Animals cannot Learn a Human Language (AE 2)


            Searle argues that languages made the hominids think and do speech acts that are not possible without language (194). This suggests that if human (or human-like) language is given to animals (especially human-like primates such as apes), it will open the path for them to think and make speech acts as it did to humans. However, I disagree with this argument and want to suggest that animals can never attain human language or vice versa, because these two types of languages lie in two distinctive areas and share different cultures that have never been learnable to each other.

            Human language and animal language lie in two different areas that are not shareable and approachable by each other. Human language originates and relies on external factor such as speakers in a language community whereas animal language arises and exists in its innate biology. Eales’ study about zebra finches demonstrates that male zebra finches that were exposed only to the female zebra finches during their sensitive phase were able to obtain male song when it was available for them later. Furthermore, they no longer used the female song when they found what was natural to them. As Eales suggests, this study indicates that there is a suitable and natural language for animals, unlike humans. For humans, language acquirement heavily relies on the surrounding of a learner. As Saussure suggests, language exists in a contract (638). A contract has characteristics. First, there has to be two or more people who make and agree to the contract. Second, if the contract does not work well, the speakers are allowed to modify it because the contract itself is not innate. It exists to “serve” the speakers. Thus, if it does not function as a “server” well, then the speakers can modify it or create a new one. When the Hebrew language, for example, revived again, the Language Council created new words by modifying existed words.  This practice was possible only for human language, because the language lies in speakers and their contract. However, as I introduced Eales’ study about zebra finches, animal language cannot be a contract, but a natural biological factor that they are destined to have. It lies in their biology, rather than contract. Humans are not doomed to learn a particular language as babies are called “citizens of the world” due to their flexibility in adopting a language(s). Another evidence can be found in feral children who were raised by animals without any exposure to a human language. They attain neither a human language nor an animal language because the origin of these two languages does not overlap at all. Thus animal language is determined by their internal factor, which is their biology while human language is determined by external elements, which are the contract and their surroundings.

            Another reason that animals are not able to attain human language comes from its lack of ability to learn a human culture. Human language is conventionalized and culturally bound. That does not mean human cannot attain a second language that is from his own mother tongue. When human learns a second language, he understands that language is culturally conventionalized from his experience of the mother tongue. However, animals do not have this culture to take it as a reference as humans do. Savage Rumbaugh et al. argues that because Chimpanzee Lana did not have the same socio-cultural context a as human, she could not make connections between words and its meaning. Then a question arises: Can Lana learn a culture that will lead her to learn a human language? My answer is no. Many aspects of human culture have derived from what we do not see physically (i.e., customs, morals, history, etc.). However, it is hard to find evidence if animals perceive concepts that they do not see physically. Using different types of tenses, for example, demonstrates animal’s lack of understanding of culture, or things that they cannot see. Almost every human language has some kind of tense distinction. Not only that, the human being has been interested in times that they cannot see for a long time as many ancient murals, potteries, and art pieces demonstrate. It contains different time frames including even before life and afterlife. Usage of different time frame emerged from their desire and demand to express something that they do not see. However, we do not observe any trace like this from animal language. They do not have the perception of the time frame that does not exist in the present, which suggests that animals cannot obtain culture that humans naturally have.

            Because human language and animal language are generated from two distinctive areas, they are not only manifested to be developed differently but also cannot be accessed by each other. Also human’s ability to perceive time and objects that they cannot see yielded cultural differences between the two languages. Thus, an animal can never attain human language or vice versa. My argument also suggests that language evolution from animal to people never happened and will not happen either because of the two reasons that I listed

Analytical Essay 3: The Role of Universal Grammar in Second Language Acquisition

The Role of Universal Grammar in Second Language Acquisition

Most people acquire a language at a young age; however, there is a group of people who also learn a language later on – second language learners. The details of second language acquisition is hotly debated by researchers due to its mystery with the role of internal mechanisms. In Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, Cook and Newson (1996) describe that the process of second language acquisition is similar to that of first language acquisition being applied to the Language Acquisition Device model, which is embedded with Universal Grammar. However, along with the compelling evidence of the critical period hypothesis, I argue that the role of Universal Grammar is limited in second language acquisition unlike in first language acquisition; second language acquisition behaves like an unnatural system because is not constrained by UG principles and parameters.

Although Cook and Newson (1996) admit that L2 learning is more complex than that of L1 since it happens at a later stage of cognitive development suggesting that the weaker relationship between language and cognition, they believe in innateness extending from Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar. However, if it is true that the role stays the same in L2 learning, why a majority of people is less efficient in their second language than in their first language? Therefore, Universal Grammar, which is an innate biologically endowed language faculty, seems to play not enough role, if at all, in second language acquisition suggesting that L2 is acquired with domain-general mechanism. Domain-general learning capacities propose that different domains are utilized for an individual to acquire a language, in this case, L2. Second language learners intuitively depend on other various cues (e.g., social cues, acoustic cues, visual cues, and etc.) due to the inactivation of UG. As a result, they develop unique habits for the learning to progress. For example, many language learners write down the sound of pronunciation of a L2 word in their native language to remember better. The use of other mental faculties in second language acquisition suggests that it is different from first language acquisition.

Regarding the poverty-of-the-stimulus argument, Universal Grammar principles do not directly influence L2 learners. The only possible way is through the “their own minds with the knowledge that they already have of a first language, rather than UG itself” (Cook & Newson, 1996, p. 130). Cook and Newson (1996) state that L2 learning requires explanations and memorization of grammar because the learning process is unnatural compared to the experience of L1 children. Moreover, I believe that the concept of language transfer, which describes how learners’ L2 acquisitions are influenced by their native languages because their previous knowledge impacts their ability to acquire a new language independent of UG, also describes the differences within the learners’ cognitive levels. With that in mind, foreign accent or certain characteristic mistakes such as verb tenses and articles are examples of L1 residues in L2. The influence of L1 on L2 creates the process of acquisitions to be impossible to be the same.

