Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 23, Issue 3, pp 347-361

First online:

The trait of human language: lessons from the canal boat children of England

  • John L. LockeAffiliated withSpeech-Language-Hearing Sciences, Lehman College, City University of New York Email author 

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To fully understand human language, an evolved trait that develops in the young without formal instruction, it must be possible to observe language that has not been influenced by instruction. But in modern societies, much of the language that is used, and most of the language that is measured, is confounded by literacy and academic training. This diverts empirical attention from natural habits of speech, causing theorists to miss critical features of linguistic practice. To dramatize this point, I examine data from a special population––the canal boat children of early twentieth century England––whose language developed without academic influence, but was evaluated using instruments designed primarily for academic use. These data, taken together with related research, suggest that formal instruction can convert language from a purely biological trait that was selected, to a talent that was instructed, while altering the users of language themselves. I then review research indicating that formal instruction can also mask or distort inter-sexual differences in the social applications of language, a significant handicap to evolutionary theorizing. I conclude that if biological theories of language are to succeed, they must explain the spontaneous speaking practices of naturally behaving individuals.


Language Cognition Biology Culture Training Theory Evolution Development