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Instinctive speech diminishes us not
By Chet Raymo, 11/6/2001
Is language something we are born with, or is it something we learn in
the first few years of life?
The answer would appear to be obvious. No babe comes talking out of the
womb. Every child must learn a vocabulary, learn to match sounds to
things or concepts.
Yet there are linguists who say that some aspects of language are inborn.
The person most often associated with this view is Noam Chomsky, who, in
a series of brilliant works in the second half of the last century,
proposed that all human languages share a Universal Grammar that
corresponds to innate structures of the human brain.
Chomsky was not the first to hold this view - even Darwin guessed as much
- but he was the first to present a compelling argument based on common
features of all languages and on observations of language acquisition by
No one doubts that genes determine our acquisition of arms and legs, and
few doubt that our tendency to smile when happy and frown when sad are
instinctive. But the idea that language is partly programmed by genes
generates a surprising amount of controversy.
We just don't like to think that something so fundamentally human as
speech can be part of our animal nature. Language is something we share
with the angels, not the beasts - or so we like to think.
And when you think about it, the idea that a Universal Grammar is inborn
does seem absurd.
After all, what we inherit from our parents is an arm's length of DNA,
tangled on 23 chromosomes. The human genome is a sequence of four
molecules, dubbed A, T, C and G by biologists. The code of life is
written with these four chemical ''letters," three billion letters in
all, comprising about 30,000 genes.
The DNA spins off proteins, sequences of 22 amino acids that determine
the shape of the protein. How proteins act in the body is determined by
their shapes and chemical affinities.
What Chomsky and his followers ask us to believe is that universal rules
of grammar somehow reside in the protein structure of the brain. When a
child says ''Shoe off'' or ''We holded the kitty,'' it is not an act of
imitation - for surely no adult says such things - but an inborn tendency
to put words together in certain ways. Chemicals, just chemicals.
And yet, as strange as Chomsky's idea seems, I wouldn't bet against it.
The organic molecules of life are amazingly versatile, and some things
that chemicals obviously encode - such as the unguided flight of New
England's monarch butterflies to a tiny patch of Mexican forest they have
never been to before - are scarcely less wonderful than speech.
Now that the human genome has been sequenced, biologists can start
looking for the putative language genes, those segments of our DNA that
are critical to the normal acquisition of language. The first
identification of a ''language gene'' recently has been reported by
British researchers. It is called the FOXP2 gene on chromosome 7, and
seems to play a role in development of the brain circuitry that underlies
speech. Its disruption leads to an inherited speech impairment.
Writing in Nature, linguist Steven Pinker stated: ''The discovery of a
gene implicated in speech and language is among the first fruits of the
Human Genome Project for the cognitive sciences. Just as the 1990s are
remembered as the decade of the brain and the dawn of cognitive
neuroscience, the first decade of the 21st century may well be thought of
as the decade of the gene and the dawn of cognitive genetics.''
But, in spite of the identification of a language gene, the idea that
speech is instinctive will continue to be fiercely resisted. Many people,
including some scholars and scientists, hold that an essential part of
our human nature, including the ability to express ideas in speech, is
independent of our animal bodies, an immaterial ''ghost in the machine''
that will survive our chemical dissolution. My guess is that scientific
research in the coming century will offer no support for this ancient
Instead, we will discover that not only language but also consciousness
and self-awareness are firmly anchored in our biochemical natures,
inextricably tied to the circuitry of brains that are woven on the loom
of DNA. None of this, it seems to me, diminishes our estimation of the
human self; rather, it vastly expands our appreciation for the complexity
and beauty of a creature who can say ''We holded the kitty'' or - with
the 17th-century poet John Donne - ''Death be not proud, though some have
called thee mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so.''
In another poem, Donne wrote, ''I am a little world made cunningly of
Elements and an Angelike sprite.'' It now appears that our angelike
spriteness is made of elements, too.
Chet Raymo is a professor of physics at Stonehill College and the author
of several books on science.
This story ran on page C2 of the Boston Globe on 11/6/2001. © Copyright
2001 Globe Newspaper Company.
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