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  • Print publication year: 1995
  • Online publication date: June 2012

5 - Do we have a genetically programmed drive to acquire language?


Men are created, not with a God-given language, but with a God-given capacity to make signs and sounds, and by the use of these to form a language. No child comes into the world with a language; that is an acquisition, and the child always acquires the language of its parents, or of those by whom it is surrounded.

Amos Kendall, Introductory address at the inauguration of the College for the Deaf and Dumb

It is apparent that the question in the title of this chapter is closely related to the question of linguistic modularity, and it is also apparent that in its most general sense the answer to it, as was apparent to Amos Kendall, must be yes, since all children under normal circumstances do, more or less, acquire the language of their community. The principal problem for modularists is to show how an innate program could lead to such a variety of languages, now known to include signed languages. More particularly, how, if language were genetically programmed, is it that an infant from any social group can easily learn the language of any other social group? Is there a general program that operates from global rules, or a series of modules related to specific aspects of language? Or, as associationists would insist, is the brain extremely plastic and languages based entirely upon negotiated conventions within social groups?