Is Language Innate?

by Brendan James

Jessica Love considers whether the human brain was designed to produce language, or whether its development was more accidental:

The ’90s was the era of the language instinct. Indeed, Steven Pinker’s book The Language Instinct overtook bestseller lists and inspired a whole generation of psycholinguists, including me. “Language is no more a cultural invention than is upright posture,” Pinker wrote. Bats use Doppler sonar to hunt insects, birds read constellations to navigate, and humans have a “biological adaptation to communicate information.” We must have helpful biases encoded in our genes: What else could explain the fact that the most complicated skill most humans will ever master is acquired by age four?

But during the last decade, the pendulum of scientific thought has begun its inevitable swing in the other direction. These days, general cognitive mechanisms, not language-specific ones, are all the rage. We humans are really smart. We’re fantastic at recognizing patterns in our environments—patterns that may have nothing to do with language. Who says that the same abilities that allow us to play the violin aren’t also sufficient for learning subject-verb agreement? Perhaps speech isn’t genetically privileged so much as babies are just really motivated to learn to communicate.