Tag Archives: Chomsky

Quote of the Day 8-2-12, "Universal Grammar"

“The existence of an innate universal grammar, no matter what its degree of complexity and no matter how its parameters are set, does not mean that language is not learned. The postulation of an innate universal grammar is not in itself a theory of language acquisition.” ~ José Bermúdez, The Paradox of Self-consciousness, p. 23

If only this key point was internalized by both sides of the linguistic nativism debate, much of the “controversy” would disappear overnight.


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Review of Daniel Everett's new book Language: The Cultural Tool

If you have been paying attention to the world of linguistics lately, then you will know that there is a paradigm shift in the works. The old paradigm is Chomsky and Universal Grammar, the idea that knowledge of grammar is more or less innate and not learned. The new paradigm is not quite a coherent movement, but it sometimes goes by names like constructivism, nurturism, machine learning, empiricism, and a host of other names. Basically, if you think that language is for the most part learned during childhood, then you are a constructivist. Dan Everett’s new book Language: The Cultural Tool is an excellent book defending the new paradigm and attacking the old. The Cultural Tool is above all a response to Chomskyans.

The Cultural Tool has a simple thesis: language is not innate, but rather, a cultural tool. He starts the book off with an anecdote about using a bow and arrow in the jungle. Obviously, the bow and arrow is a tool that was invented for the purpose of solving a problem. Although there are general cognitive dispositions that would have enabled humans to invent such a tool, it is very likely false that humans have innate bow and arrow construction knowledge. In the same way, Everett argues that humans do have some uniquely human cognitive dispositions than enable us to rapidly and efficiently learn language, but there is no such innate Universal Grammar that is the same in all humans.

The bow and arrow was invented to solve the problem of killing fast moving sources of protein. But what problem was language invented to solve? (“Invent” must also not be understood as necessarily reflectively conscious) Everett quite rightly argues that it was invented to help solve the problem of communication in a large group of primates. With language, communication takes on a new level of complexity in virtue of its abstraction and information carrying capacity. As Everett says, “Nouns and verbs are the basis of human civilization”. Moreover, Everett tells a nice, fairly plausible evolutionary story about how the needs of communication during a time of medium intensity environmental change during the final phases of the Pleistocene led to selection pressures for language. In a word, humans were in the right place at the right time with the right set of cognitive dispositions. Everett also gives a great defense of the idea that the “universality” of language learning can be accounted for without positing innate grammar by simply acknowledge the fact that all languages serve to solve similar communication problems, and thus have similar (but nonidentical) grammatical structures.

But Everett is also keen to point out linguistic diversity. And Everett is surely a renowned expert on this subject with his decades of experience working with Amazonian peoples. His work with the Pirahã is very well-known and he spends a good amount of time using the Pirahã as examples to support his thesis that language is a cultural tool. But I think a lot of people think Everett’s arguments depend on his interpretations of the Pirahã data. This is not true. The Pirahã are but one strand in his overall argument against Chomsky and Universal Grammar. If the Pirahã didn’t exist, Everett would still be capable of arguing against nativism. But his data on the Pirahã are very interesting and do, in my opinion, strongly support his basic thesis about constructivism.

My main complaint of the book is when Everett deals with the idea of there being thought without language. Everett thinks that nonlinguistic animals can clearly think. He uses the intelligence of his dog as an example. But obviously this depends on what we mean by “think”. If we defined it more narrowly as something like an introspective inner speech, think there is good reason to think “thinking” depends on language. This is actually more like “thinking about thinking”. But there is good philosophical reason to use the term “thought” to refer to such metacognition rather than the type of cognition shared by dogs and other animals. But so long as we are clear Everett is not talking about metacognition, it is really just a terminological quibble, for I surely agree with Everett that there is a good deal of cognition going on independently of learning a language. So Everett is not defending a strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

