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Cambridge University Press
Online publication date:
May 2013
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Book description

Biolinguistics involves the study of language from a broad perspective that embraces natural sciences, helping us better to understand the fundamentals of the faculty of language. This Handbook offers the most comprehensive state-of-the-field survey of the subject available. A team of prominent scholars working in a variety of disciplines is brought together to examine language development, language evolution and neuroscience, as well as providing overviews of the conceptual landscape of the field. The Handbook includes work at the forefront of contemporary research devoted to the evidence for a language instinct, the critical period hypothesis, grammatical maturation, bilingualism, the relation between mind and brain, and the role of natural selection in language evolution. It will be welcomed by graduate students and researchers in a wide range of disciplines, including linguistics, evolutionary biology and cognitive science.


‘A thoughtfully constructed and didactically useful perspective on a vibrant, heterogeneous area. Many chapters succeed in illustrating the potential for future interdisciplinary progress in the alignment of linguistics and biology.’

David Poeppel - New York University

‘In this comprehensive introduction to biolinguistics, twenty-five chapters by esteemed researchers provide accessible introductions to the field, building bridges between linguistics and biology, evolution, development and neuroscience. A ‘must-have’ compendium.’

Tecumseh Fitch - University of Vienna

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  • 9 - Parameters in language acquisition
    pp 129-159
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    This introduction presents an overview of key concepts discussed in the book. The book addresses central issues in the domain of language development: the range of evidence in favor of a language instinct, the existence of a critical period for language acquisition, the issue of maturation in the context of language acquisition, and the impact of language on other cognitive systems. It focuses on the interplay between mind, brain, and behavior. The book deals with the nature of theoretically informed experiments, working memory and language processing, modularity, language deficits, and pathologies. It focuses on a range of issues relevant to the study of language evolution: the cognitive capacities of non-human primates, the abilities of non-human vocal learners, the potential use of fossil records to shed light on the evolution of language, the possible role of natural selection, and the insights from computational modeling in the context of language evolution.
  • 10 - Bilingualism beyond language: On the impact of bilingualism on executive control
    pp 160-178
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    This chapter presents a historical sketch of biolinguistics. It explains the knowledge of language, and explores how language develops in a child, and how language evolves in a species. These three questions are interrelated in a particular way. The question of how language develops in the child depends on understanding what the properties of the language system are, the answer to the question about what knowledge of language is. The third question about how language evolved in the species, depends crucially on the answers to the first two questions. In practice, one only has partial answers to all three questions, so that it becomes necessary to study all the questions in parallel, constantly revising the answers as new empirical data becomes available. A conceptual breakthrough was achieved with the development of the principles and parameters approach to language acquisition.
  • 11 - The role of experimental syntax in an integrated cognitive science of language
    pp 181-202
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    This chapter discusses the philosophical precedents and foundations for biolinguistics. It outlines scientific methods and research strategies for the study of mind that have yielded successful naturalistic scientific programs in the last few centuries, and indicated their philosophical origins and underpinnings. The chapter focuses on the origins of natural science methodology. Human cognitive capacities appear to fall into two general areas: commonsense understanding on the one hand and what Chomsky calls science formation on the other. The chapter describes the method of naturalistic scientific theory construction by outlining the desiderata for a naturalistic theory: what makes a theory a good one. The naturalistic science methodology applies to the subject matters of all naturalistic scientific research. The chapter explains the biolinguistic research program. It looks at the philosophical foundations for employing the tools of the science of biology in the study of language and other internal, modular, innate systems.
  • 13 - Computational primitives in phonology and their neural correlates
    pp 233-256
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    The idea of a language instinct invites discussions on the role of genetics, such as the relatively recent debate about the gene for language. The selectively intact status of language in individuals with impaired non-verbal cognition presents the opposite side of the coin. The property of recursion has been shown to characterize the cognitive abilities, such as music, arithmetic, theory of mind, and visuo-spatial processing. In recent years, the use of functional neuro-imaging in brain studies has included the study of language knowledge and language processing as well. Language processing data from functional neuro-imaging in healthy adults converge on the finding that Broca's area is crucially involved in the processing of syntactic dependencies. One of the main arguments for linguistic nativism concerns the outcome of language acquisition: the language acquired is under-determined by the input, that is, the data available to the child.