Critical period affects second language learning. The critical period hypothesis claims that there is a certain developmental period in life that a language must be learned to reach a native proficiency, which explains why it is rare to find people who speak their L2 equally as or better than L1. The study of Johnson and Newport (1989) strengthens the argument. By collecting 46 native Korean or Chinese speakers who have been at least living in the United States for three consecutive years with minimum of five years of English language exposure, their purpose was to see if the critical period extends to second language acquisition by testing Lenneberg’s (1967) critical hypothesis, which found that there is evidence of a critical period in L1 studies and in language deprivation studies; for example, the case of Genie. During the experiment, the participants completed three steps: grammaticality judgement task, language background interview and a self-report of motivational and attitudinal measures. The results show a clear and strong relationship between the age of acquisition and ultimate performance. Earlier age of acquisition obtains higher scores as age of arrival from three to seven achieve native performance while language learning ability significantly “declines as the human matures and plateaus at a low level after puberty” (Johnson & Newport, 1989, p. 90). The results of the study also generalize to my personal experience. About 10 years ago, my dad and I came to the United States together to study, but our proficiencies of English differ due to the fact that L2 acquisition started when I was a teenager while he was in mid 40s. Recently, my dad told me that he moved as early as possible for my English skills.

In conclusion, the process of first language acquisition contrasts with second language acquisition. While L1 learning happens naturally, L2 learning happens as the learner actively seeks out to learn the language. Universal Grammar does not operate in the same way as it does in primary language acquisition. Instead, other sources such as previous knowledge and language transfer determine one’s proficiency of a secondary language, and the age serves as the most significant factor as the critical period hypothesis argues.




Cook, V., & Newson, M. (1996). General concepts of language acquisition. Chomsky’s Universal Grammar: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell

Johnson, J., & Newport, E. (1989). Critical period effects in second language learning: The influence of maturational state on the acquisition of English as a second language. Cognitive Psychology, 21(1), 60-99. doi: 10.1016/0010-0285(89)90003-0

The Existence of Cooperative Communication in Humans and Primates

Michael Tomasello [2008] discusses intentionality and cooperative motives and how both relate to human communication but are partially lacking in primate communication.  He uses these terms to explain that humans communicate bidirectionally through language, whereas primates use one-sided communication, only with their own individual roles in mind.  While language does not exist amongst primates, there is reason to believe that Tomasello’s classification of what makes human communication unique from that of primates is not entirely accurate. Primate communication does, in fact, share certain characteristics which Tomasello states are exclusive to humans.

To begin Chapter 2, he discusses primate vocalizations and gestures, and introduces the idea that while gestures are, perhaps, more flexible than vocalizations, these social interactions do not have true meaning, and are instead pre-existing or innate (Tomasello 26).  He also explains that the communicator uses gestures “without knowing the role of the other” (Tomasello 22). In doing so, Tomasello does not give primates the credit they deserve in terms of the awareness they have for other primates’ roles and actions. This can be seen through Robin Dunbar’s [1996] book, Of Brains and Groups and Evolution.

Dunbar is able to provide evidence that would refute Tomasello’s claims, and also convince me that primates are actually communicatively cooperative mammals.  Chapter 4, “Grooming, gossip and the evolution of language,” discusses grooming and bonding of mammals, and Dunbar explains that there is a positive correlation between neocortex size and group size.  Within these groups exist coalitions of mammals who have a higher proclivity of grooming one another than others. For example, a vampire bat will help out other bats in its coalition who have been unlucky with finding food by regurgitating their own and sharing it with the other.  Later on, “it will repay that debt when its friend has a bad day” (Dunbar 65). Although vampire bats are not a perfect comparison to primates, they have a large neocortex size just as primates do. It is, therefore, possible that primates also have the capacity to perform such acts.

 The idea that the bat would remember the generous act of another and reciprocate days later shows that there are certain gestures that can be learned and are not necessarily “built in” amongst mammals, as Tomasello would suggest (Tomasello 26).  Additionally, it is important to note that Tomasello classifies cooperative communication as a unique feature of human communication, stating that “to qualify as cooperative communication…the communicator’s proximate goal must be somehow to help or share with the recipient” (Tomasello 15).  If we follow Tomasello’s definition, it is clear that mammals such as vampire bats are capable of doing just this, and so I can conclude that perhaps primates, who also have large neocortices, are capable as well.  

Tomasello also uses Seyfarth and Cheneys’ [1990] study in order to show that primate vocalizations are fixed.  He explains that “monkeys and apes do not learn to produce their vocal calls at all” (Tomasello 16). He references the study in order to strengthen his argument, but in doing so, he dismisses the “one dimension of flexibility” where “individuals may not give certain calls when they are alone or without kin” (Tomasello 17).  He briefly makes this statement and then moves on. Even more interesting is that Dunbar uses the same study to prove the opposite of what Tomasello is saying, making me further question Tomasello’s argument. Dunbar references the study by explaining that “monkeys are much more likely to pay attention to the distress calls of individuals with whom they have recently groomed” (Dunbar 68).  He also carries out his own experiment with wild gelada baboons, where the animals who groomed one another were “more likely to support each other in fights against a third party than were animals which rarely groomed together” (Dunbar 68). Although grooming and human language are not a perfect parallel by any means, this shows a distinct connection between relationships and communication amongst primates.  This gives me reason to believe that Tomasello is incorrect in saying that primate vocalizations and gestures are strictly fixed and inflexible. Speaking from a human perspective, I would be far more likely to take advice, for example, from someone I have had a relationship with than I would from someone I have had limited verbal interaction with. A similar awareness amongst primates has been demonstrated through Seyfarth and Cheneys’ study along with Dunbar’s personal study.  From this data, I am persuaded to believe that primate vocalizations and gestures must actually be learned, and are not involuntary. If it were otherwise, it would make more sense for primates to respond to all vocalizations as opposed to mainly or only to those from whom they are familiar with.

