There is no end of the kind of cherry-picking people will go to if they want to smear New Atheists. This post gives a prime example, with the target being Steve Pinker. (It’s always either Pinker, Sam Harris, or Richard Dawkins.)
Here’s the event description, the participants, and, below that, an 8-minute clip of Pinker giving his take on the issue.
The shock election of Donald Trump has sent many looking for answers. Why didn’t his outlandish statements, his ‘locker-room talk’ and his out-there views sink his candidacy in the way it would have sunk others? While many have chalked his win up to racism, xenophobia and misogyny – others suggest it was a revolt precisely against those who so casually throw around those labels. In short, the…
Unlike most newborns, on his arrival into the world, my newly-minted son found himself in the arms of someone well-versed in the most fiercely contested question in contemporary linguistics: is language innate?
Are babies born with grammar hard-wired into their brain? Or is language something bestowed by culture and socialisation?
The early exchanges of gaze, attention and vocalisations with my baby in his first hours, days and weeks were experienced against the melodrama of modern linguistics’ greatest schism. This happens to revolve entirely around the role of mothers and significant others in the development of a child’s language.
In the story of how language emerges in the child, as told by Noam Chomsky, nature is largely the lone hero. The child comes with a “language organ” already installed in her or his brain, as a sudden and isolated gift of evolution – out of nowhere, all-at-once, fully formed and forever unchanging.
Why? Because of the “empirical conditions on language acquisition”, by which Chomsky means the quality and quantity of the language around the infant. Chomsky has argued for more than 50 years that language must be innate because the familial and domestic discourse that surrounds infants is “degenerate”. Children simply could not learn language because the input they receive from their mothers and significant others is “impoverished”.
The ‘poverty of the stimulus’
Chomsky named this central plank in his theory “the poverty of the stimulus”. As such, Chomsky’s most famous disciple, Steven Pinker, advises parents to ignore their offspring:
Young children plainly can’t understand a word you say. So why waste your breath in soliloquies? Any sensible person would surely wait until a child has developed speech and more gratifying two-way conversations become possible.
Maternal language, Pinker continued, is all part of “the same mentality that sends yuppies to ‘learning centers’ to buy little mittens with bull’s-eyes to help their babies find their hands sooner”. It is nothing more than a collective anxiety to “keep the helpless infant from falling behind in the great race of life”.
If you believe that language is not for communication, then this makes perfect sense. The real function of language, Chomsky argues, is to converse with yourself inside your own skull.
“In any useful sense of the term,” says Chomsky, “communication is not the function of language.”
While infants and toddlers might display “language-like expressions” – like the twins of YouTube fame (below) – this behaviour, to the 20th century’s most famous linguist, is akin to a dog being trained to respond to certain commands.
But nature bestowed on him something else besides: the capacity for “intersubjectivity”. The research shows babies are innately tuned to display their subjectivity – their tiny personalities – and to adapt or fit their displays of attention and emotion to the subjectivity of others.
Once researchers started to look – really look – at young infants, their early sociability became apparent. Professor Colwyn Trevarthen has, since the 1970s, closely observed the communicative repertoire of very young babies. He has observed their smiles, their coos of recognition, their frowns and their hand gestures”. All these postures “announce, for a sympathetic other person, the infant’s state of openness to the world”. The babies gestures are prolific, intelligible and organised.
Being conversational is what it takes for a young person to begin learning what other people know and do, and this is the behaviour a fond parent expects and enjoys. It is the human adaption for cultural learning.
It is, of course, our capacity for cultural learning which sets us apart from all other animals.
Babies need joyful, responsive human company
Research in countries as diverse as Scotland, Nigeria, Germany, Sweden and Japan has shown mothers speak to infants in a manner that is rhythmic, repetitive, musical and regular. Far from being “degenerate” or “impoverished”, this kind of language is maximally designed for the needs of the young baby.
Babies need and seek “joyful, responsive human company”, with a known, loving and attentive conversational partner. These “proto-conversations” provide the foundations for infants to step into the systems and structures of their mother-tongue.
As helpless and dependent as my baby son was, I knew my little munchkin was biologically prepared to initiate and sustain the interactions through which his beautifully complex human brain could get to know the world outside him, and his place in that world.
I knew our conversations would propel him into the rich and extravagant culture around him. And that this culture would reciprocate his curiosity with its many artifacts, including the infinitely creative, collective resource that is human language.