The Innate Language Potential

or The Mind Imposes Order on the Chaos


spring 2004

Some common ground and the attempt to define innateness.

Human beings posses a unique ability to acquire, process and apply the underlying rules that govern language. Language in humans must be innate because the potential for language is innate, and, although this seems so obvious as to be inconsequential, it is crucial to recognize because there is something in us that perceives the environment around us and creates rules of governance and, more specifically, language. This is also important because it is a place of agreement and the natural progression from it brings us to the definition of innateness. The human body is an environment in constant interaction both within itself and with the external world. The human brain or human cognition, then, by nature must exist in this space of interaction and information flow, aware of the body and through the body, the world outside. Freud developed a theory of a persons sense of self, concerning the id, ego and super-ego and the only thing interesting about it is this: that a child at first, he says, cannot distinguish the self from the non-self, the internal from the external, but that the sense of self develops over time through a painful process of interaction. The potential for self is always there, innate and in conjunction with the environment, but it has to be deciphered and the only way it can be deciphered involves the internal/external dialog. If there were no environment, there would be no sense of self because self exists in the negative space of environment, just as if there were no environment there would be no language, because there would be nothing to structure[1]. Conversely, when environment existed sans human brains and perception, as surely it did before our evolution, it did not have language worked into its fabric of space, matter and time. However the environment did have the pattern-potential, just as the potential to impose patterns on the world, especially linguistic patterns, had to have been latent even in the first primordial amoeba for us to have evolved as we did, pattern wielding, complex and unique.

Bates defines innateness as the amount of information coded within and contributed by the genes to the internal/external relationship that gives rise to language. Innateness, as outlined by Bates, can be assumed to take place on one of three levels: representational constraints, architectural constraints and chronotopic constraints. Constraints, she says, do not necessarily connote innateness, however, because the environment as well as the genes could determine the levels of constraint.

Representational constraints are a specialized, innate structure of mental representations that makes up knowledge. If language were wholly innate at this level, it would mean that a detailed understanding of syntax, in this case it must be Chomskian Universal Grammar, exists completely independently of experience. It also means that inside the brain there would be, from birth, direct genetic control of specific patterns of synaptic connectivity that could not be destroyed by, say, local brain injury or aphasia without disastrous consequences for the potential to acquire language. This has been shown not to be the case, studies in pre- and perinatal children with some damage done to the brain, even in the left frontal hemisphere where most syntactic knowledge is thought to be stored, show that the children have plastic enough brains that some other region adapts and compensates. It should be noted that while these children often fall within normal ranges of language cognition, they fall generally to the slightly-less competent end. There are two opposing explanations for this, one is that they have suffered damage to the language module and suffer shortcomings because they must process through general cognition a task that is too complex to be understood wholly by an un-specialized region of the brain. The other is that a part of the brain is missing and they sustain slight difficulties across the board of general cognition, because they are missing part of their brain. Either way, though there must be some innateness prespecified in the genes, there is evidence against having prespecialized patterns of synaptic connectivity that are the sole containers of language from birth. Johnson argues that if several