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Eric Lenneberg

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Eric Heinz 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. An ethnic Jew, he left Nazi Germany due to rising Nazi persecution. He initially fled to Brazil with his family and then to the United States where he attended the University of Chicago and Harvard University. A professor of psychology and neurobiology, he taught at the Harvard Medical School , the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Cornell University and medical School.

Lenneberg's 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.

Lenneberg died in 1975. In his publication Biological Foundations of Language he put forward the hypothesis for a critical period for language development; a topic which remains controversial and the subject of debate. Lenneberg's biological approach to language was related to developments such as the motor theory of speech perception developed by Alvin Liberman and colleagues at Haskins Laboratories and also provided historical antecedents to issues now emerging in embodied cognition.

BibliographyEdit

  • 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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