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.


  1. “anyone who kept up a steady attack on Chomsky & Co. is a friend of mine”
    Why? Do you have a problem with Chomsky’s politics?

  2. Eric in Texas says

    In addition to being outspoken with his political views, Chomsky is also a controversial linguist who is a leading proponent of module based learning, rather than general apptitude. Because Bates favored the general learning model rather than Chomsky’s model, the comment was appropriate.

  3. Christopher: Sorry, I tend to assume that people know my feelings about Chomsky, since I’ve ranted about him frequently. Short answer: I have no problem with his politics (though I think he’s gotten so shrill and repetitive he’s lost any effectiveness he might have had), but I can’t stand his linguistic theories. Here‘s my eponymous “Chomsky” post, and you can use the site search box to find plenty of other instances of anti-Chomsky bile if you enjoy that sort of thing.
    Eric: Thanks!

  4. I’m new to your blog, so I didn’t know you had talked about Chomsky before. Sorry for misinterpreting you on your adversion to him, it’s just that even in linguist circles I hear more complaints about his politics than his theories so I assumed that it was with those that you had a problem.

  5. Don’t worry about it — most people who dislike the guy do so because of his politics (and boy, am I sick of the ritual genuflections to his “undoubted linguistic genius” or whatever), so it was a natural assumption. (I like the Occitan flag on your site, by the way!)

  6. I drew a lot on Bates the last time I had to write academic papers. Her book Beyond Modularity is a pretty important text for people looking for a more developmental set of ideas about language.

  7. I’m way out of my league in this debate, but one thing I’ve learned in my limited study of evolutionary biology is that the whole nature/nuture debate is grossly misrepresented by folks on both sides. The most important thing I learned is that humans are genetically predisposed to learn from their environment. Just think about it – humans stay dependent on their parents longer than almost any other species (and I’m not just talking about graduate students). What this means is that it isn’t just a matter of having a single “module” or not, but of having the ability to learn language from environmental input. These things are often triggered by hormones which cause the brain or other parts of the body to develop in certain ways during certain stages of our development. So, taking an example completely unrelated to language – people who grow up at high altitudes go through certain changes during puberty which their low-altitutde relatives do not. These include larger lungs shorter height, etc. The point being that we are pre-programed to respond to our environment, not to be a certain way irregardless of that environment.
    Getting back to language, I think the fact that children are able to develop normal language functions in other parts of their brain is probably not a significant challenge to Chomsky’s arguments. Having a “module” (as I understand it) is not about a physical structure as much as it is the ability to develop that physical structure in response to environmental input. There is good evidence for this line of reasoning. For one thing, children don’t make certain kinds of linguistic mistakes. (Sorry, I can’t provide examples, but I think they are well documented.) Secondly, adults who have brain damage to certain areas associated with language make very specific mistakes and often don’t recover. Third, is no doubt that young children are “language learning machines” in quite remarkable ways. Finally, as I discussed in my post on Hellen Keller, people who aren’t exposed to language at all in their early years don’t seem to develop these structures.
    For me the problem isn’t Chomksy’s claims about such modularity, but the way that S. Pinker recasts them into hard core neo-Darwinian arguments that even Chomsky has expressed discomfort with. Pinker seems to argue out both sides of his mouth – claiming to make a middle of the road argument like what I’ve sketched above, but then really making a much more reductionist argument about biological pre-determination that I find very troublesome.
    I haven’t read Bates’ work, but it seems like more of a critique of Pinker than of Chomsky, based on what little I know of these debates.

  8. Thanks Kerim for these illuminating lines in times of darkness (and not just because it’s the shortest day of the year today). I’m not a linguist, so can anyone tell me if it was Chomsky who claimed that “colourless green ideas” can “sleep furiously”? I remember tumbling over this sentence years ago when I had to do some linguistics for my languages degree, but I don’t remember if it was indeed Chomsky himself in his right mind who implicitly or explicitly suggested that anyone would benefit from dealing with the linguistic intricacies of this sentence (or similarly useful constructs).

  9. Yep, that was him, though I can’t vouch for his state of mind. I suppose it’s gotten him in Bartlett’s by now.

  10. IIRC, Chomsky devised the sentence as an example of something grammatical but meaningless. Clive James wrote some doggerel giving that claim the lie; I don’t have it to hand, but a quick google produced several similar efforts.

  11. Ugh. s/grammatical/gramatically correct, s/produced/turned up. I am uncoffee’d and it’s showing.

  12. neuromancer says

    I knew Liz Bates very well. Her approach was very productive and, above all, empirically falsifiable, as she used data from cognitive psychology and neuroscience to explain linguistic phenomena. Chomsky has ignored this crucial aspect of language by talking about “competence” and by trying to come up with an abstract theory of competence, regardless of implementation. That is a major mistake, and it is not surprising it’s become a rather sterile theory (unfalsifiable; unlinkable to any advances in other disciplines).
    Don’t know much about Chomsky’s political stuff, but the little I’ve seen, looks more like it’s all about self-ego massaging. Pinker is a smart scholar, but I’m not sure he’s serious about language theorization. The driving force is to write popular books, in my opinion.
    I sure hope the “west pole” produces another scientist of her same caliber soon…

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