Chapter 9  Toward a biological theory of language development 

I.                    Five general premises:

(1)   Cognitive function is species-specific.

Past biologists focus on taxonomies to distinguish all aspects of life. Some will be inclined to observe animals’ cell-constituency to determine which animal belongs to which hierarchy. Some will notice that some specific perceptions will work on some specific species, so they will distinguish them in a perceptual field. Some will focus on behavioral parameters among species, so they will distinguish species based on diverse behaviors. Lenneberg will adopt the behavioral approach to understand species.

(2)   Specific properties of cognitive function are replicated in every member of the species.

Replication will work on every individual, so species can share universal features. However, this can’t prevent us from noticing some variables existing among species. Lenneberg points that the differences within species are smaller than between species. Another issue must be also discussed: how to discriminate what an individual actually does, and what he can do. The similarity within species (intraspecific similarity) focuses on competence and disregards performance.

(3)   Cognitive processes and capacities are differentiated spontaneously with maturation

The influence from environment will differentiate species to have diverse appearances. However, it is not the determinant to cause species to have different capacities. Sometimes, the same environment will cause different forms of life. The species’ form and function are not determined from the embryonic period, but from gradual development through a process of differentiation. The stimuli are the key to facilitate some functions like air-breathing among species. An animal’s mode of input processing is based on information contained in the developing tissues, not based on outside environment. Environment is a background for visual development of a vast number of species.

(4)   At birth, man is relatively immature; certain aspects of his behavior and cognitive function emerge only during infancy.

Man’s postnatal state of maturity (brain and behavior) is less advanced that that of other primates. This statement can be seen as a proof to explain some biological functions don’t develop after birth like cognitive function.

(5)   Certain social phenomena among animals come about by spontaneous adaptation of the behavior of the growing individual to the behavior of other individuals around him.

The environment just can assist species to have different physical forms. It is helpless to facilitate species’ specific behaviors. The social exposure and interaction is the key to affect species with different behaviors. The exposure to stimuli is required if species want to have some specific behaviors. Sometimes, mere exposure to social behavior of other individuals is a sufficient stimulus. Negative social input will cause species to have impoverished behavior patterns.

: A concise statement of the theory

(1)   Cognition is the key to manifest language. It is a premise to determine whether linguistic function can be carried out or not.

(2)   The categorization processes will work based on the mechanism of the extraction of similarities. The direction of this process is from general one to specific ones.

(3)   Some specific behaviors or forms or functions are not determined with one-to-one relation. In other words, no functions or forms or behaviors, each one can be seen a sole cause to other species’ differentiation or similarities between species or within specie. Past biologists think that cerebral function is the sole cause for language behavior. This view is needed to be challenged.

(4)   The capacity for extracting similarities from physical stimulus causes the outer form of language to vary with relatively great freedom, but causes the underlying type to remain constant.

(5)   The implication of (1) and (2) is that the existence of our cognitive processes entails a potential for language. Environmental condition is the key to make is possible to unfold language. The language-unfolding process is constituted with two steps. One is the constitution of latent structure for language-readiness. The other is the process from latent structure to realized structure called actualization. The actualization makes the underlying concept within our mind to turn into a concrete utterance.

(6)   Understanding signs of language can be fulfilled mainly with the help of actualization.

(7)   Any organs in every individual will not form perfect functions suddenly in the beginning. Their maturations are formed through the process of nonstop revisions and rearrangements. If we want to look for a cause of language, it will not be profitable. The constitution of language is through the process, from disequilibrium to rearrangement, and again from disequilibrium to rearrangement, and again and again. This process will work on language continuously until maturity is reached.

(8)   Language-readiness begins around two and declines with cerebral maturations in the early teens.

(9)   The presence of universal grammar will lead us to assume that the actualization from latent to realized structure is universal and common to all men.

(10)   Because latent structure is replicated in every child and because all languages must have an inner form of identical type, every child should learn any language with equal ease. But some variables in language will cause individuals to learn language with diverse difficulties.

(11)   Children develop their language not because of reinforcement.

(12)   Social setting is a trigger to set off a reaction. It can be understood with a concept of resonance. The resonator (stimulus) can facilitate every individual to trigger his own language. However, it is not enough. The energy required for resonance within every individual is also an indispensable factor to trigger his own language. Individual does not serve as a passive entity to respond information around him. Conversely, he is autonomous to react to information around him by social contact.

