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The Universality vs. Linguistic-Relativity of Language Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Feb 3rd, 2022

The paper under review is an article titled “The Universality vs. Linguistic-Relativity of Language” and is written by Deirdre E. Bradley. The paper looks at how two opposing theories of language, the Universal Grammar Hypothesis (UGH) and Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis (LRH), make sense of language and the implications this has on psychological studies that seek to understand brain structures and cognitive development. This critique is an evaluation of the arguments and conclusions presented by the writer.

The writer of the article relies on credible research and studies to show that each of the theories is supported by evidence. It is important to note that the key difference between the two theories is that UGH proposes that language is innate in humans and language structure is universal while LRH contends that language is a result of experience and that language is learned.

First, a look at the support presented in support of UGH. Proponents of UGH hold that all languages are similar, yet there is no evidence of language having diffused from a common point of origin (Pinker, 2007). This similarity is indicative of language transcending culture, environment, and nurturance, therefore being universal. This proposition is further supported by the fact that all cultures demonstrate a complex linguistic system of communication despite gaps in other aspects (like technology) and the fact that grammars of the world tend to have a similar structure. Children tend to acquire language at relatively the same age (Boden, 2006); deaf children acquire sign language at similar ages too (Pinker, 2007). UGH, theorists assert that this is indicative of innate structures being responsible for language acquisition. Neurolinguistic research has shown that there are specialized areas in the brain (e.g. Broca’s area) that are activated while processing information of a semantic or syntactic nature and this has strengthened the UGH proponents’ argument that language has a neurological basis (Friederici, 2011).

On the other hand, the evidence in support of LRH starts with a pejorative critique of the evidence presented to support UGH. The first element that they point out as being wrong is that language has a genetic basis. They argue that are several phenotypical variations, therefore there should be similar variations in language as well. The second argument against UGH asserts that language is too dynamic to originate from a hard-coded source (Christiansen and Chater, 2008). Thirdly, Schoenemann (1999) argues that the universal categories of language that UGH identifies are used for mere linguistic organization and are not necessarily indicative of stringent rules of language per se. The writer proceeds to show how language, experience, and thought have an intricate relationship and points out that the results of some UGH studies can be interpreted to support LRH.

In a conclusion, the writer determines that language is more of a cultural institution, not an autonomous structure. Both UGH and LRH play a part in explaining how we acquire language, how language shapes our thoughts, and how experience shapes our language.

To conclude this review, it is necessary to look at the evidence presented from a theoretically neutral standpoint. Research is guided by theory and seeks to either provide evidence for a hypothesis or disprove that hypothesis. As such, the interpretations of results have a degree of bias as they are guided either towards or against a specific theory. The evidence presented in this paper is more complementary than contradictory and both theories do not satisfactorily explain language acquisition. Furthermore, research in linguistic studies is not easily replicated (Lucy, 1996). The paper, in my view, presents neutral evidence that suggests that integrating the two theories might be beneficial in the future.

References

Boden, M. (2006). Mind as machine: A history of cognitive science, volume 1. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Christiansen, M. and Chater, N. (2008). Language as shaped by the brain. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31(5), 489-558.

Friederici, A. (2011). The brain basis of language processing: From structure to function. Physiology Review, 91(4), 1357-1392.

Lucy, J. (1996). The scope of linguistic relativity: An analysis and review of empirical research. In J. Gumperz and S. Levinson (Eds). Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Pinker, S. (2007). The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Schoenemann, P.T. (1999). Syntax as an Emergent Characteristic of the Evolution of Semantic Complexity. Minds and machines, 9(3), 309-346.

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IvyPanda. (2022) 'The Universality vs. Linguistic-Relativity of Language'. 3 February.

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