Deacon Blogging Epic – Part 2


Deacon and Nativism
Clearly Deacon is arguing something far more subtle than innate grammar. He begins by following the standard UG criticism – that children don’t deduce rules of grammar from nothing, they are in fact embedded in a powerful learning structure.
But he goes further to argue that learning also isn’t sufficient to explain the pace and effectiveness with which children aquire language.

The nativist mistake is to attribute language learning competence to internal sources just because learning externally from adults doesn’t seem to be a sufficient explanation. The Skinnerian learning mistake is to assume that all external information must be passed from the minds of adults in the form of learning. Deacon believes there is an alternative explanation, that information is carried in language itself. Language is adapted to people, and is not just an abstract and unforgiving code. Therefore a child wouldn’t have to learn language by trial and error if they didn’t possess UG. If they were tuned towards language their exploration of the novel linguistic structure would be itself be structured and relevant.

Children’s minds need not innately embody language structures, if languages embody the predisposition of children’s minds” (p109)

So Deacon is envisioning an interdependent structural harmony between the hardware and the software of children’s brains and language.

We don’t design language at all. It designs itself. Languages change spontaneously over the course of many generations… Language don’t just change, they evolve” (p109)

In Deacon’s model language is passed through the “bottleneck” of of each juvenile generation’s learning experience. Unlike the nativist or learnt-language position, language now has to be looked at as an distinct but interdependent entity that is subject to its own evolutionary experience.

If linguistic evolution is much quicker than brain evolution then, he argues, it is likely that the external evolution has had the more significant impact. This repositioning allows to Deacon to claim that language can only be properly understood in action, across generations, its value becomes its vertical, not its horizontal axis.

So Deacon sets himself up against the nativist position, and so attempts to address the central tenets of the nativist position: grammatical universals and the juvenile language-learning window.

First he tries to tackle the grammatical universals, and again his is an attempt at repositioning rather than presenting significant new evidence. He claims that grammatical universals are better understood as points of convergence that are imposed upon any language by generations of exposure to the brains out natural linguistic limitations. Again, the product of an ongoing evolutionary process rather than cast in stone in our brain somewhere.

The juvenile language-learning window gives him more problems. He uses the example of Kanzi’s environmental learning to explore the idea that children’s minds may be better adapted for learning language compared to adults. This is of course explained by nativists as an innate ability to learn language possessed by children. Deacon instead weaves a tricky argument based upon the idea that children’s limitations are actually what motivates this ability, allowing them to break language learning down into more accessible chunks. He argues that the nativists have always represented language learning as a vast additive system, and that in reality language-learning doesn’t work like that, it is far more co-relational. Take away the big monolithic additive system, add the idea that language is evolved (through iterated juvenile bottlenecks) to fit a child’s mind, and you have a system that can be made sense of without the need of UG.

The critical period for language learning may not be critical or time limited at all, but a mere “spandrel” or incidental feature of maturation, that just happened to be co-opted in languages’ race to colonize ever younger brains” (137)

By the end of this chapter all the repositioning was getting a little zen for my liking and it seems to me that there are lots of untied loose ends in Deacon’s theories. According to Deacon, we should not try and understand languages according to their rules but by their ability to reproduce. But surely each generation requires rules in order for them to have the ability to reproduce? I don’t see how you can have the vertical axis without the horizontal axis as well. This us puts us back towards Kirby’s iterated learning model, that seems to address both axis more thoroughly. Deacon encourages us to think of language as a parasitic organism that infects its host, like a virus. Not independently alive, but inherently woven into existing living systems. But this attempt to drive a dividing line between the skill and the host takes us into memetic territory, and all the philosophical difficulties that entails. How do we measure the evolutionary entity we call language, and if it can’t exist without the material organism’s brain and communicative organs, where can we draw the line? It reminds me of Andy Clark’s work on the extended mind. I am prepared to accept that mental states can extend beyond the body, but the independence necessary for independent evolution seems to be taking the whole thing a bit far away from the body, (and the genetic). I am also reluctant to afford language and mind the same potency in their ability to change the other. Deacon goes as far as to claim that language is more powerful simply because of its rate of change, but if language’s change has to run on unchanging linguistic hardware surely this is evidence that its change is cosmetic rather than having the power to affect biology?

The selective conditions are created by the “bottleneck” of children’s minds, but language is not learnt in isolation, neither are the children in social position to dictate language use and change. Children are always ultimately learning to talk like their parents. I understand Deacon’s argument that this change is very slow and gradual, and that parental learning is a more potent force in each generation, but if we extend the logic the Parent’s minds must also be subject to subtle limitations that enforce themselves generation upon generation. We get back to the confusion about the power relationship between language and the brain. Is Deacon arguing that all languages eventually revert to certain grammatical baselines because the structures of the brain ultimately hold sway over the formation of language? How can language be subjugated to form universal grammars, but assert a dominance in juvenile language-learning that requires a simplified brain to overcome? To me Deacon needs to properly address the vertical and horizontal axis of his argument before we have anything that can come close to being called a unified model.

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