Educating Eve: the 'Language Instinct' Debate

Sampson, Geoffrey (1997) Educating Eve: the 'Language Instinct' Debate. Cassell, London, p. 184. ISBN 0826473857

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Over the last forty-odd years, it has become fashionable to believe that human beings are born with detailed knowledge “hard wired” in their genes.

In particular, children are said to be quick at language-learning because they inherit a special language instinct which gives them most of what they need to know before they start. This idea was first argued by Noam Chomsky in the 1960s and 1970s; it has been popularized by Steven Pinker’s best-seller The Language Instinct.

The ‘Language Instinct’ Debate is a critique of this idea. It is an enlarged and revised edition of a book first published in Britain under the title Educating Eve. The new version, The ‘Language Instinct’ Debate, was published in March 2005; sales took off rapidly, so that it was already reprinted before the end of that year.

My book assesses the many arguments used to justify the language-instinct claim, and it shows that every one of those arguments is wrong. Either the logic is fallacious, or the factual data are incorrect (or, sometimes, both). The evidence points the other way. Children are good at learning languages, because people are good at learning anything that life throws at us — not because we have fixed structures of knowledge built-in.

A new chapter in this edition analyses a database of English as actually used by a cross-section of the population in everyday conversation. The patterns of real-life usage contradict the claims made by believers in a “language instinct”.

The new edition includes many further changes and additions, responding to critics and taking account of recent research. It has a preface by Paul M. Postal of New York University.

The ‘Language Instinct’ Debate ends by posing the question “How could such poor arguments have passed muster for so long?”

Item Type: Book
Schools and Departments: School of Engineering and Informatics > Informatics
Depositing User: Geoffrey Richard Sampson
Date Deposited: 06 Feb 2012 20:41
Last Modified: 13 Jun 2012 13:23
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