Language cannot be reduced to biology: Perspectives from neuro-developmental disorders affecting language learning
The study of language knowledge guided by a purely biological perspective prioritizes the study of syntax. The essential process of syntax is recursion — the ability to generate an infinite array of expressions from a limited set of elements. Researchers working within the biological perspective argue that this ability is possible only because of an innately specified genetic makeup that is specific to human beings. Such a view of language knowledge may be fully justified in discussions on biolinguistics, and in evolutionary biology. However, it is grossly inadequate in understanding language-learning problems, particularly those experienced by children with neurodevelopmental disorders such as developmental dyslexia, Williams syndrome, specific language impairment and autism spectrum disorders. Specifically, syntax-centered definitions of language knowledge completely ignore certain crucial aspects of language learning and use, namely, that language is embedded in a social context; that the role of envrironmental triggering as a learning mechanism is grossly underestimated; that a considerable extent of visuo-spatial information accompanies speech in day-to-day communication; that the developmental process itself lies at the heart of knowledge acquisition; and that there is a tremendous variation in the orthographic systems associated with different languages. All these (socio-cultural) factors can influence the rate and quality of spoken and written language acquisition resulting in much variation in phenotypes associated with disorders known to have a genetic component. Delineation of such phenotypic variability requires inputs from varied disciplines such as neurobiology, neuropsychology, linguistics and communication disorders. In this paper, I discuss published research that questions cognitive modularity and emphasises the role of the environment for understanding linguistic capabilities of children with neuro-developmental disorders. The discussion pertains to two specific disorders, developmental dyslexia and Williams syndrome.
Volume 45, 2020
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