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Meet the professionals a Darwinian perspective on language, this thing that we call ‘language’ is rooted in the non-linguistic capacities of different animals. We can find different ingredients that ended up making up language in all sorts of different animals, but no one animal is going to reveal everything we want to know. We have been very successful at understanding many new things about speech by looking at various non-human vocal learners (who can produce vocalisations and acquire new sound patterns through imitation): certain birds, bats... And even though nobody would say that vocal learning is language, it is a big part of what makes up speech. But then we also have our primate relatives, who share other aspects of cognition with us, for example gesture communication, and their ability to reason about the world, construct and use tools, cultural tradition... All of this is relevant for aspects of language, and so we can study these animals to learn more about ourselves. In generative syntax, the dominant idea is that humans are born with a universal grammar, i.e. a set of general principles that govern the structure of all languages. This would mean that our genes already contain specific information about how a language can work, what the basic concepts of syntax are, and so on. What can your research on genes tell us about this – is language an inborn human capacity? This is a difficult question, because it depends a lot on what exactly you mean by ‘innateness’. Certainly, we do have a biological predisposition to learn language, so this should not really be a debate any more. But the interesting question that still remains is: what exactly is innate? There seems to be, however, an emerging consensus that most likely there is going to be a fair amount of non-specific biases that enable us to acquire language, so it is not the case that there is a lot of language-specific information already encoded in our genes. Do you think that your research has an impact on our everyday lives? Well, people are interested in basic science – people like to know how things work, even though there might be no material benefit in it. But apart from that, necessarily, when we understand something about how language capacities are implemented in the brain, we are likely to be able to understand more about the deficits that may arise, and it is not unthinkable that in the long run we could find remedies for situations in which language or cognitive development doesn’t take place according to the standard, and also for the problems faced by people who suffer from these deficits, like victims of strokes or cases of aphasia. Another thing that would be great is to be able to show that non-linguistic creatures can tell us something about something – language – that we have regarded as so specific to our species. This would give a wonderful case for continuity and the vision of evolution that we got from Darwin, which, I think, would be a good thing to share with the public. So there is a scientific goal here, and also a practical goal. ¶ Cedric was interviewed by Stefanie Sturm. “But then we also have our primate relatives, who share other aspects of cognition with us, for example gesture communication, and their ability to reason about the world, construct and use tools, cultural tradition... All of this is relevant for aspects of language, and so we can study these animals to learn more about ourselves.” Cedric Boeckx is a research professor at the Catalan Institute for Advanced Studies (ICREA), a member of the Universitat de Barcelona Institute for Complex Systems, as well as a member of the section of General Linguistics at the Universitat de Barcelona. Before joining ICREA, he was Associate Professor of Linguistics at Harvard University. He is the author of books including Islands and Chains (2003), Linguistic Minimalism (2006), and Language in Cognition (2009). He is the founding editor of the Oxford University Press monograph series Oxford Studies in Biolinguistics. Babel The Language Magazine | May 2017 41