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Report of Frijda Lecture "Language is not an instinct!"
on July 7

Thursday July 7, 2005, prof. Michael Tomasello (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig) held the Frijda lecture as part of the Cognitive Science Summer school. Cognitive Science is a new interdisciplinary master at the Universiteit van Amsterdam.

Professor Tomasello, known for his contributions in developmental psychology, language acquisition, cultural psychology, and primatology, gave the third well-attended Frijda lecture, with the title 'Constructing a Language'. The Frijda lecture is part of the Summer school, which is being sponsored by NWO.

Tomasello is a great advocate of the role of nurture in language acquisition, as this was evident in his review of Steven Pinker's famous book 'The language instinct', which he entitled 'Language is not an instinct'. Many linguists, Pinker amongst them, have argued that the language input a child receives is insufficient to learn the complex grammar of a language - thus, the language capacity must mostly be innate. Others, including Tomasello, consider this as big mistake. According to them, there is no reason to assume that the abstract grammatical categories, which are being used to describe the language of adults (for example categories like verb, noun, preposition), actually have to be learned by infants. A child who knows the abstract concepts, should, after hearing the sentence (1) 'I throw the ball to the dog', be able to produce the next sentence 2) 'I bring my plate to the kitchen'. After all, both sentences are instances of the same scheme.

A growing number of experimental results (also from Tomasello's laboratory) show that this is not the case: a child could for example use the first sentence and at the same time never combine the expression 'to X' with the verb 'bring'. In the 'usage-based' account of language acquisition, learning takes place by picking up language expressions from the environment, without assuming an innate universal grammar. This interpretation has great consequences for the 'nature vs. nurture' debate. After all, until now linguistics has mostly advocated the first alternative, namely 'nature'.

Every year, the Cognitive Science Center Amsterdam (CSCA) appoints a prominent researcher in the field of cognition to be a visiting professor on the Frijda chair. The field of research of the professor determines the theme of the Summer school and the Symposium of that year. Furthermore, this professor gives the Frijda lecture, which aims to present an important topic in cognitive science to a wider audience.

Next year, Annette Karmiloff-Smith, professor of Neurocognitive Development at University College London, will be appointed to the Frijda chair. Karmiloff-Smith is well known for her contributions to cognitive development, language acquisition, developmental disorders, and cognitive models.

Cognition is an area of science, which is developing strongly. Processes like thinking, perception, learning etc. are being studied from different perspectives since ancient times. During recent years, there has been a growing interest in an intergrated perspective on cognition, hence why the Universiteit van Amsterdam has started the master course Cognitive Science in the Netherlands.

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Please note that this newsitem has been archived, and may contain outdated information or links.