Eric Heinz Lenneberg
|Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, United States|
Area:language acquisition, cognitive psychology
Eric Heinz Lenneberg (1921 - 1975) was a linguist who pioneered ideas on language acquisition and cognitive psychology, particularly in terms of the concept of innateness. He was born in Dusseldorf, Germany. An ethnic Jew, he left Nazi Germany because of 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," originally published in 1960, sets forth seminal arguments about the human-specific biological capacity for language, which were then being developed in his research and discussions with George A. Miller, Noam Chomsky, and others at Harvard and MIT, and popularized by Steven Pinker in his book, The Language Instinct. He presents four arguments for biological innateness of psychological capacities, parallel to arguments in biology for the innateness of physical traits:
* Universal appearance of a trait at a single time across a species. "Species typical" traits.
* Universal appearance across time for a group. Not just an artifact of cultural history. Again, "species typical" diagnostic feature.
* No learning of the trait is possible.
* 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 advanced the hypothesis of 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 philosophy and embodied cognition.