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More than 50 years ago, Noam Chomsky’s theory on language acquisition made a massive impact on the way modern linguists look at language acquisition. It was a new way of thinking. Radical, profound, and completely different to the school of thought at the time. Now, half a century and a wealth of linguistic, biological and psychological research later, we are still trying to figure out whether Chomsky is indeed the genius he is touted to be.
Chomsky theorised that all humans are born with an innate language learning device, with a structure that he refers to as a “Universal Grammar”.
This theory suggests that all human languages share some innate, fundamental similarities that exist in the brain, attributable to a unique language learning mechanism. In accepting this theory then, it would mean that children are born with the ability to learn a language already wired into their brain. The specific structure of their grammar would be defined by the language they are exposed to.
There are various arguments used to support his theory, but it is perhaps based most strongly on the ‘Poverty of the Stimulus’. Briefly explained, it states that children are not exposed to enough rich, unambiguous data to account for their understanding of certain linguistic concepts and ultimately, successful language acquisition. However, there are those that contest his view and believe that analysis of input alone is sufficient for us to acquire a grammar.
His theory was fundamentally different to the behaviourist theory at the time, and seemed to have gained momentum every year since then.
The behaviourist theory suggests that language is learned, with correct grammar being reinforced through rewards or praise, and incorrect grammars discarded due to punishment or negative feedback. Advocates of the behaviourist theory challenged Chomsky’s UG, but the majority of researchers seemed to support and accept it, at least for the most part, as the best explanation for a still unexplained phenomenon. Those that agreed with his view provided a range of supporting arguments, though the evidence in support of these arguments is not concrete. When he first theorised its existence, it was done so by observation only, with no evidence provided. Based off his theory, research into the biological and physiological processes of language acquisition was pursued, resulting in the many supporting arguments now referred to when discussing UG, as well as those that are in fierce opposition of Chomsky.
In Ewa Dąbrowska’s article – “What is Universal Grammar, and has anyone seen it?” she addresses each of the arguments in support of Chomsky’s theory. The article argues that to date, there is in fact no agreement on what UG actually is, and critically assesses ten of the most compelling arguments in favour of UG.
UG is thought to include a set of both formal universals which explain the principles and parameters that account for the variation in languages, and substantive universals which include lexical features and characteristics. As explained in the article however, there is little agreement on what these include. Dąbrowska (2015) explains that the list of UG principles and the parameters to which they are constrained varies quite significantly. Referring to various works by Baker, Tomasello, Pinker and others, she demonstrates that, depending on the researcher, the number of parameters within those formal universals can vary from 3 to 50 or, as Shlonsky’s (2010) work implies, there could be thousands. In the same manner, she expounds on the differences in thought regarding the features in substantive universals as well. Linguists are again in disagreement over whether UG is in fact an intricate structure with a large, varying number of categories, or is structurally minimalist instead.
The discrepancies do not stop there. In a succinct analysis of ten arguments that are used to support Chomsky’s UG, (Dąbrowska, 2015) shows that the arguments are wholly problematic, with obvious flaws. In her words, UG is a “suspect concept… and the empirical evidence for it is very weak.” She addresses those arguments that are weaker first, such as specifity, ease and speed of acquisition, uniformity, maturational effects, dissociation between language and cognition, and neurological separation. These are the arguments that she feels are subsidiary, in that they provide support for the arguments of language innateness rather than support for UG. One of the more powerful arguments in support of UG, is that of ‘Language Universals’, which tends to overemphasize the similarities between languages. Chomsky even goes as far as to say that human languages are ‘essentially identical’. In reality however, most languages are structurally different and rarely fit into the same language universals. These differences in opinion may be due to the way in which language is viewed – either in terms of surface universals (lexicon, grammar, etc.), or deep universals. In order to assess deep universals, one has to make certain assumptions, which in turn depend on other assumptions that have no real evidence. This flawed chain leads to issues of falsifiability, and is not a strong enough argument then for UG.
The second of the stronger arguments for UG is that of ‘Convergence’, which is the notion that individuals converge on the same grammar despite receiving very different input. Referring again to work by Chomsky, as well as some of the supporters of his theory, she notes that the claims regarding convergence are made without any actual supporting evidence. She then refers to empirical studies ( ) where evidence has found differences in the grammar of individuals who speak the same language. The differences included a range of grammatical and morphological variances, as well as inconsistencies in comprehension. In a study done by Street and Dabrowska in 2010 showed considerable differences in linguistic competence rather than performance of native speakers, which suggests that the idea of convergence is based on a false premise.
The strongest, most convincing argument used in support of UG is the ‘poverty of the stimulus’ argument. This refers to the claim that children acquire certain linguistic knowledge which cannot be accounted for based on the input they receive. One of the most cited examples of the poverty of stimulus is that of the placement of auxiliaries in simple questions. The article further explains how these can be seen in the work of (Chomsky 1972) and (Crain 1991), amongst others. The studies found that children know, somehow, which sentences are ungrammatical, without being explicitly shown or taught the difference. This is usually linked to the lack of negative evidence argument, which states that children do not receive evidence which indicates that some of his/her utterances are ungrammatical. Dabrowska argues that children do in fact receive a certain amount of ‘indirect negative evidence’, which she describes as those instances in which children are asked to clarify or restate their sentences.
