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It leads one to wonder how children could possibly learn which sentences to exclude as non-language?

Scott D. Sampson

Sounds pretty interesting, huh? There must be a language instinct then, right? Sampson bursts Chomskers bubble:. The trouble with this argument is that, if it worked, it would not just show that language learning without innate knowledge is impossible: it would show that scientific discovery is impossible. This claim wonders how both smart and dumb people grow up speaking essentially the same language.


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This is where Universal Grammar comes in. Sampson devotes a chapter to this broad argument and in one of the many parts that make this book an excellent read, he very cleverly takes the argument down by pointing out that universals are better evidence of the cultural development of language than they are of the biological innate theory of language. Using a theory developed by Herbert Simon, Sampson shows that, basically, the structural dependencies that Chomskers is so fond of arose out of normal evolutionary development because evolution favors hierarchical structure.

Complex evolutionary systems — something Sampson argues language is — are hierarchically structured for a reason, they do not have to be innate.

Steven Pinker himself has suggested that nativist arguments do not amount to much. If the theory is more a matter of faith than evidence and reasoned argument even for its best-known advocate, why should anyone take it seriously? If it were not that students have to deal with this stuff in order to get their degrees, how many takers would there be for it? The really sad thing is that Universal Grammar is the crux of the Chomskers argument.

It is Confirmation Bias He writes. Ironically, though, having been the first to realize that tree structure in human grammar is a universal feature that is telling us something about how human beings universally function, Chomsky failed to grasp what it is telling us. The universality of tree structuring tells us that languages are systems which human beings develop in the their gradual, guess-and-test style by which, according to Karl Popper, all knowledge is brought into being. Tree structuring is the hallmark of gradual evolution. Let me assuage your concerns. A group of scientists that hates facts deserves derision.

Researchers in every field use observable data to come to conclusions. Their publications are part of an ongoing debate among other researchers, who can support or refute their claims based on more data. All infamous academic quarrels aside, Chomskers would prefer not to back up their claims with observable data nor engage in any kind of debate with scientists.

The bum on the street shouting that the world is going to end has the advantage of being bat-shit crazy. I suppose they could say that they are well-established. But in my mind that just points out the reasons for their unscientific actions.

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Sampson writes. Someone who disagrees is expected to pull his punches, to couch his dissent in circumspect and opaquely academic terms — and of course, provided he does that, the nativist community is adept at verbally glossing over the critique in such a way that, for the general reader, not a ripple is left disturbing the public face of nativism. But reverence is out of place in science. The more widespread and influential a false theory has become, the more urgent it is to puncture its pretensions. Taxpayers who maintain the expensive establishment of nativist linguistics do not understand themselves to be paying for shrines of a cult: they suppose that they are supporting research based on objective data and logical argument.

They have to double-down. Take a look:. I am not alone there: various stories go the rounds about refusals by leading figures of the movement to engage with their intellectual opponents in the normal academic fashion, for fear that giving the oxygen of publicity to people who reject nativist theory might encourage the public to read those people and find themselves agreeing. Nowhere in Words and Rules does Pinker say that he is responding to my objection. He is replying to my book; but he does not mention me.

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On the contrary, The Language Instinct Debate is very well written. The Language Instinct Debate may leave you wondering how you ever thought Chomskers was on to something when Sampson makes the counter-evidence seems so blatantly obvious. The Language Instinct Debate. The following is a book review and the first post in a series. In order to talk about Steven Pinker and linguistics, I first have to explain a bit about Noam Chomsky and linguistics.

Chomsky started writing about linguistics in the s and through sheer force became a major player in the field. On the contrary, they were highly speculative and devoid of empirical evidence. Chomsky is the armchair linguist extraordinaire. The audacity of his theory, however, was that it proposed humans are born with something called Universal Grammar, an innate genetic trait that interprets the common underlying structure of all languages and allows us to effortlessly learn our first language.

What you need to know for this review is that Steven Pinker is a Chomskyan. 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 biological makeup of our brains. Language is a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child spontaneously without conscious effort or formal instruction, is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic, is qualitatively the same in every individual, and is distinct from more general abilities to process information or behave intelligently.

For these reasons some cognitive scientists have described language as a psychological faculty, a mental organ, a neural system, and a computational module. This involves the theory that there is an underlying structure common to all languages and that its form and reasoning is innate to the human brain.

It is called Universal Grammar. In a sense, our brains give us a basic language structure that we can then extrapolate to our mother tongue, whatever that may be. To Chomskers, that is how people learn how to speak so quickly — they already have the fundamental tool, or language instinct, needed to develop language.

How did Chomskers arrive at such a theory, you ask? Simple, they made it up. Universal Grammar was conjured out of thin air i. A good example of it comes from two bullet points on page He thinks that because kids speak, they must have Universal Grammar and because they have Universal Grammar, they must speak. Chomskers love circular logic. Nothing in the pages leading up to those bullets requires a belief in Universal Grammar. Another infuriating aspect of reading Chomskers is the pretentiousness of their prose.

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One gets the feeling that they are reading the Word of God Noam Chomsky, to the Chomskers sent down from on high. Instead of taking other theories into account, or even trying to prove why other theories are wrong, they simply dismiss them presumptuously.

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And they lead unsuspecting readers to do the same. Take this quote from page No one supposes that parents provide explicit grammar lessons, of course, but many parents and some child psychologists who should know better think that mothers provide children with implicit lessons […] called Motherese. That is how they deal with other solid linguistic studies that have the possibility of refuting their claims which, remember, have no empirical evidence. So why does he do it? As the linguist Pieter A.

II. Background

The fact that the Chomsky school forms a close and entirely inward looking citation community has made some authors compare it to a religious sect or, less damningly, a village parish. No doubt there is a point to this kind of comparison, but one should realize that political considerations probably play a larger part in Chomskyan linguistics than is customary in either sects or village parishes. The bored, novice, or uncritical reader — and, you know, anyone being tested on this book — is liable to take Pinker at face value.

What is most striking of all is that we can look at a randomly picked language and find things that can sensibly be called subjects, objects, and verbs to begin with. After all, if we were asked to look for the order of subject, object, and verb in musical notation, or in the computer programming language FORTRAN, or in Morse code, or in arithmetic, we would protest that the very idea is nonsensical. We should be impressed, first and foremost, that research on universals of grammar is even possible! Looking for those in language would be nonsensical. But looking for something that could sensibly be called a base in any randomly picked counting system would be — shock!

There is evidence for one, not the other. The Bible tells us that the world was created. That is a fact.


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    In a subsection titled No arguments were produced, just rhetoric Seuren writes,. Despite twenty-odd years of disparagement from the side of Chomsky and his followers, one has to face the astonishing fact that not a single actual argument was produced during that period to support the attitude of dismissal and even contempt that one finds expressed, as a matter of routine, in the relevant Chomsky-inspired literature. Quasi-arguments, on the contrary, abounded. I told you the religion analogy was going to be more appropriate than it seemed at first. To some people, the sunrise is proof that god exists.

    To Chomskers, speech is proof that Universal Gammar exists. To linguists, speech does not require such a leap of faith. With his hawkish proclamations of the existence of Universal Grammar and his complete dismissal of any criticism, Noam Chomsky has done more harm than good to linguistics.