Spring 2020 - PSYC 391 J100

Selected Topics in Psychology (3)

Human Cognition, Language and Evolution

Class Number: 9095

Delivery Method: In Person


  • Course Times + Location:

    Th 5:30 PM – 8:20 PM
    SRYC 3250, Surrey

  • Exam Times + Location:

    Apr 23, 2020
    7:00 PM – 10:00 PM
    SRYC 5360, Surrey

  • Prerequisites:

    PSYC 201. Other prerequisites vary by topic offering.



Course can be repeated for credit. Students may not take this course for further credit if similar topics are covered. See Psychology department website for course description.


In this course we will explore the cognitive bases for the unique human capacities for recursive language, and theories about how they may have evolved. We will attempt to integrate multiple perspectives including: 1) biological perspectives regarding the genetics and epigenetics involved in the shaping of neural architecture for the language module(s); 2) cognitive perspectives about the computational structures underlying key components of language perception and production; and 3) socio-anthropological perspectives about how the language capacity feeds back to influence culture (e.g. the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). Students will be expected to critically evaluate competing theories at multiple levels of analysis, and to effectively advocate for most of the leading contenders either in debate or written essay format.


  • Midterm exam: 25%
  • Written Assignment: 25%
  • In-Class Debate: 25%
  • Final exam: 25%


The midterm will cover material from weeks 1-6, the exam weeks 7-13. Anything discussed during the lectures or assigned as reading may be tested on the midterm and exam.

Midterm & Exam Format:  
●      Long answer questions for each chapter covered (25 marks each)
○      Midterm: 2 questions (from a provided list of 5)
○      Exam: 2 questions (from a provided list of 5)

Written Assignment:
·Write a 7-8 page paper on one of the topics selected in class. The position you take in the paper, either for or against a particular theory of language evolution, will be up to you. However, you will be expected to convey a mastery of the arguments both for and against the position that you take, including adequately persuasive rebuttals to the most difficult objections to the position that you take. Grading rubrics for this assignment will be based on the selected topics and will be distributed in lecture.  

Debate:   In groups of four, you will be expected to organize a set of arguments in favour of a specific theory of language evolution. Your group will be paired with another group who will organize a set of arguments for a competing theory, and you will be expected to advocate for your theory in a formal debate setting. These debates will be approximately 30-40 minutes in length, consisting of opening remarks, first and second rebuttals, and closing statements. Grading rubrics for these debates will distributed in lecture



Fitch, W. T. (2010). The Evolution of Language. Cambridge University Press.

Registrar Notes:

SFU’s Academic Integrity web site http://www.sfu.ca/students/academicintegrity.html is filled with information on what is meant by academic dishonesty, where you can find resources to help with your studies and the consequences of cheating.  Check out the site for more information and videos that help explain the issues in plain English.

Each student is responsible for his or her conduct as it affects the University community.  Academic dishonesty, in whatever form, is ultimately destructive of the values of the University. Furthermore, it is unfair and discouraging to the majority of students who pursue their studies honestly. Scholarly integrity is required of all members of the University. http://www.sfu.ca/policies/gazette/student/s10-01.html