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Review of  The 'Language Instinct' Debate

Reviewer: Haitao Liu
Book Title: The 'Language Instinct' Debate
Book Author: Geoffrey Sampson
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 16.2825

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AUTHOR: Geoffrey Richard Sampson
TITLE: The 'Language Instinct' Debate
SUBTITLE: Revised Edition
PUBLISHER: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd
YEAR: 2005

LIU Haitao, Applied Linguistics Department, Communication University of

The book under review is a revised and expanded edition of a book with the
title "Educating Eve" (London: Cassell, 1997). In this edition, Sampson
revisits and strengthens his original arguments against linguistic
nativism using fresh evidence. [See
734.html for a review of the previous edition. -- Eds.]

"The 'Language Instinct' Debate" consists of six chapters with a foreword
by Paul M. Postal, who not only clearly presents the origin of the
problem, but also quotes some of Chomsky's more tendentious arguments for
nativism, such as the following:

"To say that 'language is not innate' is to say that there is no
difference between my granddaughter, a rock and a rabbit. In other words,
if you take a rock, a rabbit and my granddaughter and put them in a
community where people are talking English, they'll all learn English. If
people believe that, then they believe that language is not innate. If
they believe that there is a difference between my granddaughter, a rabbit
and a rock, then they believe that language is innate." (p. viii, the
quotation is from Chomsky 2000: 50)

"The telephone exchange, for example, has 'heard' much more English than
any of us, but lacking the principles of universal grammar (inter alia) it
develops no grammar of English as part of its internal structure." (p. x
the quotation is from Chomsky 1981: 8)

According to Sampson, one can believe that there is a difference between
Chomsky's granddaughter and rock, while at the same time, not believe that
language is innate. He opens the first chapter of the book with the
assertion: "This book is written in order to establish that human beings
have no language instinct." (p.1) Instead of assuming that we are born
with complex features of linguistic structure encoded in our genes,
Sampson maintains the "common sense" position that languages are
institutions like country dancing or the game of cricket: cultural
creations which individuals may learn during their lifetimes. Sampson
elaborates on this view by describing a character in Willy Russell's
play "Educating Rita", which provides a vivid metaphor for the growth of
human knowledge. The story tells us that we don't inherit knowledge but
rather the ability to gain knowledge. Substituting "Eve" for "Rita", we
not only get the title of the first edition of this book but also the
conclusion of the first chapter, namely that "Eve was not a born know-all.
She was ignorant. But she was a good learner." (p. 25).

The nativist view is neatly expressed by Pinker's comparison of a human's
acquisition and use of language to a bird's nest-building or a dog's habit
of burying bones -- behavior programmed into the respective organisms'
DNA. However, "The Original Arguments for a Language Instinct" (the title
of chapter two) are due to Chomsky, which Sampson summarizes as follows
(pp. 30-36):
(C1) Speed of acquisition: Children learn their first language remarkably
(C2) Age-dependence: language acquisition in childhood works quite
differently from language acquisition in later life.
(C3) Poverty of data: the child must induce the general rules underlying
the linguistic behavior of his elders from individual examples of that
behavior - children are usually given little or no explicit instruction
about the structure of their first language.
(C4) Convergence among grammars: the various children in a language
community all acquire essentially the same language as one another and the
same language that their elders speak.
(C5) Language universals: all languages that are or have been actually
used by human beings resemble on another with respect to a number of
structural features.
(C6) Non-linguistic analogies: occasionally Chomsky refers to other human
cognitive achievements as resembling in being uniform across the species.
(C7) Species-specificity: members of species other than Homo sapiens do
not master human-like languages even when given access to experience
comparable to that available to human children.

In the remainder of this chapter, Sampson attempts to refute all the
arguments for nativism based on these observations except for (C5), which
is taken up in chapter 5. Concerning (C1), Sampson contends that the
argument has to be built on precisely observed data, "it is senseless to
claim that acquisition is in general 'remarkably fast'." (p. 37)
Concerning (C2), Sampson seems more inclined to believe Bruner's argument
that "any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest
form to any child at any stage of development." (p. 38) Concerning (C3),
Sampson denies that it is true, and also claims that Chomsky's argument
from poverty of data to innate knowledge of language is self-refuting. (p.

