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On humans' language faculty

This animal has no understanding of language.

You may have heard of the “talking gorilla” Koko. I remember as a child reading about this fascinating creature that had been trained to use sign language to communicate desires, thoughts, feelings, and the like. This was utterly amazing to me, because the idea of non-human apes possessing even the rudiments of human language seemed outlandish. Apes seem to be on such a vastly more primitive cognitive level than humans that I found it miraculous and thrilling that Koko could apparently express somewhat sophisticated ideas. The truth, of course, was that she couldn’t.

Laura Ann-Petitto’s contribution to the first edition of The Cambridge Companion to Chomsky, titled “How the brain begets language,” is interesting and instructive in this Koko-context. (The book can be downloaded at Z-Library.) So much so that I want to quote long passages for the benefit of any other amateurs like me who might be interested in these matters. One of the intriguing things about Petitto’s chapter is the same thing that has always baffled me about people’s responses to Chomsky: somehow, ideas that strike me as perfectly reasonable, if not embarrassingly truistic, are considered controversial or obviously wrong by hordes of academics and many others. (I have to admit that this has given me a rather uncharitable view of the intelligence of the average intellectual.) E.g.:

I first met Noam Chomsky through a project that attempted to get the baby chimp Nim Chimpsky to “talk.” At nineteen, with the certainty of youth, I knew that I would soon be “talking to the animals.” Nim was the focus of our Columbia University research team’s Grand Experiment: could we teach human language to other animals through environmental input alone with direct instruction and reinforcement principles? Or would there prove to be aspects of human language that resisted instruction, suggesting that language is a cognitive capacity that is uniquely human and likely under biological control? Nim was affectionately named “Chimpsky” because we were testing some of Chomsky’s nativist [rationalist] views. To do so, we used natural sign language. Chimps cannot literally speak and cannot learn spoken language. But chimps have hands, arms, and faces and thus can, in principle, learn the silent language of Deaf people.
By the early 1970s, a surprising number of researchers had turned to learning about human language through the study of non-human apes. Noam Chomsky had stated the challenge: important parts of the grammar of human language are innate and specific to human beings alone. Key among these parts is the specific way that humans arrange words in a sentence (syntax), the ways that humans change the meanings of words by adding and taking away small meaningful parts to word stems (morphology), and the ways that a small set of meaningless sounds are arranged to produce all the words in an entire language (phonology). The human baby, Chomsky argued, is not born a “blank slate” with only the capacity to learn from direct instruction the sentences that its mother reinforces in the child’s environment, as had been one of the prevailing tenets of a famous psychologist of the time, B. F. Skinner… Innately equipped with tacit knowledge of the finite set of possible language units and the rules for combining them, the baby listens to the patterns present in the specific language sample to which she is being exposed, and “chooses” from her innate set of possible grammars the grammar she is hearing…
My departure from Project Nim Chimpsky in the mid 1970s to attend graduate school in theoretical linguistics at the University of California, San Diego, was bittersweet. It had become clear that while Nim had some impressive communicative and cognitive abilities, there was a fundamental divide between his knowledge and use of language and ours. No one can “talk to the animals” by sign or otherwise. Nim’s data, along with our close analyses of data from all other chimp language projects, unequivocally demonstrated that Chomsky was correct: aspects of human language are innate and unique, requiring a human biological endowment.

And people were surprised by this? Wow. Poor Chomsky has had to argue with irrationalists his whole life.

It turns out that non-human primates are (of course) almost completely incapable of abstraction. For them, as for every other animal except humans, it seems that only what is immediately present—in sensory experience, memory, desire, or whatever—exists. For example, apes cannot construct patterned sequences of three or more signs. “After producing a ‘matrix’ two words, they then—choosing from only the top five or so most frequently used words that they can produce (all primary food or contact words, such as eat or tickle)—randomly construct a grocery list. There is no rhyme or reason to the list, only a word salad lacking internal organization.” Petitto continues:

