The Biology of Learning

Volume 29 of the series Dahlem Workshop Reports pp 553-584

Biological Predispositions to Learn Language

  • L. R. GleitmanAffiliated withDept. of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania

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Language learning clearly is an outcome of specific exposure conditions, but just as clearly requires specific biological adaptations. There is no controversy about this claim as stated, for it is obvious to the point of banality. To believe that special biological adaptations are a requirement, it is enough to notice that all the children but none of the dogs and cats in the house acquire language. To believe that language is nevertheless learned, it is sufficient to note the massive correlation between living in France and learning French, and living in Germany and learning German. Controversy does arise, however, on the issue of whether language knowledge is based on a specific and segregated mental faculty or, instead, utilizes the same machinery in the head that is implicated in the acquisition of all complex cognitive functions. Many linguistic theories postulate not only a distinct mental representation or faculty of language (a “language organ,” in Chomsky’s wording, functioning as autonomously as, say, the liver), but a highly modularized system internal to language itself (13). Proponents of such positions expect that language learning will be largely maturationally determined, that the maturation functions may be quite separate from those in other cognitive domains, and that different modules within the language system may mature quasi-independently. In clear contrast, most developmental psycholinguists hold that language acquisition is best described by a global learning procedure that is responsible for the acquisition of, e.g., knitting, arithmetic, and ancient history as well as, say, English (e.g., (3, 50)).