The Language Instinct

People have long wondered if language is an instinct. If you raised a child without speaking to it, would it begin spontaneously speaking? I hear some folks tried this experience on an orphanage, wondering if the babies would start spontaneously speaking German or French or whatever, and all of the babies died due to neglect.

Of course they wouldn’t have started speaking even if they’d survived. We have no “speak French” instinct, but we do have an instinct to imitate the funny sounds other people make and possibly to “babble”–even deaf babies will “babble” in sign language.

Oh, I found the experiment (I think.) Looks like its a lot older than I thought. According to Wikipedia:

An experiment allegedly carried out by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the 13th century saw young infants raised without human interaction in an attempt to determine if there was a natural language that they might demonstrate once their voices matured. It is claimed he was seeking to discover what language would have been imparted unto Adam and Eve by God.

The experiments were recorded by the monk Salimbene di Adam in his Chronicles, who wrote that Frederick encouraged “foster-mothers and nurses to suckle and bathe and wash the children, but in no ways to prattle or speak with them; for he would have learnt whether they would speak the Hebrew language (which he took to have been the first), or Greek, or Latin, or Arabic, or perchance the tongue of their parents of whom they had been born. But he laboured in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments.”[5]

That said, we likely do have some instincts related to language acquisition.

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3 thoughts on “The Language Instinct

  1. The most religiously tolerant and religiously curious Mughal emperor Akbar did a similar experiment, with the same result. That being said deaf kids have independently generated their own sign languages, so I suspect that those experiments by royalty didn’t isolate communities they isolated individuals as was the case with Akbar Basically any sufficiently large community of deaf people develop their own sign languages organically, the language I referred to previously is Nicaraguan sign language and developed when deaf Nicuraguan children were gathered together, communities with high rates of congenital deafness have also naturally developed their own sign languages, Martha’s vineyard is an example of one of these languages. Apparently both MVSL and NSL are examples of a village sign language, where the surrounding community has a high rate of deafness and a deaf community sign language were deaf people are grouped together, respectively.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicaraguan_Sign_Language
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deaf-community_sign_language

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martha's_Vineyard_Sign_Language
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Village_sign_language

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