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Review of  The Interactional Instinct

Reviewer: Andrew Caines
Book Title: The Interactional Instinct
Book Author: Namhee Lee Lisa Mikesell Anna Dina L. Joaquin Andrea W. Mates John H. Schumann
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 21.2494

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AUTHOR: Lee, Namhee; Mikesell, Lisa; Joaquin, Anna Dina; Mates, Andrea;
Schumann, John
TITLE: The Interactional Instinct
SUBTITLE: The Evolution and Acquisition of Language
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2009

Andrew Caines, Research Centre for English and Applied Linguistics, University
of Cambridge


The 'Interactional Instinct' proposes an alternative theory for the evolution of
language, opposed to the Chomskyan notion of universal grammar and a priori hard
wiring of linguistic knowledge. Instead, the authors argue that language emerges
on the basis of interaction and that moreover this comes about as the result of
the infant's instinct to emotionally entrain itself on caregivers. The instinct
thus provides the child with the motivation and the attentional mechanism which
ensure language acquisition. The theory is supported by linguistic, evolutionary
and biological evidence and the implications for first and second language
acquisition are explored. The book is the second to come from UCLA's
Neurobiology of Language Research Group; the first being 'The Neurobiology of
Learning: Perspectives from Second Language Acquisition' by Schumann and
colleagues (2004). This new volume brings together revised versions of chapters
from Lee's doctoral thesis, qualifying papers by Mikesell, Joaquin and Mates,
and a concluding chapter by Schumann.

The first two chapters, based on Lee's thesis, present the theory of complex
adaptive systems and explain why language can best be viewed as such a system,
and subsequently set out the evidence for the emergence (rather than
determinism) of language. The third chapter, based on Mikesell's work,
considers the nature of language from the perspective of interaction, placing
conversation and context above any notion of biological instantiation. Chapter
4, led by Joaquin, reviews the literature on early evidence for interaction
between infant and caregiver. Mates' chapter then presents the neurobiological
research on interaction in great detail. The sixth chapter, prepared by Mates
and Lee, discusses the implications of the interactional instinct for first and
second language acquisition, observing that the instinct is not available for
adult second language acquisition but that high proficiency is achievable given
sufficient motivation and aptitude. In the seventh and final chapter, Schumann
considers the wider implications of the theory presented here.

The 'Interactional Instinct' is a thought-provoking, timely and satisfyingly
interdisciplinary publication which will be of interest to faculty and graduate
students in the fields of language evolution, language acquisition,
psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics.


The emergentist notion that language is a complex adaptive system is not new
(Gell-Mann 1992; Steels 2000; Smith, Kirby and Brighton 2003; Holland et al.
2005; Beckner et al. 2009). Nor is the strategy of examining the interactional
aspects of language for insights into its nature (Schegloff and Sacks 1973;
Clark 1996; Pickering and Garrod 2004). Out of this interaction, and as opposed
to Chomskyan determinism, language patterns are held to emerge from the 'chaos'
of language use. The fundamental theory is that --

''Language structure emerges when an aggregate of agents attempt to communicate
with one another. In the interactions, individuals create a lexicon and organize
it into structures. Then, if the words and structures are efficiently
producible, comprehensible, and learnable, their use will spread as a cultural
artefact. Language is neither in nor of the brain but is rather an interactional
artefact that may develop with each succeeding generation or may lock in
structure to form a grammar for the language. The interaction generates the
structure and ensures that the forms that ultimately become part of the grammar
are those that fit the capacities of the brain. Therefore, the brain does not
require a genetically based mechanism or module to specify the structures of a
language.'' (p108)

As an alternative to the various nativist attempts to suggest the existence of
some sort of 'language instinct' (Chomsky 1975; Bickerton 1990; Pinker 1994),
the 'interactional instinct' is a well-argued and convincing proposition. Much
of the argument for a language instinct is founded on the notion that there is
'poverty of the stimulus' -- insufficient input for the complexity of language
which children acquire. But once it is accepted that this proposal is based on
the complexities of written language -- a skill which is in fact learned later
and over many years by children -- that spontaneous spoken language is
relatively simple and that children do receive negative feedback, then ''nativist
theories lose their raison d'etre'' (p64). Language is not seen as transfer of
information but as negotiated interaction (p97) and rather than the old
performance-competence dichotomy the two are held to be equivalent: 'competence
is performance' (p101).

The alternative premise put forward here is that human infants show an
immediate desire to interact with conspecifics around them, based on studies of
sensory response, facial expression, gesture and movements in neonates, as well
as observations of capabilities such as imitation, infant-initiatedness,
emotional perception and expression, human specificity, and an understanding of
the organisation of interpersonal interaction. The child is thus seen to develop
''not as organisms of disembodied cognition, but rather as whole children who
develop in a contextually rich and socially infused environment'' (Roseberry,
Göksun and Hirsh-Pasek 2009: 225).

