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Language universal and language specific features of morphological awareness

Similar processes seem to be at work in young children with left hemisphere damage. Muller et al. Finally, not even very young children are guaranteed to recover language after serious insults, whether to the left or right hemisphere. As Bates and Roe argue in their survey of the childhood aphasia literature, outcomes differ wildly from case to case, and the reported studies exhibit numerous methodological confounds e. However, in work pioneered by Goldin Meadow and colleagues e.

Studies of what happens to such children after they are exposed to natural languages signed or verbal at various ages promise to offer new insights into the critical and sensitive period hypotheses. At this time, however, there are still very few case reports in the literature, and the data so far obtained in these studies are equivocal with respect to the sensitive and critical period hypotheses. Some adolescents do seem to be able to acquire language despite early linguistic deprivation, and others do not. It is unclear what the explanation of these different outcomes is, but one important factor appears to be whether the new language is a signed language e.

Perhaps because their childhood perceptual deficits prevented normal auditory and articulatory development, deaf children whose hearing is restored later in life do not seem to be able to acquire much in the way of spoken language. Grimshaw et al. For instance, Johnson and Newport found that among immigrants arriving in the U. The fact that the amount of exposure to the second language mattered for speakers if it occurred before puberty but not after, was taken to confirm the critical period hypothesis.

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Flege, Yeni-Komshian and Liu ; Bialystok, [ 22 ]. The fact that many adults and older children can learn both first and second languages to a high degree of proficiency makes clear that unlike the kitten visual system studied by Hubel and Wiesel, the language acquisition system in humans is not subject to a critical period in the strict sense. This finding is consistent with the emerging view that the cortex remains highly plastic throughout life, and that contrary to received wisdom, even old dogs can be quite good at learning new tricks. It is also consistent with the idea, which seems more plausible than the critical period hypothesis, that there is a sensitive period for language acquisition — a time, from roughly birth age 1 to age 6 or 7, in which language is acquired most easily and naturally, and when a native-like outcome is virtually guaranteed.

Mayberry and Eichen The implications of this conclusion for linguistic nativism are examined in the next section. What does the existence of a sensitive period for language mastery tell us about the innateness of language? In this section, we will look at a case, namely phonological learning, in which the existence of a sensitive period has received much press, and in which the inference from sensitivity to the existence of language-specific innate information has been made explicitly see Eimas One can argue that even in this case, the inference to linguistic nativism is weak.

Much rarer than mastery of second language morphology and syntax is attainment of a native-like accent, something that first language learners acquire automatically in childhood. In the first few months of life, babies reliably discriminate many different natural language phonemes, whether or not they occur in what is soon to become their language.

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By ages 6 months to 1 year, however, this sensitivity to unheard phonemes largely disappears, and by age 1, children tend to make only the phonological distinctions made in the language s they hear around them. As adults, people continue to be unable to perceive some phonetic contrasts not marked by their language, and many fail to learn how to produce even those second language sounds which they can distinguish. Thus, in the case of phonological learning, there does seem to be an inborn predisposition to segment vocal sounds into language-relevant units, or phonemes.

If this is indeed how phonological learning works, it is clear that while experience clearly plays a role, the inborn contribution to that process is quite substantial.

For discriminating phonemes — however those discriminations might be shaped by subsequent experience — is no simple matter. Harnad is a useful collection of work on categorical perception to the mids. But is this inborn contribution to phonological learning language specific , that is, does it support the conclusion that this aspect of language is innate? For instance, it has been demonstrated in the perception of non-linguistic sounds, like musical pitch, key and melody, and meaningless chirps and bleats Pastore and Layer It has also been demonstrated in the processing of visual stimuli like faces Beale and Keil , facial expressions Etcoff and Magee ; Kotsoni, de Haan and Johnson ; facial gender Campanella, Chrysochoos and Bruyer ; and familiar physical objects Newell and Bulthoff Secondly, it is known that other animals too perceive categorically.

Finally, other species respond categorically to human speech!


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Chinchillas Kuhl and Miller and cotton-top tamarins Ramus et al. Together, as Kuhl , argues, these findings cast doubt on the language-specificity of the inborn perceptual and categorization capacities that form the basis of human phonological learning. For given the fact that human and animal perception quite generally is categorical, it is arguable that languages have evolved so as to exploit the perceptual distinctions that humans are able to make, rather than humans' having evolved the abilities to make just the distinctions that are made in human languages, as a view like Eimas' would suggest.

Figure 5. This pattern, together with the abrupt switch from one classification to another e. The same may be true in non-phonological domains too. The notion that at least some of the capacities responsible for syntactic learning are non-language specific is suggested by analogous results about the non-species specificity of recursive rule learning and generalization — an ability that Chomsky has recently suggested forms the core of the human language faculty.

Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch ; see below, 3. Other species, notably cotton top tamarins, seem capable of learning simple recursive rules Hauser, Weiss, and Marcus In addition, Hauser and McDermott argue that musical and syntactic processing involve similar competences, which are again seen in other species. Instead, language learning and linguistic processing make use of abilities that predate language phylogenetically, and that are used in humans and in animals for other sorts of tasks.

