Book Review: The Language Instinct Debate by Geoffrey Sampson

The following is a book review and the second post in a series. The first post discussed Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct . This post discusses Geoffrey Sampson’s The Language Instinct Debate, which is a critique of Pinker’s book. The third post will discuss some of the critics and reviews of Sampson’s book.

In a comment on the first post in this series, linguischtick (who has an awesome gravatar, by the way) pointed out that I didn’t mention two key points of the Chomskers (Chomsky + Pinker + their followers. Nom.) theory. As this post is about a book which is a direct “response to Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct and Noam Chomsky’s nativism,” it would be good to remind ourselves of the claims that nativists make. Below are the claims along with some comments on them.

1. Speed of acquisition

Chomskyian linguists claim that kids learn language remarkably fast, so fast that it must be innate. But fast compared to what? How do we know kids don’t learn language very slowly? Chomskers has no answer. Sampson says this and then very cleverly points out that Chomsky has never supplied an amount of time it should take kids to learn language because “he argues that the data available to a language learner are so poor that accurate language learning would be impossible without innate knowledge – that is, no amount of time would suffice” (37, emphasis his).

2. Age dependence

Chomskers claim that the language instinct theory is supported by how our ability to learn a language diminishes greatly around puberty. Sampson quickly refutes this claim by showing how the evidence on which Chomskers based his claim fails “to distinguish language learning from any other case of learning” and that it is “perfectly compatible with the view that learning as a general process is for biological reasons far more rapid before puberty than later.” (41, emphasis his) So we see that leap of faith again. The evidence doesn’t suggest a language instinct, but that doesn’t stop Chomskers from jumping to that conclusion.

3. Poverty of the Stimulus

This is a major part of the Chomskers argument (and the only one that can be shortened into a perfectly applicable acronym – POS). Put simply, it goes like this: kids are not supplied with enough language info by their community to enable them to learn to speak. This is what Pinker was talking about when he snidely called Motherese – the style adults use when speaking to children – “folklore”. The poverty of the stimulus is a crazy idea, but don’t worry, it’s completely wrong. First, once linguists started researching Motherese, they found that it was much more “proper” than anyone had assumed. Sampson references one study that found “only one utterance out of 1500 spoken to the children was a disfluency.” (43) Chomskers also claim that some linguistic features never occur in spoken language and yet children learn the rules for them anyway. But wait a minute, has Chomskers ever looked for these mysterious linguistic features that never occur? Of course not. That’s not how they roll.

Sampson gives them a taste of their own medicine by writing

‘Hang on a minute,’ I hear the reader say. ‘You seem to be telling us that this man [Chomsky] who is by common consent the world’s leading living intellectual, according to Cambridge University a second Plato, is basing his radical reassessment of human nature largely on the claim that a certain thing never happens; he tells us that it strains his credulity to think that this might happen, but he has never looked, and people who have looked find that it happens a lot.’
Yes, that’s about the size of it. Funny old world, isn’t it! (47)

Another aspect of this piece of shit poverty of the stimulus argument is the so-called lack of negative evidence. This idea claims that kids aren’t given evidence of which types of constructions are not possible in language. It leads one to wonder how children could possibly learn which sentences to exclude as non-language? Sounds pretty interesting, huh? There must be a language instinct then, right? Sampson bursts Chomskers bubble:

The trouble with this argument is that, if it worked, it would not just show that language learning without innate knowledge is impossible: it would show that scientific discovery is impossible. We can argue about whether or not children get negative evidence from their elders’ language; but a scientist certainly gets no negative evidence from the natural world. When a heavy body is released near the surface of the Earth, it never remains stationary or floats upwards, displaying an asterisk or broadcasting a message ‘This is not how Nature works – devise a theory which excludes this possibility!’ (90)

4. Convergence of grammars

This claim wonders how both smart and dumb people grow up speaking essentially the same language.
Except they don’t, so forget it. Other linguists – the kind that like evidence and observable data – have proven that people don’t speak the same.

5. Language universals

This is the idea that there are some structural properties which are found across every language in the world, even though there is no reason why they should be (since they’re not necessary to language). This is where Universal Grammar comes in. Sampson devotes a chapter to this broad argument and in one of the many parts that make this book an excellent read, he very cleverly takes the argument down by pointing out that universals are better evidence of the cultural development of language than they are of the biological innate theory of language. Using a theory developed by Herbert Simon, Sampson shows that, basically, the structural dependencies that Chomskers is so fond of arose out of normal evolutionary development because evolution favors hierarchical structure. Complex evolutionary systems – something Sampson argues language is – are hierarchically structured for a reason, they do not have to be innate.

If this is the crux of the language instinct argument, it’s almost laughable how easily it falls. As Sampson notes, even Chomskers doesn’t think it carries weight.