The research presented in this book is innovative in the sense that it provides
evidence for a causal link for the emergence of language based on an innate need
and ability to interact with human conspecifics. But the authors have not gone
it alone in seeing the potential benefit of this line of work. Their proposition
ties in neatly with a groundswell of similar research which combines position
papers with empirical data collection and language modelling (O'Grady 2008;
Mellow 2008; Beckner et al. 2009). The novel contribution made by the
'Interactional Instinct' is to introduce insight from the field of neuroscience.
The authors firstly present the 'neurobiological reward system' which underpins
the affiliative instincts of the infant, moments after birth onwards (p166), and
subsequently highlight neural changes which to some extent explain why children
have an advantage over adults in language learning: why first and second
language acquisition differ so substantially (p186).

To their credit, the authors present so much evidence in support of their theory
that their consideration of relevant research is comparable to the literature
review requisite of any PhD dissertation. Unfortunately for the reader, some of
the chapters read as just that: a quite dry and dull inventory of brief paper
summaries in the style of a literature review. The fourth chapter -- on
infant-caregiver interaction -- is in particular culpable in this way. The list
of studies cited is vast and the density with which they are packed in to the
text is overwhelming at times. It is certainly comprehensive, a quality not to
be taken for granted, but nevertheless the chapter might have benefitted from a
narrower range of papers and a more focused retelling of these at more than a
superficial level.

The 'Interactional Instinct' will be of interest to all researchers of language
evolution. It is interesting, well written and accessible for the most part. The
one shortcoming in this respect is the fifth chapter, on neurobiology, which is
advanced and at times opaque in its technical detail. Nevertheless, there would
be no advantage to diluting this advanced level of technicality and so it
remains for the reader to accept the challenge of following the argument in
these sections of the book. The book itself is challenging as a whole -- to the
established order and the just-so notion that homo sapiens evolved some sort of
language instinct. It contains statements which are novel, thought-provoking and
which need to be said. However, the book at times has the feel of a disjointed
patchwork of papers -- something which is understandable given the overt
division of labour among the several authors but which resulted in incoherence
that could have been resolved with a strong tidying-up conclusion.
Unfortunately, the concluding chapter is brief and disappointing in this
respect, choosing to respond to anticipated objections to the interactional
instinct rather than offer a final review and reinforcement of the contents of
the book. Overall, then, it is an approach which promises much but at present
falls short of expectations.


Beckner, Clay, Richard Blythe, Joan Bybee, Morten H. Christiansen, William
Croft, Nick C. Ellis, John Holland, Jinyun Ke, Diane Larsen-Freeman, Tom
Schoenemann (2009). Language is a Complex Adaptive System: position paper.
Language Learning 59: Suppl.1: 1-26.

Bickerton, Derek (1990). Language and Species. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Chomsky, Noam (1975). Reflections on Language. New York: Pantheon Books.

Clark, Herbert H. (1996). Using Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gell-Mann, Murray (1992). Complexity and Complex Adapative Systems. In: Hawkins,
John A. and Murray Gell-Mann (eds.), The Evolution of Human Languages. Reading,
MA: Addison-Wesley.

Holland, John, Tao Gong, James Minett, Jinyun Ke and William S-Y Wang (2005).
Language acquisition as a complex adaptive system. In: Minett, James and William
S-Y Wang (eds.), Language acquisition, change and emergence. Hong Kong: City
University of Hong Kong Press.

Margoliash, Daniel and Howard C. Nusbaum (2009). Language: the perspective from
organismal biology. Trends in Cognitive Science 13: 505-510.

Mellow, J. Dean (2008). The emergence of complex syntax: a longitudinal case
study of the ESL development of dependency resolution. Lingua 118: 499-521.

O'Grady, William (2008). The emergentist program. Lingua 118: 447-464.

Pagel, Mark (2009). Human language as a culturally transmitted replicator.
Nature Reviews 10: 405-415.

Pickering, Martin J. and Simon Garrod (2004). Towards a mechanistic Psychology
of dialogue. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27: 169-226.

Pinker, Steven (1994). The Language Instinct. London: Penguin.

Roseberry, Sarah, Tilbe Göksun and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek (2009). Review of Katherine
Nelson. Young minds in social worlds: experience, meaning and memory. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. Journal of Child Language: 225-233.

Schegloff Emanuel and Harvey Sacks (1973). Opening up closings. Semiotica 8:

Schumann, John H., Scheila E. Crowell,Nancy E. Jones, Namhee Lee, Sara Ann
Schuchert and Lee Alexandra Wood (2004). The Neurobiology of Learning:
Perspectives from Second Language Acquisition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Smith, Henry, Simon Kirby and Kenny Brighton (2003). Iterated learning: a
framework for the evolution of language. Artificial Life 9: 371-386.

Steels, Luc (2000). Language as a complex adaptive system. In: Schoenauer,Marc,
Kalyanmoy Deb, Guenther Rudolph, Xin Yao, Evelyne Lutton, Juan Julian Merelo and
Hans-Paul Schwefel (eds.), Parallel problem solving from nature - PPSN VI
(Lecture Notes in Computer Science Vol. 1917). Berlin: Springer.

Tomasello, Michael (2003). Constructing a Language: a usage-based theory of
language acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Andrew Caines recently completed the thesis for his PhD at the University of Cambridge. His research is a corpus-based study of an innovative construction in English -- namely, the 'zero auxiliary' interrogative: what you doing? you going to town? you talking to me? For more information go to

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