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The First Word

The Search for the Origins of Language

By Christine Kenneally
18-minute read
The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language by Christine Kenneally

The First Word examines the different theories and viewpoints that have been put forward in the past half a century on the complex topic of the origin of language.

  • Anyone interested in learning about where language comes from
  • Anyone interested in how we can observe language in animals

Christine Kenneally has a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Cambridge, and she has written for publications such as Scientific American, The New Yorker and The New York Times.

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The First Word

The Search for the Origins of Language

By Christine Kenneally
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Contains 11 key ideas
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The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language by Christine Kenneally
Synopsis

The First Word examines the different theories and viewpoints that have been put forward in the past half a century on the complex topic of the origin of language.

Key idea 1 of 11

Noam Chomsky claimed that human beings inherit the ability to acquire languages.

In 1959, a relatively unknown academic by the name of Noam Chomsky shocked the world of psychology by radically criticizing a book by psychologist B. F. Skinner.

At the time, Skinner had enjoyed almost God-like status for his theory of behaviorism, but Chomsky’s criticism of Skinner’s views on language-learning effectively “dethroned” him.

What made Chomsky’s review so revolutionary?

Well, the key idea in Skinner's behaviorism was the stimulus-response model. According to this idea, learning occurs when learners encounter a stimulus and give a response that then gets positive feedback. For example, a child who hears the sentence “The cat is black” and then uses it correctly later may get an enthusiastic applause from her mother.

But Chomsky pointed out that this model doesn’t explain language acquisition in children. They not only learn a huge number of words extremely quickly but also the rules for how words can be combined and recombined to create new sentences – all without being explicitly told how this should happen.

For example, a child who knows the sentences “The cat is black” and “The cat is small” will also know that these two sentences can be combined as “The cat is black and small” but not “The cat is black is small.”

And that’s where the stimulus-response model runs into trouble due to what Chomsky referred to as poverty of stimulus. In the example above, the child has never heard the combined sentence or the explicit grammatical rules for how sentences can be combined, so there’s not enough stimuli to explain why she can nevertheless produce the correct response.

Chomsky’s explanation was that language can be seen as a perfect, inherited system that pre-exists in the human brain. It’s the reason why children don’t need to learn the structures of language: they have them automatically from this inherited component. What’s more, he argued that only humans have this component, or else other species would also develop languages of their own.

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