The riddle of the young's tongues

The 'Language Instinct' Debate
February 10, 2006

A baby's body will normally change in predictable ways in the first three years of life, and the child will start to walk and talk. Which part of this is controlled by our genes and how much is learnt behaviour? In this book, a revised and retitled version of his Educating Eve (1997), Geoffrey Sampson argues that, for learning to talk at least, the genetic contribution is minimal and not specific to language. He challenges and dismisses the claim of scholars such as Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky that we are born with abstract properties of language in our minds.

The book is a polemic, and Sampson sometimes lets his conviction carry him away. There is no need, for instance, to describe his opponents' arguments as deserving "a loud raspberry" or to say "what they are telling you just ain't so. Believe me, it is not". This kind of triumphalist pub talk adds nothing to the debate. Sampson also feels the need to supply a potted history of Chomsky's career, describing his political views as "engaging if fairly dotty". Not only are Chomsky's politics irrelevant in a book about language innateness, but cheap sneers such as this are unwise from someone who recently wrote: "Preference for members of one's own race over other races is a biologically natural, universal aspect of human psychology." This is not only facile but also exactly the kind of claim about human biology for which this book counsels scepticism.

For the most part, the book moves through some complex areas in a readable and reasonable way. That said, Sampson is least convincing when he tries to enlist "common sense" on to his side. Knowledge is an ever-changing cultural product, he writes, so it is strange to claim that we could be born knowing anything. One could equally argue, though, that if some characteristic is regularly found across the entire human species, then common sense suggests that this feature is a candidate for being genetic.

Every baby (pathology aside) gets larger, walks and talks, whereas not everyone learns about nuclear physics. This makes growth, gait and language plausibly innate properties of humans, while knowledge of physics most certainly is not. Granted we do not all learn the same language and we do not all use language with the same degree of skill - but nor do we all grow to have identical bodies or to use them as ably.

There is, admittedly, a crucial difference: growth just happens to us, but walking and talking are things that we have to learn. In Sampson's view this makes it unnecessary, for language at least, to propose that anything is genetic except "a propensity to create and test fallible, unpredictable guesses". Humans are good learners, in other words, and Sampson sketches an empiricist account, inspired by the work of Karl Popper, of how children learn a language.

Several things about the book left me uneasy. First, Sampson isolates language from other aspects of child development. Surely the debate needs to be enriched by comparing language with human characteristics that are uncontroversially genetic such as bodily growth and others that are similar to language such as walking.

More importantly, what about the aspect of learning to talk that makes it a candidate for being at least partly genetic - its universal, regular and predictable occurrence? If some otherwise normal children delayed language acquisition until they were eight, while others learnt some language at the usual early age and the rest later, and yet others did not bother to learn it at all, then perhaps we could put it all down to learning. In reality, all children between one and three years seem to be driven to acquire a language by what I can only call an "inner motor".

Strong drives for other intellectual activities, in contrast, vary widely.

Sampson touches tangentially on this in discussing the claim that first language acquisition can happen only at a young age and is not possible later without explicit teaching. The key point is not whether language acquisition can occur after infancy, but the fact that it always does occur in infancy. Sampson never engages directly with this fact.

He gives some useful criticisms of language innateness, but the proposed Popperian alternative is an IOU, not a theory. Anyone recommending the book to students should warn them about this, and about the author's over-the-top victory celebrations. If students are encouraged to evaluate Sampson's reasoning critically, this book will be worth their while.

Raphael Salkie is professor of language studies, Brighton University.

The 'Language Instinct' Debate

Author - Geoffrey Sampson
Publisher - Continuum
Pages - 224
Price - £75.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 0 8264 7384 9 and 7385 7

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