In summary, The Cultural Tool is an excellent book summarizing in an accessible manner what a response to Chomskyan theory could look like. It’s not a monumental work, so some of the details are left sketchy, but in general I get the sense that Everett is reporting on the development on a progressive research program. And if you are like me, then you will come away from the book with a better understanding of why Chomskyism and Universal Grammar is a degenerating research program. If you are a Chomskyan though, then you will probably be really irritated by Everett. That’s to be expected. But if you are at all skeptical of Universal Grammar though, then you will probably love The Cultural Tool. I think Everett has done the field a huge service by introducing a set of easy to understand metaphors to help us understand language. Thinking about language as culturally constructed cognitive tools as caused me to start thinking of all sorts of other things as tools, like philosophy and reason. So I think it’s an incredibly useful metaphor. Oh, but I do think Everett took the tool-idea a little far at the end of the book when he defended a strong philosophical pragmatism that consciously forgoes the quest for truth. Although in my younger years I would have loved this, Everett’s jump from linguistic pragmatism to philosophical pragmatism strikes me as a little naive. Of course we strive for truth! Or do you not think it is true that language is cultural tool? I would argue that the invention of the concept of truth was itself a great cognitive tool. But nevertheless, Everett’s book is well worth reading and I highly recommend it.

Overall rating: 4.8/5 stars


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Michael Tomasello – Language Is Not an Instinct

I just discovered Michael Tomasello’s scathing 1995 review of Pinker’s The Language Instinct (1994). Anyone interested in the nativism vs constructivism debate will find this worthwhile. I happen to think Tomasello comes out the winner in this fight. I highly recommend his book The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (1999). I just started his newer book Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language-acquisition (2003) and I am really impressed so far. He is a phenomenal researcher and his theories are major paradigm busters. Here’s a snippet from his review of Pinker:

Language is not an instinct. In the common understanding of both scientists and laypersons alike an instinct is a behavioral competency, or set of behavioral competencies, that: (a) is relatively stereotyped in its behavioral expression, and (b) would appear in ontogeny even if an individual were raised in isolation from its species-typical set of experiences (e.g.,Birney & Teevan, 1961). But language does not even remotely fit with either of these two criteria. “Language” has several thousand distinct variants in the human species that are fundamentally different from one another, including in their syntactic conventions, and an individual human being can acquire any one particular language only in the context of several years of particular types of linguistic experiences with other human beings. Why, then, has Pinker chosen to apply the term instinct in such a clearly inappropriate manner? The answer is that what Pinker and his fellow Chomskyans mean by the term “language” is not what is normally meant by that term. They do not mean the communicative conventions of the speakers of particular languages such as English, Turkish, or Warlpiri. What they mean is something called Universal Grammar, which is the supposedly species-universal computational structure of language that is, in their view, wholly unlearnable (ironically, the central thesis of Learnability Theory).

In this brief essay I argue three things. First, I argue that although many people bandy about rather loosely the notion of an innate language module, the only theoretically coherent version of such a module that has ever been proposed is that of Generative Grammar-in which resides a priori the theoretically-specific linguistic structures of Universal Grammar. This and only this is Pinker’s “language instinct.” Second, I argue that this view of language and its development, though coherent, is wrong. All of the most important lines of evidence that Pinker’s new book adduces for an innate Universal Grammar are also compatible with a less rigidly nativistic view of language acquisition in which there is a biological foundation for language, just not in the form of specific linguistic structures preformed in the human genome. Finally, I argue that there is an alternative linguistic theory, or group of theories, that should be especially attractive to cognitive developmentalists because they are much more compatible with what is known about development in other domains of human cognition.

Read it here.

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Melody from Child's Play with a sharp critique of Chomsky/Pinker

Melody from the excellent blog Child’s Play is quickly turning into one of my favorite mind-science bloggers. Her latest post mercilessly attacks Pinker and Chomsky’s quips to the effect that learning language without an innate grammar is “impossible”.

As Pinker wrote, rather famously :

“The implications of the lack of negative evidence for children’s overgeneralization are central to any discussion of learning, nativist or empiricist.” (Pinker, 2004)

This statement is, quite frankly, ridiculous, and belies a complete lack of understanding of basic human learning mechanisms. (And you thought ‘igon values‘ was bad…!)

