gary_marcus's picture
Professor of Psychology, Director NYU Center for Language and Music; Author, Guitar Zero
Whats Special About Human Language

When I was in graduate school, in the early 1990s, I learned two important things: that the human capacity for language was innate, and that the machinery that allowed human beings to learn language was "special", in the sense of being separate from the rest of the human mind.

Both ideas sounded great at the time. But (as far as I can tell know) only one of them turns out to be true.

I still think that I was right to believe in "innateness", the idea that the human mind, arrives, fresh from the factory, with a considerable amount of elaborate machinery. When a human embryo emerges from the womb, it has almost all the neurons it will ever have. All of the basic neural structures are already in place, and most or all of the basic neural pathways are established. There is, to be sure, lots of learning yet to come — an infant's brain is more rough draft than final product — but anybody who still imagines the infant human mind to be little more than an empty sponge isn't in touch with the realities of modern genetics and neuroscience. Almost half our genome is dedicated to the development of brain function, and those ten or fifteen thousand brain-related genes choreograph an enormous amount of biological sophistication.  Chomsky (whose classes I sat in on while in graduate school) was absolutely right to be insisting, for all these years, that language has its origins in the built-in structure of the mind.

But now I believe that I was wrong to accept the idea that language was separate from the rest of the human mind. It's always been clear that we can talk about what we think about, but when I was in graduate school it was popular to talk about language as being acquired by a separate "module" or "instinct" from the rest of cognition, by what Chomsky called a  "Language Acquisition Device" (or LAD). Its mission in life was to acquire language, and nothing else. 

In keeping with idea of language as product of specialized in-born mechanism, we noted how quickly how human toddlers acquired language, and how determined they were to do so; all normal human children acquire language, not just a select few raised in privileged environments, and they manage to do so rapidly, learning most of what they need to know in the first few years of life.  (The average adult, in contrast, often gives up around the time they have to face their fourth list of irregular verbs.)  Combine that with the fact that some children with normal intelligence couldn't learn language and that others with normal language lacked normal cognitive function, and I was convinced. Humans acquired language because they had a built-in module that was uniquely dedicated to that function.

Or so I thought then. By the late 1990s, I started looking beyond the walls of my own field (developmental psycholinguistics) and out towards a whole host of other fields, including genetics, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology.

The idea that most impressed me — and did the most to shake me of the belief that language was separate from the rest of the mind — goes back to Darwin. Not "survival of the fittest" (a phrase actually coined by Herbert Spencer) but his notion, now amply confirmed at the molecular level, that all biology is the product of what he called "descent with modification". Every species, and every biological system evolves through a combination of inheritance (descent) and change (modification). Nothing, no matter how original it may appear, emerges from scratch.

Language, I ultimately realized, must be no different: it emerged quickly, in the space of a few hundred thousand years, and with comparatively little genetic change. It suddenly dawned on me that the striking fact that our genomes overlap almost 99% with those of chimpanzees must be telling something: language couldn't possibly have started from scratch. There isn't enough room in the genome, or in our evolutionary history, for it to be plausible that language is completely separate from what came before.

Instead, I have now come to believe, language must be, largely, a recombination of spare parts, a kind of jury-rigged kluge built largely out of cognitive machinery that evolved for other purposes, long before there was such a thing as language. If there's something special about language, it is not the parts from which it is composed, but the way in which they are put together.

Neuorimaging studies seem to bear this out. Whereas we once imagined language to be produced and comprehended almost entirely by two purpose-built regions — Broca's area and Wernicke's area, we now see that many other parts of the brain are involved (e.g. the cerebellum and basal ganglia) and that the classic language areas (i.e. Broca's and Wernicke's) participate in other aspects of mental life (e.g., music and motor control) and have counterparts in other apes.

At the narrowest level, this means that psycholinguists and cognitive neuroscientists need to rethink their theories about what language is. But if there is a broader lesson, it is this: although we humans in many ways differ radically from any other species, our greatest gifts are built upon a genomic bedrock that we share with the many other apes that walk the earth.