Neither innate nor learned

July 11, 2012

A child begins to speak; to say that it is hungry, or does not want to sleep. Where was the child’s language hiding before it began to speak? Did the child invent it?

Certainly not, experts on language development would insist. A child cannot create language. Language exists before the child starts to speak. All that is happening during language development is that language is being transported to the child.

The big question is: transported from where? There seem to be only two alternatives:

  1. Language is innate. It is prepared in our neural structures. When the child hears its parents speak, these structures are stimulated and soon start supporting the child’s own speech.
  2. Language is learned. It exists in society. Children have social learning skills; through these skills, language is transported from the social environment to the young pupil, soon supporting the child’s own speech.

These are the alternatives, then. Language is either inside or outside the newborn. Language development is either a process of “externalization” or a process of “internalization” of language. There can be no third alternative.

I have written about the ape Kanzi, who was raised by a human mother. I’ve written about him both on The Ethics Blog and in the book, Kanzi’s Primal Language. This bonobo and his half-sister Panbanisha developed language in a manner that does not clearly correspond to any of these two alternatives.

Since it is hardly credible that human language is innate in apes, ape language researchers typically try to teach apes language. These attempts fail.

Kanzi’s human mother, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, avoided teaching Kanzi. Instead, she simply spoke to him, as parents do, in a shared Pan/Homo culture. As a result of this humanlike cultural rearing, he developed language as nativists believe only human children do: spontaneously, without the parent having to play the social role of a teacher.

The humble purpose of this blog post is to introduce the idea we have to think more carefully about human changeability than we have done so far. We tend to think that human changes are either lying dormant in our nature or are being taught to us by the society.

Kanzi entices us to think differently.

Spontaneous language development in a nonhuman suggests that being reared in culture is more than simply a matter of internalizing social norms. Being reared in culture means participating in the culture: a more creative and masterful role than that of a mere pupil.

I believe we are caught in an adult/child dichotomy. The creative role of the child becomes invisible because the dichotomy categorically portrays her as a novice, as a pupil, as a learner… as a vacuous not-yet-adult-human.

Perhaps, if we manage to liberate us from this dichotomy, we can see the possibility that language – together with much else in human life – is neither innate nor learned.

Pär Segerdahl

Understanding enculturated apes - the ethics blog


Apes become pregnant with language in culture

February 17, 2012

During the past century, a series of optimistic researchers set out to teach language to apes. This could have been no more than a queer expression of human naiveté… if it wasn’t for the fact that one of them succeeded.

Who succeeded? The one who avoided teaching the apes!

Why did the one who avoided teaching succeed?

I believe the answer lies dormant in an insightful objection to ape language research (ALR). The objection is that language is not like a strange property of human beings. It is not like a rare skill that we can loosen from our humanity and then empirically test if it can be transferred to nonhumans.

We must not confuse this insightful objection with its sophistic variant.

  1. The sophistic objection says that ALR is a contradiction in terms. The question whether “nonhumans” can have “language” cannot even be raised, because language is so profoundly entrenched in what we are as humans. The philosophical task with regard to ALR can only be this critical one: to illuminate the difference between all purported examples of “ape language” and our human language.
  2. The interesting objection says that ape language research cannot consist merely in teaching apes demarcated skills. The question is not whether apes can be taught language. The question is if we can help them become beings in whom language is as deeply entrenched as it is in us.

“Becoming someone” is more profound than “learning something.”

The secret behind success, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh discovered, was to initiate apes into a cultural environment with meaningful others who already were speakers (i.e., humans). And then wait and see. Wait and see if the apes would respond to this cultural environment as human children do… by spontaneously becoming speakers.

Every parent experiences that language isn’t taught to children but somehow grows within them, as if they were pregnant with language.

Sue had the same experience with Kanzi, Panbanisha and Nyota. They spontaneously developed comprehension of her spoken English, and they began to speak to her by (among other things) pointing to word symbols on a portable keyboard.

Culture transformed the apes’ way of being apes. Culture made them pregnant with language. Language began to “grow” in them.

Apes in the entertainment industry are specially trained to do apparently human things. These apes strike us as comical because they are not the kind of beings that can “carry” human skills.

In successful ALR the emphasis is not on training but on stimulating apes to become beings that genuinely “carry” human traits. Kanzi, Panbanisha and Nyota are not aping us. They have become sufficiently like us to be our co-inhabitants in language.

A short history of ape language research can be found on the Great Ape Trust website. Why training must be avoided in ALR is investigated in Kanzi’s Primal Language.

Pär Segerdahl

Understanding enculturated apes - the ethics blog


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