  • 14 - Computational primitives in syntax and possible brain correlates
    pp 257-282
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    This chapter explores the fate of the species-specific language making capacity (LMC) across the lifetimes of individuals and sheds some light on the problem of how it enables them to develop grammatical knowledge about their target languages. As far as the development of a grammatical competence in a first language is concerned, there indeed exists strong evidence in support of the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH). The more controversial question is whether critical periods also characterize successive acquisition of languages in spite of the fact that the LMC has been activated in the course of first language development. More specifically, the claim is that crucial parts of the language acquisition device (LAD) become inaccessible as a result of neural maturation, and although language acquisition continues to be possible, L2 acquisition differs in a number of crucial ways from L1 development. A grammatical development exhibits a number of sensitive phases.
  • 15 - Computational primitives in morphology and possible brain correlates
    pp 283-308
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    In order to build their lexicon, infants firstly have to find word units in the speech stream, and then associate each word form with a meaning. This chapter discusses these two steps of lexical acquisition, and focuses more precisely on the role of two cues: phrasal prosody and function words. The main language-universal cue is the use of statistical or distributional information. The intuition behind the use of transitional probabilities between syllables or phonemes is that sound sequences that occur frequently and in a variety of contexts are better candidates for the lexicon than those that occur rarely or in few contexts. The syntactic category of words is the simplest cue that could constrain word meaning. Indeed, nouns typically refer to objects, whereas verbs generally refer to actions and adjectives to properties. Recent studies have demonstrated that young infants know something about the categories of function words.
  • 16 - Grounding the cognitive neuroscience of semantics in linguistic theory
    pp 309-325
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    This chapter reviews a small, selective number of results in the study of the maturation of language, to illustrate its present state. It explores the question about confrontation with biological data, and uses illustrations to provide results. The chapter discusses the possibility of a wedge into the biological study of the human mind, looking at what is possible in the study of the biology of cognition. It reviews the study of language impairment (LI). There is good reason to believe that children with Specific LI are not just the tail of a normal distribution of development. There is a large complex of properties that flows from the analysis of the finiteness system, or generally the unique checking constraint (UCC)-delayed system, as a piece of biological development. Biology takes behavioral genetic data seriously, as part of its enterprise, so the integration of which Salvador Luria wrote has in fact occurred.
  • 17 - Modularity and descent-with-modification
    pp 326-340
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    In statistical modeling, there are numerous parameters defined mathematically to account for the expected shape of data distributions. In the domain of human language, both principles and parameters are often thought of as innate domain-specific abstractions that connect to many structural properties about language. Linguistic principles correspond to the properties that are invariant across all human languages. The learning path turns out to be crucial for learning the English metrical phonology systems using parameters. An increasingly common way to explore how exactly the human mind learns with parameters is to use computational modeling. Computational modeling gives us very precise control over the language acquisition process, including what hypotheses the child entertains, what data are considered relevant, and how the child changes belief in different hypotheses based on the data. The chapter also looks at a few examples of computational models that investigate language acquisition using parameters.
  • 18 - The role of Broca’s area in language function
    pp 341-349
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    This chapter focuses on the phenomenon of bilingualism having positive collateral effects on general-domain executive control. It provides a broad introduction to what causes bilingualism to affect general-domain executive control. The chapter briefly reviews the first experimental studies with children, which started settling the guidelines of the empirical research on the issue. It discusses findings on the effect that bilingualism has on one executive control process in particular: conflict processing. Specifically, there are two different components relevant for conflict processing and, hence, to deal with the sort of experimental task: conflict resolution and conflict monitoring. The chapter also reviews evidence that being a bilingual entails the development of more efficient executive control across lifespan. The impact of bilingualism on conflict resolution seems to reflect a better functioning of inhibitory control mechanisms in bilingual compared to monolingual speakers. Finally, the chapter highlights the critical issues for future research.

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