Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Daniel L. Everett's "Language: The Cultural Tool"

Daniel L. Everett is dean of arts and sciences at Bentley University. He has held appointments in linguistics and/or anthropology at the University of Campinas, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Manchester, and Illinois State University. His books include Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazon Jungle.

Everett applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Language: The Cultural Tool, and reported the following:
Language: The Cultural Tool is about the main thing that makes us human, our ability to talk to one another. On page 99 we join the discussion midway into one of its most controversial claims - that language is learned. Now, admittedly, if asked if language is learned, the average person stopped on the street would probably say, would almost certainly reply "Of course. Why would you ask such a silly question?" Therefore, it might come as a surprise to hear that the pronouncement that language is learned provokes outrage among many of my fellow linguists.

The idea that language is not learned comes from the work of Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist whose own book, The Language Instinct, popularized Chomsky's ideas. In Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar, all humans are born with a genetically-endowed "computational system" that makes it possible for them to acquire any human language to which they are exposed. This is not really learning, but a matter of triggering the development and emergence of language that is already in the mind at birth. Any learning that takes place is primarily in the area of vocabulary - since no two individual human languages use exactly the same words. The major evidence used for the idea that language is an instinct includes the claim that all humans learn their native language equally well, regardless of intelligence, social, or economic class, etc.

On this page, I make the point that there are no uncontroversial studies in the scientific literature that show that all humans learn their native tongues equally well.

The central idea of my book, informed by some thirty years of field research among different Amazonian groups, is that languages are learned and that in the learning process our values, beliefs, and knowledge - our cultures - help shape the final result. What we talk about and how we talk about it are largely cultural matters. And the two together mean that language is learned and that it is not an instinct. Then what is it? The rest of Language: The Cultural Tool works hard to convince the reader that language is like shovels, bows and arrows, and other human cultural artifacts - it is a tool designed to solve a particular problem. That problem is communication. Humans, alone among all other animals, must build cohesive communities to survive. Aristotle called this our "social instinct." Language is the cognitive technology that makes human communities possible. It is found in all societies for much the same reason that fire is - it is essential to the survival of the species. Language is cognitive fire.
Learn more about the book and author at Dan Everett's website.

--Marshal Zeringue