(13)   There are two distinct levels that are relevant to language: in the formation of the latent structure and in the actualization process from latent to realized structure.

: Explanatory power of the theory

Lenneberg’s theory of language development will be discussed on observable facts. These examples are illustrated as following: the resonance phenomena; different outer forms between primitive stages and adult languages; the difference between children and adults in their recovery from acquired aphasia. How does a blind-and-deaf child acquire his input and produce output?

: Biological foundations of history and distribution of natural languages

(1)   Theoretical foundations

Our theory attempts to relate these two levels of language structure to what we have called latent and realized structure, terms that refer to the structure of behavior rather than the structure of the behavioral product.

(a)    Source, inhibitors, and determinants of change.

His problem will focus on something that inhibits change rather than the source for change in self-replication mechanism. What determines the direction of change? Latent structure is the determinant for directionality in evolution. Some social stimuli are other facilitators to serve as determinants for change. However, Lenneberg will concern with the nature of the inhibitors.

(b)   Variance in capacity for latent and realized structure

Alterations will happen to latent structure due to cognitive deviations or due to variations of the maturational course. This involves the mechanism from disequilibrium to rearrangement.

(c)    Tolerance for variance; the mechanism of all changes.

Deviations of latent structure facilitate some variations in language. The role of language is to cause social integration, so the deviation of it will lead hard communication. However, this deviation can be compensated by social cohesion. With the process of social cohesion, any tolerance for deviation will produce, and others will not see this deviant usage as an idiosyncratic one. Besides, the variance within the latent structure is not so tolerated compared with that in superficial level. Besides, the change happening in latent structure will be produced in a slower rate in comparison with that in superficial structure. Besides, the variation will be present in a small step rather than in a sudden one. Besides, realized structure, occasionally, returns to a prior stage or condition.

(2)   Direction and Rate of Historical Changes

Words are not formed with conventional agreement on classes of objects, but modes of categorization. The tolerance is the key to historic change. The cause of change in language in a slow rate is due to the overlapping and interaction between generations.

(3)   A note on adaptive value

The evolution will never be in a final stage, our life may end at one stage of evolution. However, the process of evolution will be continuous. Resonance is the key to facilitate social interaction mechanism. We can find resonance phenomena in other species, not just humans. The genetic alteration and actualization are the two main causes to facilitate variance.

:Innate mechanisms

At present, biology does no more than to discover how various forms are innately constituted, and this includes descriptions of a creature’s reactions to environmental forces. There are many reasons to believe that the process by which the realized, outer structure of a language comes about are deeply-rooted, species-specific, innate properties of man’s biological nature.


Degree of Deviation from Population Means

       Type of Variation

Latent structure

(Relevant to evolutionary changes)

 Actualization or Formations of Realized Structure

 (Relevant to short-history changes and to language diversification)


(Occur frequently and constitute the raw material for all changes)

  Competence is affected. Individual’s chance for language acquisition and efficiency in communication are, inversely proportional to the degree of deviation from the mean.

 Language competence is not affected but performance is. Deviations are irrelevant to efficiency of communication


(If they occur rarely these variations will leave no trace upon long or short term histories)

 Individual’s language is markedly deviant, resulting in a state of isolation. Furthermore, the rarity of occurrence and the fundamental alterations in language function or organization prevent other individuals from resonating to this speech.

 Performance is severely affected. If due to faulty response skills, congenital inarticulation with good understanding may result. Peripheral auditory handicaps may inhibit the actualization process so that latent structure becomes a permanent unrealized state (as in poorly educated deaf). Speech tends to be unique making resonance to it unlikely.














Appendix A    The formal nature of language         By Noam Chomsky


1. To have command of a language is to be able, in principle, to understand what is said and to produce a signal with an intended semantic interpretation. The issue in this appendix is developed based on this main spirit and principle. Chomsky tries to discover the relationship between the semantic representation and phonetic representation. In order to concentrate on this discussion, he takes three approaches:

universal phonetics, universal semantics, and universal syntax. These three are subparts for universal grammar. Then I just want to quote some main points in this appendix to make readers easily to grasp the core issue in this appendix.


