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Episode 89: John Collins discusses language universals

This time, we have the privilege of talking to John Collins (University of East Anglia) as we shift our attention to the human language faculty. Click here to listen to our conversation.

collinsSmallHuman beings are the only animal in the world that can natively acquire a language like English, French, Czech, Nahuatl, Yoruba, or Tamil. Take any baby, raise it among caretakers who speak language X, and it will arrive at perfect native mastery of X as early as age 7. If you try the same experiment with a baby walrus or even a baby chimp, you’ll find the results are way less impressive. This is because the human mind has some intrinsic features that enable it to learn languages by osmosis, as it were, in this intuitive manner.

The big idea behind Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, which has since turned into a massive research program among professional linguists, was that we humans have the ability to natively acquire languages because nature has given us a head start. The languages of the world are quite varied in the number of words they have, the sounds the words are made of, and the rules for putting words together, but there are also way, way more variations that we never see, even though there’s no reason in principle that we shouldn’t ever see them.

Join us as our guest walks us through some of these astonishing features that all languages seem to have, and which every child just automatically assumes that they have, without having to learn anything.

Matt Teichman

Posted in Podcast.

2 Responses

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  1. Daniel W. Hieber says

    Hi Matt,
    Thanks for the podcast on language universals! Unfortunately, I was somewhat dismayed that the episode didn’t even touch on Functionalism, which is the major competing approach to linguistics today, one which denies the existence of Universal Grammar in favor of explanations based in more general theories of cognition and complex adaptive systems. The Functionalist (“anti-Universal Grammar”) perspective in fact seemed rather belittled during the episode, as though to say, ‘What sensible person could possibly think this?’ But in fact the Functionalism vs. Generativism (Universal Grammar) debate is a major ongoing issue and point of contention in the field. It would be disingenuous to claim that the science or the debate is settled on this matter. Do you have plans to present the opposing perspective in the future? Or would you entertain the idea of doing so? It seems that philosophers with an interest in linguistics would be well-served to understand the range of theoretical approaches available to them, and their potential merits and demerits, rather than being limited to the perspective of Generativism alone.

    • Matt Teichman says

      Thanks very much for listening, and thanks especially for your suggestion. I think functional linguistics is a fascinating theoretical paradigm and would certainly be interested in covering it on the show. Our strategy for this episode was to focus on universal grammar and the basic evidence for it, since the topic is involved enough to warrant an entire episode’s discussion. Even a cursory assessment of evidence in favor of other theoretical approaches would require an additional episode if we wanted to do it seriously, but hopefully we’ll have the opportunity to do something like that in the future.

      Maybe our guest was wrong in suggesting that the evidence in favor of universal grammar was definitive, and maybe he was right. Either way, that position is fairly representative of the state of the field, at least in many departments. It is not uncommon, at many of the top departments across the US, for students to complete an entire undergraduate linguistics major without hearing anyone mention the functional paradigm. For that reason, I’m not sure I’d be able to portray the foundational disagreement between generative and functional linguists as a live debate without feeling a bit disingenuous.

      That doesn’t mean that’s the way it should be, but it does mean that it’s hard to find guests who are qualified to discuss both, and that it can be difficult to come by meaningful discussions of the empirical points in favor of one approach versus the other. It’s a bit like if we wanted to do an episode comparing Roland Barthes’ theory of meaning with Richard Montague’s theory of meaning. I would love to do something like that, but isn’t necessarily that easy to find someone who’s spent enough time immersing themselves in the literature from both traditions that they’re able to draw non-superficial, well-informed connections between them. A more realistic option, in this case, would be to find a guest who is an expert in functional linguistics and can lay out the empirical evidence in favor of some of its basic conceits the way our guest did here for the theory of universal grammar.

      Anyway, it’s not very often that we get to hear feedback from listeners about what topics they’d like to see covered, so this is very much appreciated.

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