Educating Eve: The Language Instinct Debate (Open Linguistics) (英語) Perfect – 1999/4/1
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Are we creatures who learn new things? Or does human mental development consist of awakening structures of thought? A view has gained ground - advocated, for example, by Steven Pinker's book "The Language Instinct" - that language in much of its detail is "hard-wired" in our genes. Others add that this holds too for much of the specific knowledge and understanding expressed in language. When the first human evolved from apes (it is claimed), her biological inheritance comprised not just a distinctive anatomy but a rich structure of cognition. This book examines the various arguments for instinctive knowledge, with the author arguing that each one rests on false premises or embodies a logical fallacy. A different picture of learning is suggested by Karl Popper's account of knowledge growing through "conjectures and refutations". The facts of human language are best explained, Sampson contends, by taking language acquisition to be a case of Popperian learning. In this way, we are not born know-alls; we are born knowing nothing but able to learn anything and this is why we can find ways to think and talk about a world that goes on changing.
At least that's the story for most of the book. Sensing, perhaps, that his agnostic position is insufficient to generate the reader enthusiasm for which he envies Pinker, Sampson goes out on a limb in his final chapter. In it, the word "incoherent" resonates. While his position here (with respect to human creative ability) is perfectly coherent, his arguments are not. By making clipped reference to all manner of personal and academic material, Sampson fails miserably to make his final point accessible. By the end, even this interested, patient, and sympathetic reader couldn't care less.
Valuable reading, taken with a grain of salt.
Sampson is a confident and vigorous writer. He aims a barrage of criticism against nativism, most of which I found less than convincing. Moreover, he offers as an alternative not a linguistic theory, but a general philosophical approach, which he associates with Karl Popper. In my view, philosophy has its place in the world, but the philosophy of science is not an alternative to science. Therefore, Sampson provides no alternative, except that people 'learn by trial and error.' Thanks!
Here are some facts that support nativism: (a) all languages of the world have approximately the same complexity and share strong underlying structural commonalities; (b) children learn their native language very rapidly, and without being taught, whereas they learn other things (e.g., math, science, the arts, natural lore) relatively slowly and almost always with intensive instruction; (c) individuals raised without a native language never learn to speak fluently, later in life, when they encounter language;(d) isolated groups create their own languages (creoles) that are much like existing languages; (e) people with brain damage often lose extremely specific capacities--e.g., to name fruits, or form plurals.
This whole area of study is fraught with ambiguity, because we simply don't know how the brain processes language. Nativists appear to believe there are dedicated, hard-wired modules that efficiently process language, whereas neuroscientists do not find such modules, or believe such modules are the end-product of learning and development, not their starting-point. So there's a lot more to be said on this issue.
I am not a linguist, so I certainly admit that I may be in dire need of an education in this area. But at this point, I stand with the Nativists.
Sampson's book was a refreshing "Occam's Razor" and I finished it feeling much more convinced of his side of the argument. It simply doesn't rely as much on assumptions and scientific leger de main.
If you've read The Language Instinct, you owe it to yourself to read Educating Even to see the other side.
Pinker has shown, beyond any reasonable doubt, that our language capacity is indeed instinctual. Sampson has shown, beyond any reasonable doubt, that he doesn't like that fact.
However, saying you don't like something is not the same as proving that it doesn't exist. Sampson does the former well, and falls flat on his face in attempting the latter.
Whether we like it or not, the current evidence is that the world is round and our language capabilities are instinctual. Flat-earthers such as Sampson are entitled to their opinions, I suppose, but I wish they wouldn't burden normal people by putting them in print.
There are other works of fiction that are far more entertaining than this one. Instead of paying money for this book, read it in a library. Then you can laugh all the way to a bookstore to buy something worth having been printed.