While Tomasello’s understanding that humans have language and primates do not is correct, his ways of proving this are not convincing enough.  There are clearly instances in which primates prove to have the capabilities that Tomasello claims they do not. Dunbar’s evidence along with personal experiences, demonstrate to me that primates are capable of cooperative communication.  It is also clear that gestures and vocalizations which primates make are learned through experience and interaction rather than being innate. Language is indeed unique and exists only amongst humans, but there is compelling evidence to show that Tomasello’s understanding of why is flawed.






“Primate Intentional Communication.” Origins of Human Communication, by Michael Tomasello, MIT Press, 2008, pp. 13–55.


“Of Brains and Groups and Evolution.” Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, by Robin Dunbar, Harvard, 1996, pp. 55–79.


Analytical Essay 3

Language is an instinct. Or so it would seem from the title of Steven Pinker’s book, The Language Instinct. Michael Tomasello argues strongly against the content of Pinker’s book in his paper Language is Not an Instinct. He states firstly exactly what the title of the paper is, that language is absolutely NOT an instinct. Using his knowledge of animal instincts, he tries to show that language does not fit the criteria for what we would consider an innate instinct. He states that, “An instinct is a behavioral competency or set of behavioral competencies that… would appear in ontogeny even if an individual were raised in isolation from its species-typical set of experiences” (Tomasello, 132). He goes on to explain that language does not fit this criterion at all, and that humans can only acquire language over a period of many years, and with particular linguistic exposure. However, over the course of this essay I am going to argue that Pinker is not making the point that language is an instinct at all. Pinker is arguing that humans have an instinct to acquire language, not an instinct for language itself, which seems to be the point Tomasello is attempting to argue against in his paper.

On page two of his paper, Tomasello writes that Pinker “proceeds to report a dizzying melange of research that has led linguists to the “discovery” that language is an instinct. But language is not an instinct.” (Tomasello, 132). However, never once does Pinker argue that people raised in isolation will still develop language. One of the prime examples that Pinker gives for his argument is that of deaf children in Nicaragua (Pinker, 24-25). These children were isolated from other deaf people (and therefore people who had motivation to try to communicate outside of verbal forms) and did not develop a language. However, when they got together with others like them at an older age, they began to form a pidgin-like language lacking much grammar. When younger children were later introduced into the community, they seemed to naturally just add missing grammatical components to make the language more fluid and easy to use. What Pinker is arguing here is essentially that we have this instinct or this innate drive to acquire language when it is necessary– even if the language doesn’t fully exist already. This was the case with the both the older and younger Nicaraguan children. When they were older, they felt a drive to create some means of communicating when they were taken out of isolation. When they were younger, they essentially created a grammar for the language because they seemingly had some internal drive to do so.  Pinker is not saying that in isolation the language just appears, which is what Tomasello is arguing against. He is saying given the circumstance if a human is not in a situation where they are exposed to language in a normal manner, they will create a language and make a set grammar for it in a way that would not be possible if language acquisition were not a special, innate function. We have an instinct to acquire language, not simply an innate ability to speak (or sign as the case may be) language.

If this argument was not enough to prove that Pinker does not think language itself is innate, let us consider the fact that he explicitly says that language is not innate. He turns once again to deaf individuals who are raised in linguistic isolation whether due to a lack of a deaf community or the pressure of educators to integrate them into oral linguistic societies through lip reading. These people often seek out sign language-speaking communities when they are older, and manage to learn some of the established language, but never acquire it fully as someone who was raised with it would (Pinker, 26). Here, Pinker is arguing the same thing that Tomasello is arguing. He is saying explicitly if someone were raised completely in isolation, they would NOT develop language. Even when they are exposed to language later in life, they cannot just play catch up and learn it as someone who had been exposed to the language their whole life would. If an instinct is an animal behavior that the animal carries out even in isolation, this point that Pinker makes clearly demonstrates that he does not think that language itself is an instinct.

Tomasello’s first argument in his paper Language is Not an Instinct seems compelling, but in actuality it does not address Pinker’s point from his book The Language Instinct at all. In focusing on the innateness of language itself, it seems appears that Tomasello is overlooking the fact that Pinker never argues that language itself is an instinct, merely that the acquisition of language is. Upon taking a closer look at Pinker’s writings, we can see that in fact him and Tomasello are on the same page when it comes to the innateness of language itself.











Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct the New Science of Language and Mind. Penguin Books, 2015.


Tomasello, Michael. “Language is Not an Instinct.” Cognitive Development, vol. 10, no. 1, Jan, 1995, pp. 131-156.





Is Perception Without Production Language?

In the conversation of what it means to be human, language is often cited as a biological tool that humans possess, but animals do not. Experts in the field have argued that with convincing data, animals that have sophisticated forms of communication could potentially have language. However, no form of animal communication exists that is abstract, productive, and uses displacement as human language does. While much of the conversation about language revolves around production, in many cases language is considered an internal rather than external feature. Noam Chomsky further defines this idea into two categories: competence versus performance. Competence is defined as the mental property or function while performance is the actual utterance. Noam Chomsky, as well as other linguists such as John Searle, argue that these types of internal structures are the basis of language, and thus support the claim that competence is key to language, rather than performance. Thus, given the idea that linguistic production and perception are fundamentally different, one could argue that animals can have competence without performance of language.