Alas, the whole story is even worse than irregularities in chimpanzees’ syntax, morphology, and phonology: the very meanings of their words were “off.” For one thing, chimps cannot, without great difficulty, acquire the word fruit. While apes seem to have some capacity to associate words with concrete things and events in the world they inhabit, unlike humans, they seem to have little capacity to acquire and readily apply words with an abstract sense. Thus, while chimps can associate a small set of labels with concrete objects in the world (apple for apples, orange for oranges), they have enormous difficulty acquiring a word like fruit, which is a classification of both apples and oranges. There is no tangible item in the world that is literally fruit, only instances or examples of this abstract kind-concept that seems to exist only in human heads.
For another thing, chimps do not use words in the way we do at all. When we humans use the common noun apple in reference to that small round and juicy object in the world that we eat, we do not use it to index (pick out) only one object in the world (say, a specific red apple on a table), nor do we use it to refer to all things, locations, and actions globally associated with apples. Instead we use the label to “stand for” or symbolize the set of related objects in the world that are true of this particular kind-concept in our heads. Crucially, we also know the range or scope over which word kind-concepts may apply: for example, the label apple symbolizes a set of related objects and therefore this label is used only in reference to objects, not actions… Chimps, unlike humans, use such labels in a way that seems to rely heavily on some global notion of association. A chimp will use the same label apple to refer to the action of eating apples, the location where apples are kept, events and locations of objects other than apples that happened to be stored with an apple (the knife used to cut it), and so on and so forth—all simultaneously, and without apparent recognition of the relevant differences or the advantages of being able to distinguish among them. Even the first words of the young human baby are used in a kind-concept constrained way (a way that indicates that the child’s usage adheres to “natural kind” boundaries—kinds of events, kinds of actions, kinds of objects, etc.). But the usage of chimps, even after years of training and communication with humans, never displays this sensitivity to differences among natural kinds. Surprisingly, then, chimps do not really have “names for things” at all. They have only a hodge-podge of loose associations with no Chomsky-type internal constraints or categories and rules that govern them. In effect, they do not ever acquire the human word apple.

Surprising?! Frankly, what surprises me is that apes can be taught to sign “words” at all. I find that pretty impressive. Though maybe I shouldn’t, since apes obviously communicate to each other in some primitive way that involves gestures.

Aside from information about chimps’ non-acquisition of language, Petitto’s paper presents interesting data on comparisons between monolingual deaf children and monolingual hearing children, as well as bilingual hearing children in “typical” (spoken) contexts, bilingual hearing children who were taught two signed languages and nothing spoken (because their parents were deaf), and bilingual hearing children who acquired both a signed and a spoken language. One finding was that deaf babies’ development of (signed) language proceeds at exactly the same pace and follows exactly the same stages as hearing children’s development of language. (A point for Chomsky, which is to say for the biological—preprogrammed—perspective, no matter the modality of communication.) As for “bilingual hearing children exposed to both a signed and a spoken language from birth (e.g., one parent signs and the other parent speaks), [they] demonstrate no preference whatsoever for speech, even though they can hear.” In the experiment conducted, they produced their first word in French and their first word in sign language at the same time.

What’s also notable is that babies who were exposed to, say, French and English at the same time “achieved their linguistic milestones on the same timetable as monolinguals, revealing no language delay or confusion.” Isn’t that incredible? It’s hard enough—in fact, magical—for babies to construct in their head an entire language on the basis of the fragmentary, scattered linguistic data they’re exposed to from their parents. (This is the “poverty of the stimulus” miracle.) But for them to construct two languages on the basis of these confusing and conflicting data is impossible to comprehend. Imagine being an infant who hears a hodgepodge of sounds from adults, some of the sounds being organized according to the rules of English and others according to those of German: and you (your brain) instinctively can recognize that these differences exist, these sounds are organized in different ways, and you build up in your brain (unconsciously) a set of structures of two different languages at the same time, without getting irremediably confused. That feat is absolutely astonishing. Science has no conception of how it’s accomplished.

But one thing it indicates, at least, is that Chomsky is right that the infant’s brain hungers for linguistic data, it’s desperately eager to construct linguistic structures spontaneously on the basis of the verbal sounds (or hand gestures) it encounters. There is obviously a language faculty in the human brain, a specialized mental organ that effortlessly and unconsciously uses sensory (auditory and/or visual) data to construct the unimaginably complex rules of a particular language. Humans are genetically endowed with this aptitude, this predisposition; we don’t just use our “general intelligence” and rules of association or induction or whatnot to develop a language, contrary to what empiricists think. This fact is so obvious even from this single piece of evidence—the ease with which infants learn even two or more languages at the same time! (when adults find it infinitely more difficult)—that even I, who have a pretty dim view of intellectuals, find it shocking they can reject Chomsky’s “biologism” (Universal Grammar, etc.) and maintain an allegiance to empiricism.

