CCHU9042 Humanities
Human Language: Nature or Nurture?

[This course is under the thematic cluster of ‘Sustaining Cities, Cultures, and the Earth’.]


Course Description

Language is an indispensable part of human experience, and yet, the ability to construct linguistic structures to make oneself understood and to interpret correctly the structures that others have produced is, almost always, taken for granted. The understanding of this course description is, in fact, made possible by a number of highly complex linguistic/cognitive processes in our mind. A fundamental question that arises, then, is how we human beings come to have this ability to possess and apply knowledge of language. How is it possible to obtain knowledge of language? Is language unique and specific to human beings? What are the stages of language acquisition? There are a number of different hypotheses regarding how human beings obtain knowledge of natural language. On the “nature” side, researchers argue that human beings are born with the ability to acquire and process language. Proponents on the “nurture” side, however, think that our ability to use language is learnt, much like how our other cognitive and intellectual abilities are learnt. In this course, students will be taken through a critical survey of these hypotheses, and consider what the various views tell us about the nature of the human mind. This course is of relevance and interest to anyone who uses language.

Course Learning Outcomes

On completing the course, students will be able to:

  1. Appreciate the nature vs. nurture debate in language, and demonstrate awareness of the presence of the nature vs. nurture debate in other disciplines.
  2. Identify the basic issues regarding human beings’ ability to acquire knowledge of language.
  3. Compare and contrast the various behaviourist, nativist and social interactionist views on human beings’ ability to acquire knowledge of language.
  4. Use relevant information to critically evaluate the arguments that support or challenge the various hypotheses.
  5. Support their own views regarding the different theories of language acquisition by drawing relevant linguistic, cognitive, and philosophical evidence.

Offer Semester and Day of Teaching

First semester (Wed)


Study Load

Activities Number of hours
Lectures 24
Tutorials 8
Reading / Self-study 30
Assessment: Essay / Report writing 30
Assessment: Presentation (incl preparation) 42
Total: 134

Assessment: 100% coursework

Assessment Tasks Weighting
Tutorial participation and assignments/discussions 15
Review of articles 20
Poster, group presentation and/or debate 40
Written assignment 25

Required Reading

Selected chapters from:

  • Crystal, D. (2007). How language works. London: Penguin.
  • Everett, D. (2012). Language: The cultural tool. New York: Pantheon.
  • Jackendoff, R. (2012). A user’s guide to thought and meaning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct. New York: W. Morrow and Co.

Articles

  • McCrum, R. (2012, March 25). Daniel Everett: “There is no such thing as universal grammar”. The Observer.
  • The evolution of language: Babel or babble? The Economist. (2011, April 14).
  • Wolman, D. (2012). The split brain: A tale of two halves. Nature, 483, 260-263.

Recommended Reading

  • Chomsky, N. (1959). A review of B. F. Skinner’s verbal behavior. Language, 35(1), 26-58.
  • Everett, D. (2005).  Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Pirahã. Current  Anthropology,  46(4), 621-646
  • Everett, D. (2007, April). Cultural constraints on grammar in Pirahã: A reply to Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues (2007). LingBuzz. From http://ling.auf.net/lingBuzz/000427
  • Fitch, T., Hauser, M., & Chomsky, N. (2005). The evolution of the language faculty: Clarifications and implications. Cognition, 97,179-210.
  • Hauser, M., Chomsky, N., & Fitch, T. (2002). The faculty of language: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science, 298(5598), 1569-1579.
  • Jackendoff, R., & Pinker, S. (2005). The nature of the language faculty and its implications for evolution of language. Cognition, 97, 211-225.
  • King, K. A. (2006). Child language acquisition. In R. Fasold & J. Connor-Linton (Eds.), An introduction to language and linguistics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lust, B. C. (2006). Child language: Acquisition and growth. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lust, B. C., & Foley, C. (Eds). (2004). First language acquisition : The essential readings. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  • Nevins, I., Pesetsky, D., & Rodrigues, C. (2007, March). Piraha Exceptionality: A reassessment. LingBuzz. From http://ling.auf.net/lingBuzz/000411
  • Pinker, S., & Jackendoff, R. (2005). The faculty of language: What’s special about it? Cognition, 95, 201-236.
  • Samson, G. (2005). The “language instinct” debate. London: Continuum.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Course Co-ordinator and Teacher(s)

Course Co-ordinator Contact
Dr O.S.C. Lam
School of Humanities (Linguistics), Faculty of Arts
Tel: 3917 2758
Email: osclam@hku.hk
Teacher(s) Contact
Dr O.S.C. Lam
School of Humanities (Linguistics), Faculty of Arts
Tel: 3917 2758
Email: osclam@hku.hk