Sunday, September 14, 2008

Social Cognition and Linguistic Innateness I

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Laughing Man of Complex Adaptive Systems has asked an interesting question regarding my post announcing that Michael Tomasello had published a new book on “The Origins of Human Communication:”

A point I don't get: How does this argument (Gricean maxims of cooperation evolved from general cooperative human structure) criticise Chomsky's innateness theory?”

He refers to the following passage from the book description:

“Challenging the Chomskian view that linguistic knowledge is innate, Tomasello proposes instead that the most fundamental aspects of uniquely human communication are biological adaptations for cooperative social interaction in general and that the purely linguistic dimensions of human communication are cultural conventions and constructions created by and passed along within particular cultural groups”

As Laughing Man rightly points out, the evolutionary priority of cooperative, social-communicative capacities to our capacity for linguistic communication is in principle compatible with an innatist position regarding language acquisition. A generativist more interested in interdisciplinary matters than Chomsky, as for example, Ray Jackendoff, would be sure to agree with the importance of social interaction for language acquisition.

However, Tomasello’s argument goes further than that. He claims that general skills of social interaction such as human intention-reading skills, along with primate pattern finding skills, are all what is needed for a child to be able to learn a language when placed in the right environment. I haven’t looked at Tomasello’s newest work, but in his previous books “The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition” (1999), and “Constructing A Language” (2003), he makes a strong case why we needn’t postulate a language-specific, innate “Universal Grammar” specifying the architecture and input conditions of a domain-specific language system.

In Contrast, here’s Ray Jackendoff’s opinion on the relationship between social cognition and an inbuilt specialized linguistic toolkit:

“Language acquisition of course rests on social skills such as theory of mind (rudimentary in chimpanzees) and understanding pointing (not found in chimpanzees), as well as on more general perceptual machinery such as attention. These provide scaffolding for language acquisition but do not themselves provide the material out of which knowledge of language is built. “

Language also relies on many other domain-general cognitive capacities, but

“what is special about language is the collection of mental structures it employs – phonology and syntax – and the interfaces between them and conceptual structure. The processing and acquisition of these structures may be accomplished by brain-general mechanisms of long-term memory, integration in working memory, learning (including statistically-based learning), and attention, and may rely as well on understanding of social interaction and theory of mind. But unless the specific unique building blocks for phonology, syntax, and their connection to concepts are present, language and language acquisition are not possible. It is these building blocks that constitute the narrow language faculty.” (Jackendoff 2007: 388f.)


Jackendoff, Ray (2007): Linguistics in Cognitive Science: The State of the Art, The Linguistic Review 24, 347-401.

Tomasello, Michael (1999): The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press.

Tomasello, Michael (2003): Constructing A Language. A Usage-Based Approach. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press.

1 comment:

Laughing Man said...

Thanks, it becomes clearer now.