Date Thesis Awarded
Honors Thesis -- Access Restricted On-Campus Only
Bachelors of Arts (BA)
Michael Tomasello's account of language development, and hence of human linguistic uniqueness, differs strongly from the Chomksyan version that is currently dominant in the field of linguistics. Tomasello claims that human language is not due to a genetic endowment unique to the species Homo sapiens, but rather, that humans have certain non-language-specific cognitive and interpersonal capacities that lead them to become full participants in the social use of language. In his current theory, individuals of any species would require the general capacities of intention-reading, relevance assumptions, role reversal imitation, and pattern-finding in order to develop a language. Because these capacities are not conceived of as specifically and autonomously linguistic – but rather as social and cognitive in nature – their presence or absence in prelinguistic human infants and nonhuman apes can be tested for using the experimental methods of developmental psychology and cognitive science. Based on such tests, Tomasello has concluded that whereas human children possess all of the capacities that he deems necessary for language acquisition, there is limited or negative evidence for chimpanzees' capacities to act helpfully, assume helpfulness in others, form joint goals, and construct and conform to group expectations. This thesis raises a degree of skepticism towards Tomasello's claims, citing the growing body of evidence against his specific research findings involving both apes and humans. It further suggests that his overall account of the necessary capacities for language development is both unverified and unverifiable, and that therefore the issue of human linguistic uniqueness is still an open question.
Kessler, Joseph T., "Michael Tomasello on Language Development: The Puzzle of Human Linguistic Uniqueness" (2010). Undergraduate Honors Theses. William & Mary. Paper 680.
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