By the time you were just a year old, you had learned which sound distinctions matter and which do not. From the constant streams of acoustic and visual input, you had extracted a few acoustic forms and linked them to meanings—your first words. The muscles of your tongue, jaw, and larynx (and a few others) had been shaped into producing intricate, precisely coordinated patterns that would reproduce some of these complex patterns of sound closely enough to evoke the adept at producing words and sentences you had never heard before, planning and executing a novel sequence of muscle movements to convey a novel meaning. These feats appear miraculous, impossible for mere animals to accomplish. And indeed, they have led many researchers of language acquisition to posit that we are born knowing much about what human languages are like (Universal Grammar) and equipped with specialized learning mechanisms, tailored to the acquisition of language, mechanisms not subject to the laws that govern learning in the rest of the biological world (the Language Acquisition Device). The aim of this book is to convince you that this conclusion is—if not wrong—then at least premature. Language acquisition is simply learning. This book is one illustration of how accepting this proposition gets us much closer to explaining why languages are the way they are—the ultimate goal of linguistic theory—than does accepting innate knowledge of language universals and the Language Acquisition Device. Learning changes minds, and changing minds change the tools they use to accomplish their communicative goals to fit....
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