Quotation1: Linguistic performance is, furthermore, governed by principles of cognitive structure.


Quotation2: The general theory of linguistic structure is concerned with discovering the conditions that any such grammar must meet.


Quotation3: A grammar generates a certain set of pairs (s, I), where s is a phonetic representation and I its associated semantic interpretation.


Quotation4: A central problem for psychology is to discover the characteristics of a system PM (perceptional mechanism) of this sort. The model PM incorporates the grammar G of a language. Both G and PM relate sound and meaning. G as a system of processes and rules that apply in a certain order to relate sound and meaning.


Quotation5: In this chapter, attention is focused on competence and the grammars that characterize it.


Quotation6: The grammar of any language contains devices that make it possible to form sentences of arbitrary complexity, each with its intrinsic semantic interpretation.


Quotation7: The examples proposed by Chomsky can be used as a basis for discovering his internalized grammar.


Quotation8: Linguistic data     AM      Grammar

  How the device AM selects a grammar will be determined by its internal structure, by the methods of analysis available to it, and the initial constraints that it imposes on any possible grammar.


Quotation9: We might describe both these attempts as concerned with the internal structure of the device AM, with the innate conception of “human language” that makes language acquisition possible.


Quotation 10: Our review of the general properties of language thus falls naturally into three parts: a discussion of universal phonetics, of universal semantics, and of the overarching system of universal grammar.


Quotation 11: The phonetic alphabet is based on a system of phonetic properties developed in terms of point and manner of articulation. In modern terms, it is analyzable as a set of distinctive features.


Quotation 12: We stress once again, however, that actual performance involve other factors beyond ideal phonetic representation.


Quotation 13: These primitive elements include rather, what have been called (phonetic) distinctive features, properties such as voicing, frontness-backness, stress, etc.


Quotation 14: Distinctive features are absolute in the sense that they are fixed for all languages. If phonetic representation is to provide sufficient information for identification of a physical signal, then specification of feature values must also be absolute.


Quotation 15: In addition to a system of distinctive features, a universal phonetic theory will also attempt to formulate certain laws that govern the permitted sequences and permitted variety of selection in a particular language.


Quotation 16: We might hope to establish general principles regarding the possible systems of concepts that can be represented in a human language and the intrinsic connections that may exist among them.


Quotation 17: Still taking a language to be a set of sentences, let us consider each abstract “sentence” to be a specific pairing of a phonetic representation with an abstract structure of some sort (let us call it a deep structure) that incorporates information relevant to semantic interpretation.


Quotation 18: The grammar of a language consists of a syntactic component, a semantic component, and a phonological component.


Quotation 19: The deep structure contains all information relevant to semantic interpretation; the surface structure, all information relevant to phonetic interpretation. Thus the grammar as a whole relates semantic and phonetic interpretations.


Quotation 20: In fact, I think that a reasonable explication of the term “semantic interpretation” would lead to the conclusion that surface structure also contributes in a restricted but important way to semantic interpretation.


Quotation 21: Universal semantics and phonetics in the sense described earlier, will then be a part of universal grammar.


Quotation 22: It is tacitly presumed that the intelligent reader will use his “linguistic intuition” his talent, unconscious knowledge of universal grammar- to determine the regular structure from the presented examples and remarks.


Quotation 23: The fact that every language “makes infinite use of finite means” has long bee understood.


Quotation 24: The universal phonetic alphabet, each symbol being analyzed into distinctive features with specific values.


Quotation 25: What disturbed John was being disregarded by everyone

The entire sentence above can be regarded as a single matrix with the entries + and -. (these specifications given completely in terms of the + and – values of features supplied by the universal phonetic system)


Quotation 26: Each sentence is classified in such a way as to distinguish it from all other sentences, and in such a way as to determine just how the rules of the phonological component assign specific positional phonetic values. The way + and – to represent the value in each sentence.


Quotation 27: In a classificatory function are the distinctive features uniformly binary; only in the phonetic function do they receive a direct physical interpretation.


Quotation 28: By convention, when primary stress is assigned in a certain position, all other stresses are weakened.    Semantic representation

Quotation 29: Deep structure                  

                           Surface structure      phonetic representation


Quotations 30: Transformations not only convert a deep structure to a surface structure, but they also have “filtering effect”, ruling out certain potential deep structure as not well-formed.