The input provided by
society to children is so fragmented and incomplete that the
enviroment input alone cannot account for the amazing feat of
language. Children only receive a small number of examples of the
wide range of complex structures that language is capeable of
expressing. This is what Chomsky called the Poverty of the Stimulus.

He also suggests that we must ' know ' the grammar of our language
so that we can work out the relationship between words in any
sentance we hear. By working out these relationships we can decide
what the sentence means. For example, we can recognise that the
sentence " Beautiful thoughts eat loudly " is grammatically correct
even if it is nonsense, whereas the sentence " thoughts loudly
beautiful eat " is nonsense and ungrammatical. In order to capture
all the subtleties and complexities of language, Chomsky has
suggested that language has to be analysed at a number of different
levels. ( For example, surface and deep structures ). In addition
there are also different components of language, syntax is more or
less grammar, phonology concerns the actual sounds of languguage and
the rules governing their use and semantics concerns the meaning of a
sentence. Chomsky's rules have been criticised in the sense that they
produce perfect grammatical sentences, whereas humans do not.

Other evidence in favour of language being a biological capacity
is that human beings learn far more easily and quickly during a
certain period i.e. infancy to puberty. ( Lennenberg 1967. Cited in
Child Psychology. A contemporary viewpoint 4th edition, Heatherington
and Parke ). The type of sounds humans make also give evidence that
language is a biological capacity . All languages use only a limited
sample of vocal sounds of all the possible sounds humans can make;
for example no human language makes use of snorting or clapping

Other evidence that humans are developed with an innate ability to
use language can be seen in patients who have suffered from brain
damage. The left hemisphere of the brain has a dominance where
language is concerned. When this part of the brain is damaged
language and speech are very often affected. Illnesses such as Anomic
aphasia often occour. Anomic aphasia is characterised by difficulties
in finding the appropriate words in speech. For example, a person
suffering from it knows that a clock is for telling time, but they
can't quite grasp the vocabulary that it is in fact a clock. Anomic
aphasia may be produced by damage to any part of the cortical
language system and many other cortical areas as well. The very fact
that language is effected by damage to the human brain is strong
evidence to suggest that language is a biological capacity.

Darwin's theory of natural selection has led to studies relating
language to a biological capacity. Pinker and Bloom for example
outline how natural selection can be applied to language. The natural
selection argument suggests that the only plausible explanation for
the criterion of near ' perfect ' organs is by ' adaptive
complexity '. Where many interacting parts of a system arrange
themselves to fulfill a specific function. The eye is a perfect
adaption for visual imagery and could only have occoured through a
process of natural selection , those who did not need the function
would not develop an eye. Pinker argues that if natural selection can
explain the complex design of the eye then it can also explain the
complex design system of language; which indicates that langugage is
a biological capicity.

The degree to which a biological component can be said to be
involved in the aqusition of language, and how specific this innate
component is, are the subject of much dispute. Linguistics provides a
much needed theoretical framework for investigating the language
learning of children and techniques for dissecting what has to be
learned and what has been learned at different stages of development.
Those who take the view that language is a cultural invention may
hold some answers regarding this framework.

There is evidence to suggest that language is more a cultural
invention than a biological capacity. Skinner comes into this
category with his learning principles. According to Skinner the
parent first selectively reinforces those parts of the child's
babbling sounds which are most like adult speech, therefore
increasing the number of times these sounds are made by infants.
Parents reinforce sounds until they become more and more like adult
speech. Another view within this field is that children learn through
imitation i.e. The child picks up words, phrases and sentences
directly by imitation and then through reinforcement and
generalization the child learns when it is appropriate to use and
combine these responces. Skinner also puts forward an arguement
regarding rewards and punishmebt. This is what he terms ' Operant
Conditioning '. A child acts in order to get rewards, for example if
a child wants a yogourt, then they will say yogourt and receive a
yogourt as a reward. Children do not like to be punished, so they
increase their language ability by saying things correctly and being

On the surface the above ideas seem reasonable, but they have
come under alot of scrutiny. One strong criticism is that the number
of specific stimulus responce connections that would be necessary to
even begin to explain language is so enormous that there would not be
enough time to aquire these connections in a whole life time, not to
mention a few short years. Another argument is that parents often
reward children for grammatically incorrect sentences.

Piaget holds some ideas in favour of language being a cultural
invention. He proposed that language development grows out of
changing cognitive processes of the child which, in turn reflects the
changing nature between the child and his / her enviroment. He
believed that many of the skills that children will utilise in their
language are mastered in a non-linguistic manner during the first few
years of life. In his view a child only learns to speak when it's
cognitive development has reached a particular level. In short he
believed that language is simply a reflection of a child's level of
intellegence. In this way it could be argued that language is a
cultural invention, because it is only by interaction with a child's
enviroment that they are able to use language. Vygotski also believes
that language holds it's roots in social interactions, therefore
being a cultural invention.

It is very difficult to make a dividing line in the question of
whether language is biological capacity or a cultural invention. It
is more fair to suggest that both of these factors have an influence
on language. The interactionist view of language is a perfect
example. They believe that human beings are biologically prepared for
learning to speak, yet at the same time they believe that language is
learned in the context of spoken language. They are concerned with
BOTH the biological and enviromental ( cultural ) factors in language

Beatty, J.' Principles of Behavioural Neuroscience ', 1995.
Heatherington, E, M. & Parke, R, D.' Child Psychology ' 1994.
Pinker & Bloom article.' Natural Language and Natural Selection.'
Pullum, G, K.' Learnability, Hyperlearning, and the Poverty of the
Stimulus. '
Taylor, A. & Wright, D, S.' Introducing Psychology ' 1976.

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