Eric Lenneberg

From Academic Kids

Eric H[einz] Lenneberg (1921 - 1975) was a linguist who pioneered ideas on language acquisition and cognitive psychology more generally about innateness. He was born in Düsseldorf, Germany. As a jew, he left Germany because of Nazi terrorism. A professor in psychology, he worked at the Harvard Medical School and at the University of Michigan in Ann Harbor.

His 1964 paper "The Capacity of Language Acquisition" sets forth the seminal arguments picked up later by Noam Chomsky and popularized by Steven Pinker in his book, "The Language Instinct".

He presents four arguments for biological innateness of psychological capacities, as constructed in parallel to arguments in biology for the innateness of physical traits:

  1. Universal appearance of a trait at a single time across a species. "Species typical" traits.
  2. Universal appearance across time for a group. Not just an artifact of cultural history. Again, "species typical" diagnostic feature.
  3. No learning of the trait is possible.
  4. Individual development of a trait rigidly follows a given schedule regardless of the particular experience of the organism.

He died at the young age of 54. These early papers remain a significant legacy.

Bibliography

  • The Capacity of Language Acquisition in Fodor and Katz, 1964. Fodor, Jerry and Jerrold Katz, eds. 1964.
  • The Structure of Language. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. The Fodor & Katz volume is a collection of papers around early Chomskyan linguistics, phonology, grammar, semantics.
  • "Biological Foundations of Language" Authorized translation from English language edition published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New York, 1967 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
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