Elizabeth Bates, a psycholinguist and developmental psychologist who focused on the way infants develop language and (in the words of the NY Times obituary, by Sandra Blakeslee) “an outspoken critic of the theory that humans are endowed at birth with a language module,” died Sunday at the age of 56. Language development is one of the areas of linguistic study that I have interest in but no competence to judge; that notwithstanding, anyone who kept up a steady attack on Chomsky & Co. is a friend of mine:
Dr. Bates thought all development, including the acquisition of language, rested on a foundation of general mental abilities. For example, humans drive cars not because their brains contain car-driving modules but by using various visual, motor and focusing skills, which are parts of the brain’s wider repertoire.
Language is special and unique, Dr. Bates said, but its specialness is derived from the interaction of bits and pieces in the brain that are recruited for many purposes. Defining language as “a new machine built out of old parts,” Dr. Bates spent her career working out the details of that concept.
In putting forth her ideas, Dr. Bates criticized the theories of the linguist Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his colleague Dr. Steven Pinker, the psychology professor, now at Harvard. They contend that infants have a high degree of early knowledge and that development is more a matter of unfolding inborn traits.
Frequent sparring between the two sides, one based in California, the other in Massachusetts, led to the aphorism that much of cognitive neuroscience lay within the dynamic pull of a west pole and an east pole. Dr. Bates was “queen of the west pole,” Dr. Elman said.
Dr. Pinker said in an interview: “As much as we locked horns, I had a huge amount of respect for her intellect and for keeping people like me honest. In anticipating her criticisms, she forced me to do better work.”
Dr. Bates conducted studies on more than 20 languages on four continents, showing how so-called universals of language like noun-verb agreement vary significantly in specific languages.
She studied infants born with extensive damage to the brain’s language areas and found that their language abilities developed normally. In recent work, she found that there was a significant overlap in areas of the brain involved in processing language and areas involved in processing environmental sounds like trains whistling, cows mooing and doors slamming. She concluded that all these areas were specialized for meaningful sounds, not just language.