It's bizarre. Suddenly every piece of linguistic research is spun as a challenge to "universal grammar". The most recent example involves Ewa Dabrowka's interesting work on the linguistic correlates of large educational differences — Quentin Cooper did a segment on BBC 4, a couple of days ago, about how this challenges the whole idea of an innate human propensity to learn and use language. (Dr. Dabrowska appears to be somewhat complicit in this spin, but that's another story.)
It's hard for me to explain how silly I think this argument is. It's like showing that there are hematologic effects of athletic training, and arguing that this calls into question the whole idea that blood physiology is an evolved system.
When I wrote about Ewa Dabrowska's work on the linguistic correlates of large educational differences, I carefully avoided the whole "universal grammar" aspect of her presentation ("'Unable to understand some basic sentences'?", 7/9/2010; "More on basic sentence interpretation", 7/12/2010; "The Wason selection test", 7/15/2010).
That was because I thought that her work, though quite interesting, has essentially no bearing on the question of whether or not our species has an evolved substrate for speech and language. At least one commenter disagreed, but on the whole, the discussion was mercifully free of innateness bombast on either side. But the BBC's listeners were not so lucky when Dabrowska was featured on Quentin Cooper's BBC Material World program, 7/29/2010.
The web site's synopsis of the Dabrowska segment was: "Are we born with built in grammar knowledge and if we're not, can we learn it?" And here's how Quentin Cooper starts out:
Seventy-odd years ago the writer William Somerset Maugham argued "it is necessary to know grammar, and it is better to write grammatically than not, but it is well to remember that grammar is common speech formulated."
If that is the case that grammar is a formula formalizing what we do naturally rather than a set of rules to control it, then why does common speech follow these patterns? What leads us to put together our words in these particular ways?
It's long ((and)) often been suggested that deep beneath all languages there is a "universal grammar" that our brains have evolved to use and which helps children to rapidly learn how to speak. But research about to be published in the journal Lingua has come up with evidence that seems to go against this theory, showing that some native English speakers who left school early have difficulties with even basic grammatical constructions.
Since the BBC (why???) withdraws audio access to its radio shows after a few days, here's the whole ten-minute segment in a more durable form:
It seems to me that Cooper's explicit argument — that the existence of individual differences correlated with training shows that there's no evolutionary substrate for language acquisition — is so silly that to state it is to refute it. You can tussle among yourselves in the comments if you don't agree.
I'll just mention another example of the same bizarre meme: the spin given to Lera Boroditsky's interesting work on how morphosyntactic differences between languages have a bit of an effect on how their speakers tend to remember certain experiences ("Boroditsky on Whorfian navigation and blame", 7/26/2010).
Since I still haven't had the time to offer a detailed analysis of her findings, which are Whorfian in the classic sense, for now I'll just point to Lane Greene's lovely summary:
She sticks mainly to pretty careful statements about things she's tested. If I had to sum up in plain English my conclusion would be not "language shapes thought" (much less "language restricts thought"), but probably "language nudges thought" (in certain circumstances).
I still plan to discuss Boroditsky's work at greater length, but I hope to ignore the whole "universal grammar" discussion as thoroughly as I can, because I think it's an irrelevant waste of time in this context. In support of this view, let me offer another analogy. Suppose we find that deaf people are somewhat more likely than hearing people to remember the individual facial characteristics of a stranger they pass on the street. This would be an interesting result, but would we spin it to the world as a challenge to the widely-held theory that there's an evolutionary substrate for the development of human face-recognition abilities?
Please note that I'm not arguing here for any particular epistemological theory, either in general or in specific cases. I'm just surprised at the intensity of what seems to me to be a transcendently silly belief: "if there are any effects of experience, there must not be any evolved predisposition".