Hubpage about the nature of language written for a general audience

A. Katz amnfn at
Fri Sep 12 14:38:25 UTC 2008


Thanks for the input!

I intentionally left out any specific reference to Chomsky or Chomskyanism
in the piece, as I didn't think that was necessary when trying to explain
the issues to a general audience.

About the sentence you quoted, you are right that I should have been more
specific. When I wrote of "the same people" making the same "grammatical
mistakes", I should instead have said "the same native speakers" and
"grammatical mistake in their native language". I agree that it's not very
interesting that foreigners make mistakes while native speakers do not.
But it turns out that native speakers of the same language who have come
from the same social background and have had the same educational training
show variable capacity to parse complex sentences. Ngoni Chipere's work
that I cited is about that.

I think the brain functions that all people use to acquire language are
innate to humans, but they are not specifically geared toward language. We
have a brain that doesn't come pre-wired for much of anything, but has a
consistent tendency to adapt to the information present in the
environment. We are system-builders, and our brain is good for that.
However, what specific system we end up building depends on the input we
get. Also, no two people build exactly the same system, even when they are
raised in the same environment. There is no pre-built structure in the
brain to ensure that we do.

System-building brains are very much the norm with humans, but they are
not uniquely human, as other animals have similar system-building


      --Aya Katz

On Fri, 12 Sep 2008, Tahir Wood wrote:

> I found this piece admirably clear and useful in understanding the
> functional perspective. However, I would like to make one small quibble.
> I am not a Chomskyan linguist but I do think that in our haste to
> distance ourselves from that paradigm I see many linguists of various
> schools misrepresenting it, no doubt unintentionally. I think that there
> is a mistake for example in the following sentence:
> "Even when it is shown that the same people make the same grammatical
> mistakes over and over again consistently while others do not, many
> linguists still maintain that all people have the same grammatical
> competence, just by virtue of being human."
> My understanding is that 'grammtical competence' or 'linguistic
> competence' (same thing to a Chomskyan) is competence in a specific
> language, NOT the postulated innate language faculty. Those two things
> are being conflated in the above. I also think that the following claim
> is less than adequately supported by the text in question:
> "Language is not a hardwired capacity that humans are born with."
> What you have very clearly explained is that (a) there is no part of
> the brain that is specific to linguistic ability and (b) due to the way
> people are socialised into language they end up with differential
> competences. Both of these are slightly different points to the one in
> the quote. In fact some of your points about development up to the age
> of puberty do seem to rely on certain brain functions that are
> specifically human. In other words your quotation above is rather
> extravagant when seen in relation to the data that you cite. The
> argument for the evolutionary development of the capacity for language
> in hominisation remains compelling; I see nothing in your text to
> convince me otherwise. And one does not have to be a Chomskyan to
> recognise this.
> But thank you for an interesting piece and I would be keen to hear from
> anyone as to whether my reasoning is flawed.
> Tahir
> >>> "A. Katz" <amnfn at> 09/11/08 3:39 PM >>>
> Fellow Funknetters,
> I've just published a hubpage article about language from a functional
> perspective. The URL is:
> This piece is written for a general audience, so it goes light on the
> jargon and explains things in ordinary terms accessible to everyone.
> However, it does touch on the same issues that we like to discuss on
> funknet, issues such as:
>     * innateness versus learned behavior
>     * the brain wiring itself for language
>     * conditions necessary for a child to develop language
>     * variations in the physical structure that processes language
>     * variations in native speakers' ability to parse complex
> sentences
>     * competence versus performance
>     * language instruction in the schools
> I would very much appreciate your looking over this article and
> offering
> comments. Also, if you think this material would be helpful to your
> introductory linguistics students, you could offer it as suggested
> reading.
> There is no charge for viewing the article. The site is paid for by
> Google
> Adsense and Kontera ads. Revenue from the article goes to fund Project
> Bow, a language acquisition research project with a six year old
> chimpanzee as the subject.
> If you are interested in learning more about Project Bow, there are
> also
> some hubs about that, the most recent of which is:
> Looking forward to your input,
>      --Aya Katz

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