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See e. This brings us to the question of language evolution: if knowledge of language say, of the principles of UG really is inborn in the human language faculty, how did such inborn knowledge evolve?

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Other theorists have not been so reticent, and a large literature has grown up in which the selective advantages of having a language are adumbrated. It's good for communicating with, for instance, when trying to figure out what conspecifics are up to Pinker and Bloom, ; Dunbar It's a mechanism of group cohesion, analogous to primate grooming Dunbar It's a non-genetic mechanism of phenotypical plasticity, allowing organisms to adapt to their environment in non-evolutionary time Brandon and Hornstein ; Sterelny It's a mechanism by which we can bend others to our will Dawkins and Krebs ; Catania , or make social contracts Skyrms And so on.

The ability to speak and understand a language no doubt provided and continues to provide us with many of these benefits. Consequently and assuming that the costs were not too great — as patently they weren't , one can be sure that whatever it is about human beings that enables them to learn and use language would have been subjected to strong positive selection pressure once it began to emerge in our species.

But none of this speaks directly to the issue of linguistic nativism. The fact that Mother Nature would have favored individuals or groups possessing linguistic abilities tells us nothing about the means she chose to get the linguistic phenotype built.

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That is, it tells us nothing about the sorts of psychological mechanisms that were recruited to enable human beings to learn, and subsequently use, a natural language. Nativism is, of course, one possibility. Natural selection might have built a specialized language faculty, containing inborn knowledge about language e. A problem with this hypothesis, however, is that it is unclear how a language faculty containing innate representations of UG might have arisen in the human mind.

One view is that the language faculty was built up piecemeal by natural selection. This approach underlies Pinker and Bloom's and Jackendoff's proposals as to the adaptive functions of various grammatical features and devices. Other nativists, however, reject the adaptationist framework.

For instance, Berwick , has argued that efforts to explain the piecemeal development of knowledge of linguistic universals in our species may be unnecessary in light of the new, Minimalist conception of syntax see Chomsky On this view, all parametric constraints and rules of syntax are consequences of a fundamental syntactic process called Merge: once Merge was in place, Berwick argues, the rest of UG automatically followed. And finally Bickerton , on yet another tack, posits a massive saltative episode in which large chunks of syntax emerged all at once, although this posit is implicitly withdrawn in Calvin and Bickerton The literature on language evolution is too large to survey in this article but see Botha for an excellent overview and critique.

Suffice it to note that as yet, no consensus has emerged as to how innate knowledge of UG might have evolved from whatever preadaptations existed in our ancestors.

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Of course, this is not in itself a problem for linguistic nativists: formulating and testing hypotheses about human cognitive evolution is a massively difficult enterprise, due largely to the difficulty of finding evidence bearing on one's hypothesis. See Lewontin and Sterelny It's worth noting, however, that linguistic nativism is just one possibility for how Nature got language up and running. Just as it may be that a language faculty embodying knowledge of UG was somehow encoded in the human genome, it's also possible that that our ability to learn a language is based on a congeries of pre-existing competences, none of which is or was initially — see below specialized for language learning.

On his view, the fundamental skills with which linguistic competence is acquired are skills that originally served, and still continue to serve, quite different, non-linguistic functions.


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For example, he argues that children's early word and phrase learning rest in part on their ability to share attention with others, to discern others' communicative intentions, and to imitate aspects of their behavior. See, e. On this sort of view, the ability to learn language piggy-backed on other capacities, which originally evolved for other reasons and which continue to serve other functions in addition to their linguistic ones. You might wonder, however, whether this latter kind of account really differs substantively from that of a nativist. Assuming that she does not reject adaptationism altogether, the nativist will presumably be committed to the idea that the innate language organ, or faculty embodying knowledge of UG, was derived from pre-existing structures that were either functionless or had non-linguistic functions.

These structures subsequently acquired linguistic functions through being selected for that reason: they became adaptations for language. But so too would the various capacities postulated by Tomasello. As soon as they started being used for language learning, that's to say, they would have been selected for that function in addition to any other functions they might serve, and always assuming that linguistic abilities were on balance beneficial.

Hence they too will over time become adaptations for language. On both Tomasello's and the nativist's view, in other words, the inborn structures responsible for language acquisition will have acquired the biological function of enabling language acquisition: they will be specialized for that purpose. Is Tomasello, then, a nativist? First, even though the psychological abilities and mechanisms that Tomasello posits have been selected for linguistic functions, these abilities and mechanisms have continued to be used and, plausibly, selected for non-linguistic purposes, such as face recognition, theory of mind, non-linguistic perception, etc.

So, whereas a central tenet of linguistic nativism is its insistence that the structures responsible for language learning are task-specific , Tomasello sees those structures as being much more general-purpose. In addition, and this is a second reason not to count Tomasello as a nativist, the inborn structures he posits are not plausibly interpreted as containing any kind of language specific information or representations. Yet a commitment to the role of inborn, language-specific information such as knowledge of UG is another hallmark of linguistic nativism.