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How a PhD in linguistics prepared me for motherhood

Linguist and mother ignoring Steven Pinker’s advice. Author provided

How a PhD in linguistics prepared me for motherhood

Unlike most newborns, on his arrival into the world, my newly-minted son found himself in the arms of someone well-versed in the the most fiercely contested question in contemporary linguistics: is language innate?

Are babies born with grammar hard-wired into their brain? Or is language something bestowed by culture and socialisation?

The early exchanges of gaze, attention and vocalisations with my baby in his first hours, days and weeks were experienced against the melodrama of modern linguistics’ greatest schism. This happens to revolve entirely around the role of mothers and significant others in the development of a child’s language.

In the story of how language emerges in the child, as told by Noam Chomsky, nature is largely the lone hero. The child comes with a “language organ” already installed in her or his brain, as a sudden and isolated gift of evolution – out of nowhere, all-at-once, fully formed and forever unchanging.

Chomsky’s Universal Grammar

Called “Universal Grammar” (or UG), the language organ is “invariant among humans”. While the world appears to be full of many and varied languages (estimated at more than 7,000), to Chomsky this rich variation in linguistic forms and functions is, despite appearances, superficial.

Chomsky speaking in 2012 on Universal Grammar and the genetics of language.

Why? Because of the “empirical conditions on language acquisition”, by which Chomsky means the quality and quantity of the language around the infant. Chomsky has argued for more than 50 years that language must be innate because the familial and domestic discourse that surrounds infants is “degenerate”. Children simply could not learn language because the input they receive from their mothers and significant others is “impoverished”.

The ‘poverty of the stimulus’

Chomsky named this central plank in his theory “the poverty of the stimulus”. As such, Chomsky’s most famous disciple, Steven Pinker, advises parents to ignore their offspring:

Young children plainly can’t understand a word you say. So why waste your breath in soliloquies? Any sensible person would surely wait until a child has developed speech and more gratifying two-way conversations become possible.

Maternal language, Pinker continued, is all part of “the same mentality that sends yuppies to ‘learning centers’ to buy little mittens with bull’s-eyes to help their babies find their hands sooner”. It is nothing more than a collective anxiety to “keep the helpless infant from falling behind in the great race of life”.

If you believe that language is not for communication, then this makes perfect sense. The real function of language, Chomsky argues, is to converse with yourself inside your own skull.

“In any useful sense of the term,” says Chomsky, “communication is not the function of language.”

While infants and toddlers might display “language-like expressions” – like the twins of YouTube fame (below) – this behaviour, to the 20th century’s most famous linguist, is akin to a dog being trained to respond to certain commands.

Talking twins showing turn-taking and the intonation patterns of their mother-tongue.

In a new and very readable critique of Universal Grammar, Professor Vyvan Evans writes that “despite being completely wrong” UG “is alive and kicking”.

Evans argues that the myth “has become institutionalised via retellings which are now immune to counterevidence”. The evidence and arguments against UG have come, for many years, from fields as diverse as animal communication studies, language typology, language evolution, infant communication, child language development, neuroscience and psychiatry. Evans reviews some of this evidence in his new book.

The alternative to Universal Grammar

As I waited for the birth of my son, I eschewed Australia’s best selling book for expectant mothers, in favour of the growing body of research on infant and mother communication. In this research, nature still had a crucial role: no less than giving my son his complex brain, one ready and able to learn language.

But nature bestowed on him something else besides: the capacity for “intersubjectivity”. The research shows babies are innately tuned to display their subjectivity – their tiny personalities – and to adapt or fit their displays of attention and emotion to the subjectivity of others.

Once researchers started to look – really look – at young infants, their early sociability became apparent. Professor Colwyn Trevarthen has, since the 1970s, closely observed the communicative repertoire of very young babies. He has observed their smiles, their coos of recognition, their frowns and their hand gestures". All these postures “announce, for a sympathetic other person, the infant’s state of openness to the world”. The babies gestures are prolific, intelligible and organised.

Colwyn Trevarthen began observing mothers and young babies in the 1970s.

Babies’ survival is tied into a capacity to establish the mutual rhythms which produce human companionship. Trevarthen writes:

Being conversational is what it takes for a young person to begin learning what other people know and do, and this is the behaviour a fond parent expects and enjoys. It is the human adaption for cultural learning.

It is, of course, our capacity for cultural learning which sets us apart from all other animals.

Babies need joyful, responsive human company

Research in countries as diverse as Scotland, Nigeria, Germany, Sweden and Japan has shown mothers speak to infants in a manner that is rhythmic, repetitive, musical and regular. Far from being “degenerate” or “impoverished”, this kind of language is maximally designed for the needs of the young baby.

Father in conversation with nine-week-old girl.

Babies need and seek “joyful, responsive human company”, with a known, loving and attentive conversational partner. These “proto-conversations” provide the foundations for infants to step into the systems and structures of their mother-tongue.

As helpless and dependent as my baby son was, I knew my little munchkin was biologically prepared to initiate and sustain the interactions through which his beautifully complex human brain could get to know the world outside him, and his place in that world.

I knew our conversations would propel him into the rich and extravagant culture around him. And that this culture would reciprocate his curiosity with its many artifacts, including the infinitely creative, collective resource that is human language.