If language isn't innate, "how [do] people really speak"? This is focus of
the chapter three. Chomsky's original arguments appealed to grammatical
evidence, and grammar continues to form the central battleground for
nativists and their opponents today. It might be expected that these
arguments are characterized by copious references to examples of real-life
grammatical usage. Unfortunately, it isn't easy to find such examples from
nativist's works. According to Sampson, "This is because of a strange
disdainful attitude on many nativists' part towards observable data." (p.

The first example Sampson discusses is from Carlson and Roeper's (1980)
contention that "addition of prefixes to verbs rules out non-nominal
complements." (p. 71) Sampson responds by listing eight counterexamples he
found using Google. Further on in this chapter, Sampson uses the British
National Corpus (BNC) as a test-bed to check claims about what structures
people do and do not use when speaking naturally. According to Sampson, if
the speakers in the BNC regularly use English in ways that a theory
predicts no one uses, then the theory is wrong. (p. 74) Sampson devotes
the next 15 pages to demonstrate that some structures in English aren't
such rare as nativists have claimed. When some nativists said that the
construction "modal + perfective + progressive" is rare, he found 61 clear
examples in BNC/demographic corpus. In the same way, to some question
structures considered by nativists are rare, Sampson also try to debate
them using the data from corpus, he firstly classifies it into two
subclasses 'S-within-MS questions' (subordinate clause within main-clause
subject, e.g. Will those who are coming raise their hands?) and 'S-before-
MS questions' (subordinate clause before main-clause subject, e.g. If you
don't need this, can I have it?), and searches for them in the BNC. 23
examples of S-before-MS questions are found. It is worth noticing that
Sampson didn't find examples of S-within-MS in the spontaneous speech of
the BNC/demographic, but he interprets the absence of S-within-MS as the
difference between question patterns in speech and writing, in other
words, he considers that the phenomenon, that S-within-MS questions are
missing from speech though not from written language, can be made by
literacy rather than innate knowledge. Sampson concludes: "The linguistic
data available to a young child are not poor. They are very rich." (p. 79)

I believe that more and more linguists including nativists are accepting
the viewpoint that corpora will are useful to linguistic research. As
Meurers (2005: 1619) observes: "Theoretical linguistics requires example
sentences both as empirical basis for the construction of theories and as
counterexamples to previous generalizations. In addition to obtaining such
examples by introspection, electronic corpora can be used to search for
examples which are relevant for a particular theoretical issue."

In chapter four, Sampson discusses arguments for nativism from more recent
literature, including Bickerton (1990), Jackendoff (1993) and Pinker
(1994), which Sampson considers representative of a new wave of nativist
thinking. Bickerton contends that there is a sharp discontinuity between
adult human language and various language-like systems, but Sampson finds
only smooth transitions bridging the "immense gulf" that Bickerton
perceives. To Jackendoff's argument for nativism from the fact that
children can readily learn American Sign Language, Sampson replies: "these
kinds of evidence do nothing to show that children have knowledge built-in
rather than seek it by research" (p. 109). Also: "If human beings are born
with a rich body of detailed knowledge of language, it is surely true that
we would expect to find some identifiable brain module housing or
embodying that knowledge. But the fact that the brain has modules does not
in itself imply that innate knowledge of language occupies one of them."
(p. 108) Finally, although Pinker (1994) uses many of Chomsky's old
arguments for nativism, Sampson considers them worth reexamining, because
Pinker develops them in more persuasive ways than his predecessors, as in
his summation: "Language is not a cultural artifact that we learn the way
we learn to tell time or how the federal government works. Instead, it is
a distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brains." (1994: 4) The
central issue for Pinker is that young children seem just too good at
language learning, essentially (C1) above. Part of Pinker's argument
depends on assuming the concept of Mentalese, the one specific language
that all humans are presumed to be born knowing: "Knowing a [specific]
language, then, is knowing how to translate mentalese into strings of
words and vice versa." (Pinker 1994: 73) Sampson replies: "If human beings
were all born knowing a single, universal Mentalese language, one might
wonder why separate human communities would have developed separate spoken
language." (p. 131)