In Noam Chomsky’s book, What Kind of Creatures Are We? (2015) he writes about the differences between i-language (internal language) versus e-language (external language). He writes that i-language is “essentially an instrument of thought” and that “externalization is rarely used.” (Chomsky, 2015, pg. 14) Chomsky acknowledges that there is a general dogma in the study of language arguing that “the function of language is communication” (15), and ultimately Chomsky argues that i-language is used more often than e-language, and is language’s ultimate function. Chomsky acknowledges that chimpanzees, for example, do not possess the ability to extract language-relevant information to begin language acquisition; yet, given that the reason chimpanzees do not possess language is their internal ability to process information rather than a means of production, this maintains the idea that perception is key to language possession. If a chimp evolved or gained i-language, they would possess language even without a means of production. This supports the claim that competence is of greater importance than production in terms of an animal’s possession of language. Without e-language, or performance, an animal could still possess i-language given that it is competence, not performance, that constitutes language.

John Searle’s theory of language is based on prelinguistic intentionality, the ability to represent for objects, properties, or events within the mind. Searle argues “several species are capable of prelinguistic thought processes…. think of human language as an extension of these prelinguistic capacities.” (Searle, 2009) He ultimately agrees that currently, other species are only capable of prelinguistic thought but not intentionality. However, he argues that the “biological foundations of language [are] in prelinguistic intentionality,” and thus realizes that the constraint is a biological feature. (Searle, 2009,) Therefore, based on Searle’s argument, if another species contains the biological features of prelinguistic intentionality, even without means of production, they possess language. Therefore, to Searle as well, competence, as prelinguistic intentionality, is supreme over performance. Searle’s view maintains that an animal may possess language through competence without needing performance, given that to Searle it is a mental faculty that constitutes language.

Many linguists would disagree that the supreme feature of language is an internal process, whether defined as prelinguistic intentionality or i-language. Michael Tomasello emphasizes production is language, writing that “we must look at how the production of communicative signals works” illustrating that to him, whether vocals or gestures, production is the most important. (Tomasello, 2008, p. 20) He also writes on the cognitive abilities of other species, stating that “the problem is that such “comprehension” skills are not specialized for communication; they are merely general skills of cognitive assessment.” He therefore asserts that the key issue with animal communication is that they lack the cognitive ability to have it. (Tomasello, 2008, 19) However, Tomasello actually mentions several ways that animals do possess the creative means for communicating, such as gestures and types of vocalizations; thus, despite his assertion that production is language, he ultimately demonstrates that the lack of competence to understand language is the difference between animal communication and human language. He furthers the argument that internal language perception is more important than production, and one can possess language without performance if they have competence. Ultimately, even in Tomasello’s production-centered views, internal structures arguably supersede production, considering that according to him the means of production are already in place for many species.

In conclusion, it is not an ability to produce language that is the key underlying trait of language but rather it is the ability to understand language. One final example of this within the human population there are medical cases in which a person may be able to understand language without production, such as “locked-in condition”, where a stroke paralyzes the body and facial muscles while consciousness and cognitive ability remain. Searle and Chomsky would argue that even without means of production the patient would continue to possess language given their perception and understanding of language. Therefore, the competence of language is consistently more important than a means of production in terms of a being’s ability to possess language; performance is the fruition of competence. An animal may possess language if they have competence, or the mental ability to understand language, even if they do not have performance.


Word count: 876

Analytical #1

In his Course in General Linguistics, Saussure discusses the basic principles of language and speech through semiotics and language structure. I am interested in how those principles can be applied to the deeper concept of language change over time. Saussure’s discussion of language leads to intriguing questions regarding at which point in language development a language becomes a new language. I will explore this concept through a Saussurean lens to determine whether Old English and Modern English are considered the same or different languages. Although Saussure takes linguistic structure to be the primary concern of linguistic study, he also acknowledges that one cannot study language without the social aspects. The social aspects can be explored through Saussure’s concept of variability/invariability of the sign. To examine the topic of language change, I argue that Old English and Modern English are different languages by expanding Saussure’s interpretation of sign and variability/invariability.

Saussure’s concept of sign is pivotal to his definition of language. Saussure defines a linguistic sign as a link “between a concept and a sound pattern” (1972, p. 66). If one or both of the psychological entities in the linguistic sign, the concept or the sound pattern, has changed then a change in the relationship has occurred. Each relationship change in the linguistic sign creates a gradual change and overhaul in the language, which supports the idea that Old English and Modern English are different languages. To expand, once the sound pattern of a word changes, the natural representation of the word as an abstract linguistic item has shifted. In some instances, a concept remains the same but the signal has become unanalyzable due to phonetic and grammatical changes. Consider the following examples: (Saussure, 1972:75).

  1. Sound pattern and Concept change: Latin word necāre ‘to kill’ became French noyer ‘to drown’
  2. Concept change: Latin word necāre ‘to kill’ and Vulgar Latin necare ‘to drown’

In the above examples, the original relationship between the signal and signification changed in either sound pattern or concept change. If enough of these changes occur between Old English and Modern English then the languages are distinct from one another. “Whatever the factors involved in change, whether they act in isolation or in combination, they always result in a shift in the relationship between signal and signification” (Saussure, 1972: 75). Regardless of the reasons for the changes, which will be discussed in the following section, changes in linguistic sign over time cause major changes in languages. This argument can be studied both qualitatively and quantitatively. I argue that there is no exact quantitative number of signs that must change in order to call one language different from another but that the change can instead be a spectrum studied qualitatively. The spectrum broadly is if the languages are unrecognizable to each other. Even if Old English and Modern English come from the same linear trajectory, over time, language change will always be seen to have taken place. This language change can be measured through linguistic sign.

