I don’t spend much time on Chomsky, Pinker, and the legions of evolutionary psychologists who claim language is innate (“nativists”), but Scott Martens over at Pedantry does, and today he provides a nice long assault on their line of thinking; I’ll reproduce here the heart of the portion about language:
However, the adaptationist/nativist program has offered no insight into the neurobiology of language. It has not managed to identify genes or biochemical mechanisms that underlie language. It has not offered any useful knowledge to translators, lexicographers, language educators or people interested in natural language processing. All the progress made in those fields have come from people whose work either has no bearing on the central theses of language nativists or denies at least some nativist claims outright.
And, people outside the nativist community largely believe language is a lot like walking. Given the physiology of our senses, the structure of our mouths, throats and lungs, the properties of the human nervous system in general, and the structure of the environment in which children are immersed, language is simply the optimal solution to the problem of communication, and virtually every infant discovers it unless they are prevented from doing so by some serious physical condition. If this is the case, then there is nothing in the genome at all that specifies linguistic behaviour, or even has any sort of direct influence on it except in the trivial case where it interferes with the form of our bodies. It makes no sense to talk about innate linguistic knowledge or a language “instinct.”
This programme has—over the last decade especially—shed a lot of light on language. Every meaningful advance in natural language processing since 1980 has come from some kind of interactionist or empirical theoretical base, not from attempts to uncover innate knowledge about language. All meaningful work in lexicography, translation studies and language education has been predicated on the idea that language is firmly grounded in time and place and that it is part of the social structure of the culture in which language is spoken. No linguistic universal has ever been found other than those trivially associated with the physical restrictions of bodies and limited working memory.
Bravo, sir—I doff my headgear in your general direction.