Language Acquisition Meets Language Evolution


should be sent to Morten H. Christiansen, Department of Psychology, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853. E-mail:


Recent research suggests that language evolution is a process of cultural change, in which linguistic structures are shaped through repeated cycles of learning and use by domain-general mechanisms. This paper draws out the implications of this viewpoint for understanding the problem of language acquisition, which is cast in a new, and much more tractable, form. In essence, the child faces a problem of induction, where the objective is to coordinate with others (C-induction), rather than to model the structure of the natural world (N-induction). We argue that, of the two, C-induction is dramatically easier. More broadly, we argue that understanding the acquisition of any cultural form, whether linguistic or otherwise, during development, requires considering the corresponding question of how that cultural form arose through processes of cultural evolution. This perspective helps resolve the “logical” problem of language acquisition and has far-reaching implications for evolutionary psychology.