In connection to Saussure’s understanding of the linguistic sign, the social connections institutionalized in the language over time play an undisputable role in the discussion of language change. Saussure’s perspective on variability/invariability of the sign supports the argument that Old English and Modern English can be viewed as different languages. Saussure defines the internal system of a language as invariable because of society’s inability to force change upon a language. Saussure defines variability as the change that is accepted over time by the collective society. Although no individual or linguistic community can decide to change a language at a single time, over time there is the ability of change due to many external factors. “A language cannot therefore be treated simply as a form of contract.” (Saussure, 1972: 71). Considering all changes in linguistic sign over time, big or small, new correlations are made and thus new ideas emerge. Social communities enforce these new ideas and that is when language change occurs. “A language is situated socially and chronologically by reference to a certain community and a certain period of time.” (Saussure, 1972: 76). At a specific place and time, the language is invariable but at two different places and times the language is variable. When discussing the social nature, the context is the concept that needs to be of focus. For example, a contemporary speaker of Modern English is unable to understand Old English. Old English versus Modern English showcases the variability of language. This argument can be made because Saussure studies language change linearly. Language must take into consideration the language, the linguistic community, and time. Although it may seem obvious, the importance of adding the aspect of time in the discussion of language cannot go understated. Auditory signals are limiting in that they only have available what is in the linearity of time and cannot exploit more than one dimension simultaneously. If over time there is great variability in the auditory signals, there is visible language change.

Based off this analysis of language change, it is worthwhile to further examine to what extent old and new languages are the same or different. Using a Saussurean perspective on sign and variability/invariability I argue that Old English and Modern English are different languages. Although one cannot quantify the exact number of sign changes that must occur, the changes in the relationship between the concepts are significant in that the two languages are noticeably different from each other. Old English and Modern English exist as an example of variability in the linear form and offer an interesting question for future research.

Acquiring Language as a Game of Chess

Language was proposed as an innate part of humans by both Pinker (32) and Chomsky (Cook and Mark 83). This view was then challenged by Tomasello (“Language Is Not an Instinct” 151) with an endeavor to look at natural language with Cognitive and Functional approaches. In this paper, I propose that language acquisition is not that different from learning how to play chess by displaying creativity and the poverty of the stimulus in our model, the two famous arguments made by Chomsky (Cook and Mark 81) for Language Acquisition Device (LAD). Since there is no way our brain has innate knowledge for playing any human-designed game, this paper agrees with Tomasello’s Cognitive/ Functional paradigm that language is not an innate module in human beings but a cultural artifact (“Language Is Not an Instinct” 152).

In this paper, I model language acquisition as learning chess by watching. To learn chess, human cognition categorizes chess pieces into distinct groups by their features (e.g. color, shapes). By observing others playing chess in progress, a person can pick up rules gradually without any given instruction. Chomsky’s work (Cook and Mark 90) also compares games such as chess and snooker to language and states that humans cannot learn snooker by watching games in progress for lack of negative feedbacks. However, his argument is flawed in two aspects. First, Chomsky’s belief (Cook and Mark 91) that knowing an adequate knowledge of snooker involves knowing what to do and what not to do is not true. The two kinds of rules are always convertible. For instance, “A piece cannot end its move on a square containing a piece with the same color” is equal to “A piece can only end its move on a square containing with a different color” in chess because negating one’s complement derives the other. In other words, rules about knowing what can do is enough if all the rules are acquired. Second, implicit negative feedbacks (Ramscar and Yarlett 927) exist. When watching others play chess, a person generates possible moves in his or her head by applying acquired rules. If some possible moves are never confirmed by others’ moves, rules need to be updated to explain those exceptions. In the following two paragraphs, I will expand the chess model and explain the two phenomenon of language acquisition.

The creativity of a child’s speech is not surprising if we compare language acquisition to game learning. Creativity, according to Chomsky (Cook and Mark 77), is unique to humans, which allows us to generate innovative sentences using generative grammar. However, it is possible to achieve the level of creativity (Cook and Mark 77) without using generative rules. If one observes that one rook can move any number of vacant squares up, down, left, and right in a straight line, then it is natural for this person to generate an “innovative” move of the other rook because the two rook are intuitively categorized into one group by their looks. In a language, words all look different. Humans create common categories for words because of their cognitive and social universals (Tomasello, “Language Is Not an Instinct” 150). Then, a person can then apply rules to words with the same category to create innovative sentences. With the help of categorization, humans can narrow down the valid choices of words from thousands to a few and apply the rules correctly and innovatively. It is also worth noting that one can overgeneralize the rule of the rook that I mentioned above until this person finds out that a rook can have a special move called “castling” with the king under a specific circumstance. This phenomenon is also common in the acquisition of language such as verb forms (Cook and Mark 90).

