Guess what? Language is learned

Document Type

Conference Presentation



Conference Title

Annual Meeting of the Association for Behavior Analysis


Association for Behavior Analysis


Phoenix, AZ

Conference Dates

May 22-26, 2009

Date of Presentation





Chomsky’s view that much of one’s knowledge of a natural language is innate has dominated theorizing in linguistics, psychology, and philosophy for fifty years. On the basis of ‘arguments from the poverty of the stimulus,’ Chomsky and his followers argued that human beings are innately endowed with a ‘language faculty’ containing substantial information about the form and functioning of human languages. New (and not-so-new) research from a variety of fields reveals that this view is now untenable In the first part of this paper, I will survey some of this research – from psychology, neuroscience, and linguistics -- showing how it undermines the Chomskyan position. In the second part, I will explore the origins of language, arguing that evolutionary considerations also strongly support an empiricist picture of language acquisition. Dr. Fiona Cowie is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the California Institute of Humanities. She has a B.A. (Hons.) in Philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Princeton University. Her book, What’s Within? Nativism Reconsidered (OUP, 1999) was the first book-length attempt to refute Chomsky’s innateness hypothesis and challenge the nativist hegemony, and Cowie regards the vituperation it engendered as a clear vindication of her arguments. Cowie is currently writing a book about the evolution of language, entitled Building Babel. She expects it to be similarly denounced. She lives in Pasadena, CA, with her children and other animals.

This document is currently not available here.