The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct, by Vyvyan Evans

Michelle Aldridge on a comprehensive presentation of the case that human verbal communication emerges from use

November 13, 2014

A linguist whose research focuses on the nature and function of language and mind, Vyvyan Evans specialises in cognitive linguistics. This field has at its core the view that language is not an abstract faculty, but rather develops and is sustained through our daily experiences and interactions and is constrained by our bodies (eg, how we perceive and conceive the world).

In The Language Myth, Evans reviews and illustrates these ideas, and in so doing challenges the school of Anglo-American linguistics that argues that language is innate and unique to humans. Such claims, famously made by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s and known worldwide to students of linguistics (and indeed to the general public through popular books), have indoctrinated us into believing that language is a human instinct – the work of nature, not nurture.

There have been countless well-rehearsed arguments put forward to support these “nativist” claims. For example: we don’t teach language to our children; it just happens, with ease, because humans are preprogrammed with a Universal Grammar that constrains what we do with language. Or: language is unique to humans; while animals communicate, they lack a sophisticated system like ours, and somewhere along the evolutionary path we separated from our neighbours and acquired this unique language system. For decades this “instinct” account was accepted, but it has been challenged in recent years, within cognitive linguistics particularly and nowhere better than in this book.

Taking an interdisciplinary perspective, Evans debunks the notion of language instinct, and systematically argues that language emerges from use supported by general mental skills and abilities that, following Michael Tomasello, he terms “species-specific cultural intelligence”. He then presents his own “language as use” thesis, and over six chapters dissects statements associated with the instinct approach (such as “language is universal” or “language is modular”) and instead offers, drawing on current evidence-based research, a plausible alternative account of the nature and structure of language. He argues that language is achieved by use, children learn it from their environment, animals communicate according to their needs, language is too diverse to be governed by universal principles and so forth.

Evans achieves his intention of offering a reasonably accessible overview of the way language really works. While The Language Myth lacks original research, it ably pulls together work from other scholars to build up a convincing explanation of language that contrasts with the instinct approach, which is really a position of faith unsubstantiated by research findings. As a scholar trained in Chomskyan linguistics, at every page turn I tried to come up with a “what about?” question, but in each case Evans offers an explanation and a summary of relevant research to support his stance. His arguments are dealt with clearly and systematically, in an accessible style. In each chapter there are nice examples to support his “language as use” thesis, with study after study diluting the nature claims and furthering those for nurture.

The general reader can read this book from cover to cover and learn a great deal about language that challenges the established traditions. Equally, the more experienced reader will benefit from the alternative perspective it offers, and from the comprehensive reference lists to support the arguments that Evans makes.

The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct

By Vyvyan Evans
Cambridge University Press, 314pp, £50.00 and £17.99
ISBN 9781107043961, 7619753 and 9781316121412 (e-book)
Published 16 October 2014

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