Also, the poverty of the stimulus (POS) states that children can ignore incorrect grammar and always use correct grammar due to their innate linguistic knowledge (Cook and Mark 81). This is not true neither. Not all moves observed from the players are valid because they might not be proficient with chess rules. Therefore, a person will develop a mechanism to overcome bad examples. First, the person simply imitates what he or she sees others do, which is supported by Tomasello (“First Steps toward a Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition” 70). At this stage, the person will start generating abstract rules from observation. Second, a person will receive implicit negative feedback if what he or she expects differs from others’ moves. This process will allow a person to update acquired rules constantly. Third, a person finds that some incorrect examples consistently show up and includes the inconsistent behaviors as exceptions to the rules. Like the game of chess, a person follows the same three steps to acquire language. A person can acquire many versions of a grammar from others, but the person will pick the one with the highest confidence based on frequency and truthfulness. As a strategy, children will also avoid using certain expressions (Tomasello, “Language Is Not an Instinct” 144) if the confidence score for them is low. This kind of statistical learning together with the strategy ensures that children speak grammatically correct languages even though others don’t use perfect grammar.

This paper presents that learning a language is similar to learning chess through observation. The chess model also explains creativity and poverty of the stimulus proposed by Chomsky. Furthermore, this paper endorses Tomasello’s Cognitive/Functional paradigm (“Language Is Not an Instinct” 150) that that language module is not innate in human beings but a cultural product.



Cook, Vivian J., and Mark Newson. “Chapter 3: General Concepts of Language Acquisition.” Chomsky’s Universal Grammar: An Introduction, 3rd ed., Blackwell, 2007, pp. 74–132.

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct. Penguin, 2015.

Ramscar, Michael, and Daniel Yarlett. “Linguistic Self-Correction in the Absence of Feedback: A New Approach to the Logical Problem of Language Acquisition.” Cognitive Science, vol. 31, no. 6, Dec. 2007, pp. 927–960.

Tomasello, Michael. “First Steps toward a Usage-Based Theory of Language  Acquisition.” Cognitive Linguistics, vol. 11, no. 1-2, 2001.

Tomasello, Michael. “Language Is Not an Instinct.” Cognitive Development, vol. 10, no. 1, 1995, pp. 131–156.


Word Count: 920

Analytical Essay 3

Throughout the article titled “Domain-General Learning Capacities,” contributors Jennv Saffran and Erik Thiessen employ evidence found in previous studies in order to support the argument that language acquisition in humans involves more domain-specific processes, implying “an innate, modular, knowledge system” (Saffran and Thiessen, 2008, pg. 80), than domain-general processes, implying “a set of generalized simple learning devices that can operate over any types of input” (Saffran and Thiessen, 2008, pg. 79). Saffran and Thiessen’s assertion suggests that infants are born with a language acquisition device, which is an innate biological ability accessible to all humans to acquire and develop language (Language Acquisition Device). In this paper, however, I intend to argue that infants are born depending on their domain-general ability to acquire language, but, after only several months of infancy, depend primarily on their domain-specific ability in order to acquire language. Ultimately, all humans are born with a language acquisition device, but infants need time to activate it.

Researchers commonly analyze language acquisition in humans through utilizing evidence found from speech category distinction tests. According to Saffran and Thiessen, “Infants must learn which acoustic distinctions are productive in their linguistic environment … When presented with a set of exemplars with a highly variable distribution, infants form broad, inclusive categories. When familiarized with a more focused distribution of exemplars, infants form categories with tighter boundaries” (Saffran and Thiessen, 2008, pg. 72). Such findings convey that infants are able to identify a wider range of sounds that could have linguistic relevance early on in infancy, but once an infant has had several months of exposure to their native language, they are only able to identify sounds as linguistically relevant only if they are able to recognize them as linguistically relevant in their native language. Furthermore, these findings show that infants rely on their more general, perceptive abilities before accessing their language acquisition device, for infants recognize essentially all verbal sounds as potentially having linguistic relevance before being able to recognize the linguistically relevant sounds that they will soon learn to communicate with.

Another way that researchers analyze language acquisition in humans is through using evidence found from word segmentation tests. Infants tend to begin learning how to distinguish different words through transitional probabilities (Saffran and Thiessen, 2008, pg. 74), which allow infants to make an inference about whether a word has ended or has another part to it depending on the sound that they most recently heard. Saffran and Thiessen remark, “in English, stress is correlated with word beginnings, and between 8 and 9 months, infants begin to treat stressed syllables as word onsets … While young infants favor transitional probabilities over stress cues, older infants rely more on stress cues” (Saffran and Thiessen, 2008, pg. 74). Stress only has linguistic relevance depending on the language at hand, so infants’ transition from relying on transitional probabilities to relying on stress cues to distinguish words indicates that infants must first be able to recognize whether or not stress is a linguistically relevant factor before they may use it to distinguish words. Infants must have exposure to some language and begin learning about the linguistically relevant sounds of their respective language for their language acquisition device to be activated.

In a study involving multiple experiments titled “Rule Learning by Seven-Month-Old Infants” conducted by G. F. Marcus, S. Vijayan, S. Bandi Rao and P. M. Vishton, it was discovered that “7-month-old infants attend longer to sentences with unfamiliar structures than to sentences with familiar structures” (Marcus et al., 1999, pg. 77). Additionally, “The design of the artificial language task used in these experiments ensured that this discrimination could not be performed by a system that is sensitive only to transitional probabilities” (Marcus et al., 1999, pg. 77). The 7-month olds in this experiment have had several months of exposure to language at the time the experiment was conducted, but the language they heard in this experiment was made-up, so their lack of previous experience prohibited them from using transitional probabilities to distinguish words. Once infants have had adequate exposure to language, however, they are able to derive certain rules and grow into having the ability to distinguish structures that are either linguistically relevant or not linguistically relevant. The overarching finding from this study conveys that infants are able to deduce rules in language at around the same time that they only attend to sounds in their own language and begin depending more on stress cues than on transitional probabilities. Consequently, it seems as though the language acquisition device of infants are consistently activated after several months of learning about different aspects of language.

