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  • Language in our brain: The origins of a uniquely human capacity by Angela D. Friederici
  • Johan J. Bolhuis
Language in our brain: The origins of a uniquely human capacity. By Angela D. Friederici. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017. Pp. xiii, 284. ISBN 978026209924. $45 (Hb).

Investigating the neural mechanisms of cognition is never an easy task, but it is particularly difficult in the case of language. This is because, surprisingly, there is no general consensus even on what language is. Imagine if, in the neuroscience of memory, there were not general agreement on what memory actually is, or even whether it exists at all. Luckily, that is not the case. Nevertheless, even after more than a century of research, there are major disagreements about the neural representation of memory, at both the brain and the cellular level. In the case of language, prospects are even bleaker. But an investigation can be done, as Angela Friederici demonstrates in Language in our brain, in which she reviews the impressive research that she and her collaborators have conducted—and indeed continue to be involved in—in this complex field of inquiry. This is clearly a very exciting and dynamic paradigm, with many of the findings discussed in this book having been published very recently. [End Page 568]

Essentially, in her research F has to negotiate two major hurdles. As I suggested above, the first seems to be unique to the study of language, namely the issue of whether language actually exists as an autonomous computational system within the human mind. As a biologist approaching linguistics from the outside, familiar with the cognitive revolution of the mid-twentieth century, I find it rather odd that there is so little agreement on what the faculty of language is. In fact, Noam Chomsky, key to both the cognitive revolution and the development of modern linguistics, has often stated that perhaps the majority of cognitive scientists are suggesting that, in this sense, language does not exist. That is, these authors would argue that language is not an autonomous cognitive mechanism, but merely a combination of different forms of learning: a culturally transmitted motor skill that serves 'communication'. If this were true, then clearly the study of the neural mechanisms of language would essentially become a study of learning and memory—quite a different prospect. This may seem rather bizarre to the readers of Language—after all, Chomsky (1959) published his famous review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal behavior in this very journal, which for many signaled the start of the cognitive revolution and of linguistics as a proper natural science. And of course it is bizarre, but it does seem that there is some kind of 'cognitive counterrevolution' (Bolhuis 2017) going on. For example, the motto for Daniel Everett's (2017:xiv) recent book on language evolution is the following quote from Philip Lieberman (2000:1): 'language is not an instinct, based on genetically transmitted knowledge coded in a discrete cortical "language organ." Instead it is a learned skill … that is distributed over many parts of the human brain'. Let this sink in for a moment. Replace the word 'language' with any other kind of cognitive system ('working memory', 'face recognition', 'color vision', etc.), and you realize just how remarkable a viewpoint this is. Yet it is a view that can boast an increasing popularity, for example in the various 'usage-based' or 'deep learning' approaches to language acquisition. In this neo-behaviorist 'kingdom of speech', children's acquisition of language is merely a case of teaching them tricks—no need for universal grammar (UG) here. The fact that virtually all of the evidence speaks against this peculiar notion (e.g. Yang et al. 2017) is conveniently ignored. Occasionally, rationality prevails, for example when Mendívil-Giró (2018: 862) states that '[w]e can only deny the existence of the initial state of the language faculty if we deny that the language faculty exists'. Or as we put it in an earlier commentary: 'UG or not to be, that is the question' (Bolhuis et al. 2015). F ends this particular sea of troubles not by opposing them, but by simply ignoring them...


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