To help you understand why, let’s start off by making the (uncontroversial) assumption that — like other young animals — little kids are trying to figure out just what in their environment is informative, so they can better grasp (and predict) the workings of the world around them.  It’s easy to see how this pursuit might readily lend itself  to language learning, since the more predictable upcoming speech is, the easier it is to make sense of [3].  Indeed, it seems as though figuring out what things in the world predict which words, and which words predict which other words, would be a pretty fundamental aspect of what learning a language is all about.

In line with this, there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that expectation and prediction operate in both linguistic processing and production.  So, if you’re listening to someone speak, you are predicting –probabilistically– what they’re going to say next (your brain is like Google Instant on crack).  For example, if I say “hit the nail on the…” you can fill in head, and if I say “I’m coming down with a…”, you can predict cold – flu — fever — and so on, with varying degrees of certainty.  What’s more, the more you hear a word occupy a given context, the more strongly you will predict it in that context in the future (DeLong, Urbach & Kutas, 2005).

This post ties into some of her recent posts about language learning. I find it to be incredibly fascinating research. I’m interested because it provides a working model for how affordance-learning might be implemented on the architectural level and grounds the developmental story I have been telling in regards to consciousness. This also ties into Daniel Hutto’s Narrative Practice Hypothesis, which argues that propositional reasoning (language mastery) developed, not by means of an innate grammar, but through “embodied expectations” coupled with joint-attention (the social triangulation wherein each person knows that they are both looking at the same aspect of the world).

From what I understand, Melody’s research seems to suggest that rather than language developing in children by means of an innate grammar, the system learns by means of an underlying prediction system that becomes readapted  for language learning when exposed to the linguistic milieu. On the phenomenological level, the emphasis on prediction means that animals live for the future i.e. their minds are futural, they are directed-towards the future. Heidegger called this the “temporalization” of time. It is grounded in the how we use the environment as resources to adjust and maintain the structural integrity of our basic organization. Gibsonian psychologists refer to this futural phenomenon as “prospectivity”, which is coupled with our “retrospectivity” (what Heidegger called our “having-been”).

While Gibson (and Heidegger) would have been uncomfortable talking about the prospectivity of affordances in terms of statistical learning, I think it comes down to the same thing: ecological information. Ecological information is that information specific to properties of the environment or body that is relevant to the maintenance of effective living. Crucially, this information exists only on the “molar” level of reality, which extends on both the spatial and temporal scale. Basically, ecological information is an invariant pattern in the ambient energy fields that our cognitive system extracts or “picks up” from the environment. These invariant patterns are directly useful for the temporal coordination of behavior because it is often the self-propulsion of the behavior that structures the flow of stimuli and in turn the invariant patterns picked up from the environment. In terms of language development, I think it is plausible that this process of affordance-detection could be modeled in terms of Melody’s prediction model. Edward Reed, for example, says:

I argue that the child who is poised to begin to learn the syntax of his or her language is already using the words of that language, albeit without varying their internal structure in generative ways [without innate grammar]. The skill of indication [pointing out] is fairly well developed prior to to the development of generativity. The progressive development of indicational language creatures an unstable situation both semantically and socially, and therefore is in part the cause of the emergence of the novel skill of predication [grammar]…The suggestion offered here is that it is the inherent instability of indicational language itself that constitutes a process for promoting the acquisition of generative language skills. (1996, p. 166-7)

This seems to be more or less what Melody is suggesting. Learning the grammar would allow for a better prediction of social interaction and would allow people to better understand you in turn, facilitating the expert manipulation of ecological information. Mastery of grammar and syntax is not a result of innate grammar expressing itself, but rather, the result of a grab-bag of mind-machines that learned to detect and and predict invariant patterns that are useful for the coordination of social interaction and self-control on the basis of innate, embodied expectancies.


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