Evidence that infants are born depending primarily on domain-general processes to acquire language but ultimately depend primarily on domain-specific processes in order to acquire language is important in that such findings begin to bridge the gap between the non-nativist theory of language and the nativist theory of language. From the information that I have uncovered regarding this debate, I contend that humans do in fact have an innate capability to acquire language, but infants must begin to learn about the foundational attributes of language before accessing the abilities that the language acquisition device provides.


Word Count: 862





Language Acquisition Device. Retrieved from


Marcus, G. F., Vijayan, S., Rao, S. B., & Vishton, P. M. (1999). Rule Learning by Seven- Month-Old Infants and Neural Networks. Science, 284(5416), 77-80. Retrieved from


Saffran, J. R., & Thiessen, E. D. (2008). Domain-General Learning Capacities. Blackwell   Handbook of Language Development, 68-81.

Analytical Essay III: On Second Language Acquisition and Domain Generality

As Cook (1996: 126) pointed out, “most people are substantially less efficient in their L2 than in their L1”. Having learned English as a second language for virtually ten years, I knew the frustration was real; regardless of how much effort I spent, my L2 proficiency could never be compared with that of a native speaker’s. Nevertheless, I desired to investigate the underlying mechanism that differentiates L2 acquisition (SLA) from the acquisition of L1 (FLA). In this paper, I intend to argue that one plausible reason, which accounts for such difference, is that FLA involves a domain-specific mechanism while SLA makes use of both a domain-general cognitive system as well as a language-specific acquisition device.

Before delving into the discussion of domain-generality and SLA, let us first consider a question proposed by Wittgenstein (1953: 209), “Doesn’t our understanding reach beyond all the [verbalized] examples [we have learned]?” With first language acquisition, the answer is surely affirmative; we are capable of understanding more linguistic units than what we have obtained as inputs. The poverty-of-the-stimulus argument explicitly attends to this constructive aspect of children’s linguistic competence. Even with limited inputs, children’s grammatical competence can “automatically incorporate built-in linguistic structures” to yield grammatical outputs (Cook 1996: 86). According to the black box Language Acquisition Device (LAD) model, children are born with a built-in language faculty so-called Universal Grammar. In the process of acquisition, UG parameters are adjusted accordingly to best adapt to the language that the child is learning. UG can not only process linguistic inputs, but also “gap-fill” syntactical structures to generate novel sentences. All of these theories have suggested that the linguistic inputs we received cannot sufficiently justify the level of competence we are capable of achieving with our L1.

Nonetheless, let us return to Wittgenstein’s question and consider what the answer would be with a second language. Do we understand more of the L2 than what we have been explicitly taught? By interviewing a number of unbalanced bilingual friends of mine, the answer turned out to be 100 percent negative. They all expressed that their lexicon capacity and knowledge of syntactic structures are limited to what they have acquired via ostensive learning. With that said, the poverty-of-the-stimulus argument does not account for SLA the same fashion it does to FLA. In addition, as Chomsky (1995: 18) proposed, all verbalized human beings possess the ability to reach a static state of fully-developed L1 competence, and their L1 proficiency is, in principle, comparable across individuals. SLA, on the other hand, does not initiate at S0 nor terminates at Ss. As Cook (1996: 125) explained, a universally standardized static final state for L2 learning does not exist; L2 competence is a variable that differs from individual to individual. If the LAD were to be the sole mechanism that enables SLA, we should expect that with the same linguistic inputs, L2 learners should be able to gain comparable proficiency levels of outputs. However, that is rarely the case in SLA. Even with the same inputs, L2 learners’ second language competence varies from one another.

In short, neither the poverty-of-the-stimulus argument nor the black box LAD model applies to SLA the same fashion they do to FLA. It is not convincing that a biological mechanism is present to support and sustain the acquisition of an L2. This fact should cast some skepticism on whether or not SLA activates the same brain areas that are responsible for the acquisition of L1. In other words, if we were to adopt a Chomskyan view and presume that FLA is domain-specific, in that the process is specialized and leaning is not observed in other domains (Saffran & Thiessen 2007: 69), SLA, at least, should not be a domain-specific process and is highly probable that it is domain-general.

Modern technology such as fMRI scan provides a great gateway to gain insights into the areas of the brain that are activated for linguistic activities. In a study by Liu & Cao (2016: 71), it was found that an additional area of the brain was activated when L2 was in use. That additional area turned out to be the region responsible for the coordination of sensory system, and late bilinguals showcased a greater activation pattern than early bilinguals did in this particular area. In a longitudinal study by Grant et al. (2015: 44-5), multiple fMRI scan results were compared as subjects’ L2 exposure increased. Researchers found that an additional area that corresponded to cognitive control was activated, however, activation pattern decreased as learner’s L2 exposure increased. In other words, cognitive control was required in the initial stage of SLA but gradually diminished as subjects gained more L2 exposure. In a regression study by Paradis (2011: 229), non-verbal IQ and L1-transfer are both strong predictors of subjects’ L2 competence. These studies have presented empirical support to the argument that SLA requires controls under the domain-general cognitive system. Nonetheless, overlapping areas with the activation patterns of L1 were observed.  In addition, activation patterns in the domain-general regions are greater for learners at their initial stage of SLA.

In sum, I have provided both a theoretical approach and some empirical evidence to argue that L2 proficiency is rarely comparable to a speaker’s L1 because a distinct set of acquisition mechanism is involved. Unlike FLA, SLA requires a domain-general processor to function in conjunction with a language-specific acquisition device.