Steven Pinker himself has suggested that nativist arguments do not amount to much. In a posting on the electronic LINGUIST List (posting 9.1209, 1 September 1998), he wrote: ‘I agree that U[niversal G[rammar] has been poorly defended and documented in the linguistics literature.’ Yet that literature comprises the only grounds we are given for believing in the language universals theory. If the theory is more a matter of faith than evidence and reasoned argument even for its best-known advocate, why should anyone take it seriously? If it were not that students have to deal with this stuff in order to get their degrees, how many takers would there be for it? (166)

Even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes

The really sad thing is that Universal Grammar is the crux of the Chomskers argument. Sampson writes that “at heart linguistic nativism is a theory about grammatical structure.” (71) More importantly, it’s a theory that gathers all the “evidence” it thinks support its beliefs and dismisses any that do not. It is Confirmation Bias 101.

But don’t take my word for it. Just before he knocks down the innatist belief that tree structures prove there’s a language instinct, Sampson points out that Chomskers don’t even know how to follow through with their own thoughts. He writes

Ironically, though, having been the first to realize that tree structure in human grammar is a universal feature that is telling us something about how human beings universally function, Chomsky failed to grasp what it is telling us. The universality of tree structuring tells us that languages are systems which human beings develop in the their gradual, guess-and-test style by which, according to Karl Popper, all knowledge is brought into being. Tree structuring is the hallmark of gradual evolution. (141)

Hey-o!

So don’t violate or you’ll get violated

OK, right now the reader might think I’ve been too hard on Chomskers. Let me assuage your concerns. I’m a firm believer in treating people with the respect they deserve. So when I say that Chomskers have their heads stuck firmly up their own asses, it’s because saying “the facts don’t support their claims” is not what they deserve. A group of scientists that hates facts deserves derision. Researchers in every field use observable data to come to conclusions. Their publications are part of an ongoing debate among other researchers, who can support or refute their claims based on more data. Everyone plays by these rules because they are in everyone’s best interest. All infamous academic quarrels aside, Chomskers would prefer not to back up their claims with observable data nor engage in any kind of debate with scientists. The bum on the street shouting that the world is going to end has the advantage of being bat-shit crazy. What’s Chomskers excuse?

I suppose they could say that they are well-established. But in my mind that just points out the reasons for their unscientific actions. What’s going to happen to those grants and faculty positions if people stop believing in Chomskers’ witchcraft? Sampson writes

“Nativist linguistics is now the basis of so many careers and so many university departments that it feels itself entitled to a degree of reverence. Someone who disagrees is expected to pull his punches, to couch his dissent in circumspect and opaquely academic terms – and of course, provided he does that, the nativist community is adept at verbally glossing over the critique in such a way that, for the general reader, not a ripple is left disturbing the public face of nativism. But reverence is out of place in science. The more widespread and influential a false theory has become, the more urgent it is to puncture its pretensions. Taxpayers who maintain the expensive establishment of nativist linguistics do not understand themselves to be paying for shrines of a cult: they suppose that they are supporting research based on objective data and logical argument.” (129)

Chomskers have been selling you snake oil for 60 years, they can’t give it up now. They have to double-down. Now’s the time to really push the limits of decency in academia. Take a look:

“Paul Postal discusses in his Foreword the fact that my critique of linguistic nativism has been left unanswered by advocates of the theory. I am not alone there: various stories go the rounds about refusals by leading figures of the movement to engage with their intellectual opponents in the normal academic fashion, for fear that giving the oxygen of publicity to people who reject nativist theory might encourage the public to read those people and find themselves agreeing. […] This interesting point here is a different one. Nowhere in Words and Rules does Pinker say that he is responding to my objection. My book introduced the particular examples of Blackfoot and pinkfoot into this debate, and they are such unusual words that Pinker’s use of the same examples cannot be coincidence. He is replying to my book; but he does not mention me.” (127-8)

I don’t think I need to point out the shamefulness of such actions.

I read Steven Pinker and all I got was this lowsy blog post

Reading Sampson after reading Pinker is a lesson in frustration, but not because of any problems with Sampson’s book. On the contrary, The Language Instinct Debate is very well written. Sampson not only clearly points out why Chomsky and Pinker’s theories are wrong, but he does so in a seemingly effortless way. Sometimes this is obvious because Chomskers didn’t even look at the evidence, they just made something up and held out their hands. Sometimes this is frustrating because I wasted time reading Pinker’s 450-page sand castle that Sampson crumbled in less than half of that. The Language Instinct Debate may leave you wondering how you ever thought Chomskers was on to something when Sampson makes the counter-evidence seems so blatantly obvious.

In the next and final post of this series, I’ll talk about some of the reviews and critics of Sampson’s book. For now, I’ll leave you with how Chomskers’ refusal to check the evidence or believe anyone who has, along with their outstretched hand and their demand that you believe them, has inspired me to write a book of my own. It’s called Paris is the Capital of Germany, China is in South America, and Other Reasons Why I Hate Maps.

It’s due out at the end of never because ugh.

 

 

References

Sampson, Geoffrey. 2005. The Language Instinct Debate. London & New York: Continuum.

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Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

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