As with any hypothesis, experimental evidence is needed to prove the validity of the theory. We are familiar with Chomsky’s thoughts on language acquisition – that we are all born with an innate language-specific knowledge base which guides us in constructing a grammar in a particular language. In (Lidz, et al., 2003) article entitled “What infants know about syntax but couldn’t have learned: experimental evidence for syntactic structure at 18 months.” experimental evidence is provided by way of testing infants’ understanding of the anaphoric use of the word ’one’. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the word ‘anaphoric’ refers to a word or phrase that takes its reference from another word or phrase. For example: “Not this bottle, that one.” Where one is anaphoric, and refers to the bottle. The question posed in the article is whether children are aware of this, and if so, how? According to (Lidz, et al., 2003), in order for infants to “learn” or acquire understanding of this aspect, the linguistic input they receive would have to be unambiguous and common enough to show up in every child’s linguistic environment.
Referring to previous work by Baker on noun phrases, and analysis of input to children from the Child Language Data Exchange System (CHILDES), they provide a basis of their experiment. At this stage, before any experiment was conducted, the authors analysed the linguistic input of two infants in the CHILDES database. It was found that, combined, the children received almost 50 000 utterances, with only 792 containing the anaphoric use of one. Furthermore, it was found that less than .5% of these cases were unambiguous in its meaning and reference to the anaphoric one. This clearly showed that these kids were not exposed to enough clear and unambiguous instances to learn and understand anaphora.
In order to test whether infants do indeed understand anaphoric reference, the Intermodal Preferential Looking Paradigm was used to test 24 infants who were selected to participate. They were given a video clip to watch with the screen divided into two, as well as an accompanying audio. The test was divided into two phases – the Familiarisation Phase, and the Test Phase. During Familiarisation, the children were shown a yellow bottle in alternating sections with an accompanying audio that named the object – “Look! A yellow bottle.” This was repeated thrice.
During the Test Phase, two objects from the same category but different colour was shown at the same time – a yellow bottle and a blue bottle. The children were then assigned randomly to one of two conditions. In the control condition, they heard a neutral phrase – “Now look. What do you see now?” In the anaphoric condition, subjects heard a phrase containing the anaphoric expression one – “Now look. Do you see another one?” The assumption in this preferential looking experiment is that infants prefer to look at an image that matches the linguistic stimulus, if available. The prediction is that in absence of a linguistic stimulus, infants would prefer looking at the new image – the blue bottle.
The results showed that infants did in fact prefer the novel image in the control condition, whereas the opposite occurred in the anaphoric condition. The results thus supports the notion that infants already have an understanding of language structure to draw upon, even without sufficient, unambiguous input to help deduce meaning. It also provides strong experimental evidence for the poverty of stimulus argument. The authors further explain that they believe this set of innate ‘presuppositions’ serves as a basis upon which children may acquire, through statistical analysis or other learning methods, proficiency in any language.
Research into language acquisition has certainly come a long way, and many of these questions would not even have been asked if it weren’t for Chomsky’s theory. In years to come, Chomsky’s UG might be proven to be conclusively incorrect, and another theory might take its place instead, but we would not be able to get there, without always referring to Chomsky.
Dąbrowska definitely makes some valid points. Her work is thorough, well thought-out and certainly made me doubt the validity of the Universal Grammar approach. After reading her article, I do agree that there are certainly major flaws in the concept, and remains inconclusive until such time that it may be proven true (or false). To do so, the assumptions under which it holds true must also be proven either to be true, or not to exist at all. Evaluating the validity of a theory such as UG is tricky, especially because it is something that we are unable to see or prove with actual evidence. At one stage, I was completely won over by Chomsky’s theory. It seemed to fit everything in nicely, without having to look too deep into it. It seemed to be a doorway into understanding language acquisition that was not too difficult to think about, and I was content to believe and accept it. The more I read into it however, the more I realise how shaky the theory is. The implication of falsifiability raised yet more questions that there are no simple answers to, and only proves that more research is needed still.
However, I would tend to agree with what the empirical evidence supports most. In (Lidz, et al., 2003), the evidence spportsan innate understanding that proves UG to be a viable theory. In this case, I feel as if the UG theory or hypothesis is still valid, until such time as it’s proven not to exist. For now, I am willing to concede that whilst human language acquisition may not fit snugly into Chomsky’s UG theory, it is a good basis upon which to improve our understanding. This may perhaps be a domain specific language faculty borne out of general learning abilities, the components of which we are yet to discover.
Ultimately, demystifying the process of language acquisition will be a collaborative effort. Without the psychological, physiological, biological, social and philosophical contributions to the study of language acquisition, linguists can only get so far. That the debate continues so passionately still, gives me hope that we will forge on until conclusive proof is acquired, or until the point that science concedes to good old-fashioned faith. The answers, it seems, are waiting just a little further ahead.
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