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Detail of contribution


Co-Auteur(s): Cedric BOECKX (ICREA/Universitat de Barcelona, Spain)

Should we expect a variable Faculty of Language?

Abstract/Résumé: Current psycholinguistic, neurobiological and genetic research has greatly increased the degree of variation regarding language and linguistic phenomena. In particular, it seems to cast doubt on the purportedly homogeneous nature of the language faculty. For instance, psycholinguistic measures are variable across the normal population, suggesting a variable competence/performance within it. At the brain level the boundaries of the ‘language areas’ are rather changeable among the diverse individuals, but also across development. Moreover, many genes contribute to regulate the development and the functioning of this neural substrate, but they are (highly) polymorphic, with some variants giving rise to pathological conditions, but with others being present as well within the unaffected population. This seems to challenge, in particular, the longstanding assumption that the linguistic genotype is going to be uniform across the species in the absence of a fairly severe and specific pathology. In this presentation we discuss whether (and to which extent) this genetic diversity can actually be reconciled with the widespread view of the faculty of language as a “one component of the human mind”, in essence, as an idiosyncratic cognitive capacity/entity/ability, qualitatively equal in all human beings. In addressing this question, we appeal to (and explore the implications of) some fresh hypotheses posited by evolutionary developmental biology (Evo-Devo). In particular, we argue that developmental dynamics (and hence, an assorted set of regulatory factors) strongly canalizes variation, to the extent that the same phenotype can robustly emerge at the term of growth from diverse genotypes. We argue that language disorders can be construed as conditions for which canalization has been unable to achieve particular degrees of development. Breakdowns do not occur randomly, clearly because adaptability is always constrained, but plausibly also because certain cognitive processes are more vulnerable than others to damage or to developmental disturbances. Eventually, even though any of its biological components can be regarded as specifically linguistic, the language faculty itself can actually be characterised as an idiosyncratic cognitive faculty, almost certainly because of that pervasive tendency of their components to interface whenever growth takes place in the presence of a suitable amount of linguistic stimuli.