Language universals often are considered as providing important support
for nativism. In chapter five, introduces presumed universals in sections
entitled "words grow on trees", "the architecture of
complexity", "evolution everywhere", "trees and nothing but
trees", "chunks and islands", "true and false universals", and "which way
to the X-bar?" Sampson concludes: "yes, there are universal features in
human languages, but what they mainly show is that human beings have to
learn their mother tongues from scratch rather than having knowledge of
language innate in their minds." (p. 166)

In chapter six "The Creative Mind", Sampson systematically analyzes the
Popperian view of human nature. This chapter seems to have been prepared
for the possible nativists who perhaps will criticize Sampson's empiricist
view as incoherent.

Sampson's book is worth reading, because it provides a view of how human
languages work without appealing to nativist assumptions. It cautions that
scientific arguments should be based on reliable data and that linguistics
is no exception. Corpus linguistics makes available many tools for finding
examples needed in linguistic study, and linguists should use those
resources in addition to introspective and experimental data. However,
empirical data can answer some questions, but not all of them. For
instance, even though computational linguistics demonstrates the
advantages of basing language processing systems on empirical data (Bod,
Scha & Sima'an 2003), computational linguists generally believe that the
best solutions will combine rational and empirical elements. Computational
linguistics can teach us that it is not a good idea to claim something
absolutely. Returning to the problem at hand, why can't a rock learn
English even it is in the same circumstance as a normal child? Presumably
because a child has a computational faculty in its brain, but a rock has
no such thing. The faculty is innate, but may not be special for language;
nevertheless a child can still acquire language using this faculty. If
this is correct, then the difference between Sampson's empiricism and
Pinker's nativism may be gradient rather than categorical. Indeed, perhaps
there is a middle point which almost everyone can accept. For discovering
the middle point, nativists will need to find more evidence from corpora
containing real language usage, and empiricists should ask themselves what
are the elements of the faculty, using which a child can learn language.

In chapter one, Sampson argues: "Despite Pinker's verbal pyrotechnics,
there is actually no such thing as a human language instinct. There really
isn't. Chomsky's arguments for it do not work; and Pinker's arguments do
not work either. What they are telling us just ain't so. Believe me, it is
not. The rest of this book is designed to convince you of that." (p. 14)
It is interesting to compare this perfervid passage with the following
from Pinker (1994: 4): "In the pages that follow, I will try to convince
you that every one of these common opinions is wrong! And they are all
wrong for a single reason."

It seems to me that both positions are too extreme and absolute; the
correct solution often can be found between two extremes. Perhaps one of
the central tasks of linguists is to find the balancing point between
these two extremes, where the solution may well lie.

I have recommended Pinker (1994) to my colleagues and students, and almost
all of them have told me that it is one of the best books that they have
read about language. Sampson agrees that Pinker's book "is superbly well
written", but he also says "a book can be well written, and its
conclusions quite wrong" (p. 14). I will now also recommend Sampson's book
to my colleagues and students, and let them judge between them.


Bickerton, Derek (1990) Language & Species. University of Chicago Press.

Bod, Rens, Remko Scha and Khalil Sima'an, eds. (2003) Data-Oriented
Parsing. Stanford: CSLI.

Chomsky, Noam (1981) On the representation of form and function, The
Linguistic Review 1: 3-40.

Chomsky, Noam (2000) The Architecture of Language, New Delhi: Oxford
University Press.

Carlson, Greg and Thomas Roeper (1980) Morphology and subcategorization
and the unmarked complex verb. In Teun Hoekstra, Harry van der Hulst, and
Michael Moortgat (eds.) Lexical Grammar, pp. 123-164. Dordrecht: Foris..

Jackendoff, Ray S. (1993) Patterns in the Mind: Language and Human Nature.
Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Meurers, W. Detmar (2005) On the use of electronic corpora for theoretical
linguistics: Case studies from the syntax of German. Lingua, 115(11): 1619-

Pinker, Steven (1994) The Language Instinct: How the mind creates
language. New York: HarperCollins.


LIU Haitao is professor of applied and computational linguistics at the
Communication University of China (CUC). His research interests include
syntactic theory, computational linguistics and language planning.

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