I know I’m just a dilettante and have no professional status in linguistics or related disciplines. But these aren’t technical issues that you need extensive training in order to understand. They’re very general, having to do with simple rules of logic and induction (or “abduction”): it’s like inference to the best explanation. Despite what professionals might say—not Chomsky, who’s consistently democratic, but other professionals—you and I have a right to have an opinion about straightforward topics like this, insofar as we’re capable of reading and reasoning. (Not all people are truly capable of reasoning, but I assume you are.) The technical linguistics—no, I can’t possibly understand that. But the reasoning about rationalism vs. empiricism—yes, since I am, and you are, able to understand chains of reasoning and evaluate evidence bearing on these chains of reasoning, we’re qualified to hold opinions about general “philosophical” matters. (Of course, the more we read and the more we reflect, the more qualified we are.)

And it seems to me that however hard it might be sometimes to confirm rationalist (nativist) hypotheses, or even to flesh them out in such a way that they’re immune to all objections from empiricists, they have an enormous amount of plausibility prima facie. Not least because it’s uncontroversial that other animals are genetically preprogrammed to act in specific ways barely influenced by environmental stimulation. (E.g., baby squirrels engage in squirrely behavior (digging, etc.) even if they’ve been deprived of input from other squirrels and are confined in solitude to an isolated room.) Presumably empiricists wouldn’t deny that humans are animals, right? We’re part of the animal kingdom. So you’d think that what’s true of other animals would be true of us, no? Why should we not be “behaviorally” (mentally) preprogrammed if other animals are? We’re not angels![1]

Anyway, let’s leave this empiricist nonsense aside. Returning to interesting things… You’re aware of the infant “babbling” phenomenon, right? Ba-ba-ba-ba, etc. What does that babbling mean? For many researchers, babbling is “the initial manifestation of human language acquisition, or, at least, of language production.” This seems plausible. More specifically, though, some researchers think that babbling is “determined by the development of the anatomy of the vocal tract and the neuroanatomical and neurophysiological mechanisms subserving the motor control of speech production.” But no, that hypothesis is wrong, because deaf babies babble too! They manually, not vocally, babble! This scientific discovery of hand babbling “confirmed a claim central to Chomsky’s theory: that early language acquisition is governed by tacit knowledge of the abstract patterning of language that is biologically endowed in the species, and that this governance is so powerful that it will ‘out’ itself by mapping onto the tongue if given the tongue, or the hands if given the hands—all the while preserving linguistic structures across the two modalities.” In other words: empiricism loses again.

The idea of hand babbling is fascinating. If babbling is indeed an early manifestation of the language faculty, then, of course, you’d expect to see it manifested somehow in deaf babies too (who have the language faculty), not only hearing babies. But what does it mean to say that hand gestures can babble? Well, Petitto discovered that there is actually syllabic organization (analogous to ba-ba-ba) in deaf babies’ silent hand babbling. “In signed languages, the sign-syllable consists of the rhythmic closing and opening…alternations of the hands/arms. This sign-syllabic organization has been analyzed as being structurally homologous with the closing and opening of the mouth aperture in the production of consonant–vowel (closed–open) mouth alternations in spoken language.” So babies can express ba-ba-ba or da-da-da or ma-ma-ma with their hands, not only their mouths.

…If babies are born [as Chomsky argues] with tacit knowledge of the core patterns that are universal to all languages, even signed languages, then the [Chomskyan] hypothesis predicts that differences in the form of language input should yield differences in the hand activity of [deaf babies]. In biological terms, tacit knowledge was construed [in our experiment] as the baby’s sensitivity to specific patterns at the heart of human language—in particular, the rhythmic patterns that bind syllables, the elementary units of language, into baby babbles, and then into words and sentences.

Babies are, it appears, highly sensitive to these linguistic patterns, even if they’re deaf and exposed only to signed language. But why else would they be so sensitive if not that they were predetermined to be so sensitive?

Anyway, the broader point is that deaf children experience the same linguistic milestones at the same rate as hearing children, and the Chomskyan hypothesis that internal linguistic structures will find some way to manifest themselves in external expression, even if the usual verbal/auditory mode is impaired, is supported. The language faculty is a core genetically determined and elaborated property of humans. As should have been obvious all along.

None of this is to deny, however, the great conceptual and scientific difficulties associated with this faculty. Such as how and why it appeared in the first place (a question we’ll probably never have a good answer to, as Richard Lewontin argued), or what the universal linguistic rules are, or how the baby's brain processes sounds to construct a language on the basis of these rules. The human brain is mostly a mystery and will, I suspect, remain so.


[1] As I've noted elsewhere on this website, the indubitable fact of psychological/behavioral preprogramming has uncomfortable implications with regard to the postmodern dogma that gender (gendered thinking and behavior) is nothing but a social construction: viz., that the dogma is flat-out false. Postmodern empiricism and idealism (elevation of "discourses" and "culture" above class structures and sheer brute material facts, including biological facts) are just flaky irrationalism.


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