Chomsky, Noam, 1995. The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Cook, Vivian, and Mark Newson. 1996. Chomsky’s universal grammar: An introduction. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Grant, Angela; Shin-yi Fang; and Ping Li. 2015. Second language lexical development and cognitive control: A longitudinal fMRI study. Brain and Language. 144.35-47.

Liu, Hengshuang, and Fan Cao. 2016. L1 and L2 processing in the bilingual brain: A meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies. Brain and Language. 159.60-73.

Paradis, Johanne. 2011. Individual differences in child English second language acquisition: Comparing child-internal and child-external factors. Linguistic approaches to bilingualism 1.213-237.

Saffran, Jenny, and Erik Thiessen. 2007. Domain-General Learning Capacities. Handbook of language development. 68-86.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, 1953. Philosophy Investigations. Chichester: Basil Blackwell.





Language: Distinct in Culture, Similar in Acquisition

           While there is no question that humans have the ability to use language, there is much debate over where this capacity comes from. Pinker believes the ability to use language is innate and “develops in the child spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction…is qualitatively the same in every individual, and is distinct from more general abilities” (Pinker 4-5). This domain-specific view of language aligns with Chomsky as well, arguing that individuals are born with a language-specific device and language is derived from the same universal grammar for all people (Cook & Newson 79). While Tomasello agrees that individuals are born with a biologically determined cognitive device, he believes this device is not specific to language, but rather domain-general and is instead influenced by culture. According to Tomasello, “languages are cultural artifacts that differ radically among different cultures”, refuting the notion of language as an ‘instinct’ (Tomasello 152). This paper serves to argue in favor of Tomasello’s view that language acquisition is domain-general, as opposed to a domain-specific instinct, due to the learning parallels in other domains as well as its ability to be shaped by culture.

The domain-specific argument is derived from the idea that the process of learning a language is distinct from the process of learning in other domains (McMullen & Saffran 290). However, research into the relationship between language and music has indicated that a shared mechanism may be responsible for learning both musical and linguistic skills (289). A shared mechanism indicates learning a language is not necessarily its own unique progression, but rather a more generalized process that can lead to acquisition in other domains as well. Investigation of early neural processing demonstrated similar responses with musical and linguistic syntax, such as neural response to off-key chords and syntactically inappropriate words (298). Research into syntactic processing of words and musical events also examined P600 waves, positive brain potential occurring 600 milliseconds after syntactical violations or anomalies. P600 waves were recorded after an unexpected musical event, a chord played in a distant key, as well as a violation of linguistic syntax, a word insertion that is problematic in a given target sentence, and illustrated very comparable waveforms (297-298). The ability of the brain to respond similarly to comparable aspects of music and linguistic syntactic processing indicates the presence of a shared underlying processing mechanism. While this evidence is not all encompassing, the proposed similarities suggest that language-learning phenomena may be present in other learning domains, indicating that language is not an inherently domain-specific phenomenon.

In addition to cross-domain similarities, language also varies among different cultures, indicating the domain-general nature of language as well as a relationship between language and culture. Pinker argues for a universality of language, claiming that language would vary more across populations if it were tied to culture (14). The alleged innateness of language reduces the need for outside input, also indicating that cultural variation should not alter language anyway. However, Tomasello argues that input is essential for language acquisition and while the flexibility and creativity of language demonstrates that imitation is not the root of acquisition, the varying input a child receives from its surrounding culture will ultimately influence the way children acquire as well as express language (150). For example, Japanese infants initially perceive the speech sounds /r/ and /l/ differently, similar to Americans, but dissimilar to Japanese adults. However, research has shown by the time infants are about one year old, their consonant perception adjusts to reflect that of their native language; leading to a shift from being able to distinguish /r/ from /l/ to no longer being able to perceive the difference (292). The fact that Japanese infants are initially able to distinguish these speech sounds, but following a year of various input and cultural exposures shift to be attuned to the norm of their Japanese culture indicates that culture leads to language variation. Additionally, Pinker illustrates his notion of language universality among cultures through language aspects he claims to be uniform in all languages regardless of culture. However, many of the so-called language universals have been debunked and are not present in all languages, such as an absence of the grammatical relation between subject and object in languages such as Acehnese and Tagalog (Tomasello 139). Whether in speech perception or grammatical format, differences in language appear among cultures, ultimately refuting the notion of language as an innate universal.

Ultimately, language differences on a cultural level as well as similarities in other processing domains indicate that our biologically determined cognitive device is not necessarily language-specific. While it is possible for this cognitive device to evolve and become modularized over time, due to input and cultural exposures, the human ability to use language can be described as a result of a domain-general device. In addition, language parallels among culture is not enough evidence alone to insinuate that language is innate or the result of a domain-specific function. Most, if not all humans have language, just as most, if not all humans eat with their hands; however this relationship does not indicate that either of these phenomena are encoded in a specific human gene (Tomasello 137). Bates’ popularized analogy demonstrates that just because humans are born with an ability to learn and use language does not mean that language is an innate, domain-specific ability.


Word Count: 883


Works Cited

Cook, V.J. and Mark Newson. “General Concepts of Language Acquisition.” Chomsky’s Universal Grammar: an introduction, 2nd ed., Blackwell, 1996, p.75-132.

McMullen, Erin and Jenny R. Saffran. “Music and Language: A Developmental Comparison.” Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 21, no. 3, 2004, p. 289–311.

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How The Mind Creates Language. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007.

Tomasello, Michael. “Language is Not an Instinct.” Review of The Language Instinct: How The Mind Creates Language, by Steven Pinker. Cognitive Development, vol. 10, no. 1, 1995, p.131-156.