Having considered the behaviourists argument, an evaluation of Chomsky’s ‘Universal Grammar’ and other nativist theories will be presented below. Chomsky’s basic question to the above is, how is it that a child can master the complexity and abstractness of language at such an under-developed stage in such a short time? Children are not taught language in a systematic manner; they are merely exposed to a stream of talk which may or may not be grammatical (Lewin, 1999). He also observed that the regular speech of adults is not as correct as it would be in a novel or in a play (poverty of stimulus); often it is ungrammatical and full of fragmented sentences (Chomsky, 1965).
He, therfore, characterised everday adult speech as ‘defective’ and ‘degenerate’. If this speech is all that the children hear, then it is quite intriguing how they learn the complex rules of grammar (Carlson et al., 2000). Given what he called the “poverty of stimulus”, Chomsky argued that children must come into the world with fundamental rules of grammar hard-wired in their brains (Chomsky, 1957, 1965). This led many linguists to believe that the ability to learn language is innate.
They proposed that a child’s brain contains a “language acquisition device” which embodies rules of “universal grammar”; since each language has distinct expressions, the child has to learn the details, but the basics are already there (Chomsky, 1965; Lennenberg, 1967; McNeill, 1970). Simply put, the input largely underdetermines the linguistic representations of the adult grammar. This observed “poverty of stimulus” favours inherent mental structure in the learner (Hornstein & Lightfoot, 1981 cited in Lidz et al., 2003) and it is this structure that supports linguistic verbalisation beyond that which can be learnt from the input (Crain 1991; Pinker 1989 cited in Lidz et al., 2003).
Nevertheless, the nativist theory did not come without limitations. Chomsky’s assumption that all languages are similar was rather impetuous. A study by Hebb et al. (1973) suggested that languages simply depict realities of the world. The interaction of people and their environment inevitably encounters the need for certain words to develop as adjectives, nouns, etc. Thus, all languages need to have words for elements that regularly require its usage.
It may also be concluded that the LAD referred to, may be independently invented at different times across different cultures, since tools needed to hammer and chisel have also been invented, but not necessarily due to a ‘tool making device’ located in the brain. More recently, the nativist theory, particularly the “poverty of stimulus” argument, has been challenged by Pullum and Scholz (2002).
Several researchers have contended against the idea that linguistic input is insufficient to account for linguistic representation (Brent & Cartwright, 1996; Seidenberg, 1997) and this input can be derived by general purpose learning mechanisms (Elman, 1990; Saffran et al., 1996). An experiment conducted by Lidz et al. (2003) produced evidence for the idea that the input to children does not contain sufficient information to support unaided learning. The results clearly show that syntactic knowledge could not have been gleaned exclusively from the input. The infants mastery of this aspect of syntax again contributes to the innate structure within the learner acquiring the grammar. They hold that a set of “representational presuppositions” inside the learner’s mind serves “to structure available input” in a way that facilitates learning.
Pesetsky (???) has posed another intriguing question supporting the innate model. To Chomsky’s problem of how babies learn language despite the poverty of stimulus, he asks why is it that languages which were not in historical contact, nevertheless have the same basic structure and properties. He further argues that there must be a “universal, invariant core of language” which we are born with that is easily triggered by environmental stimuli. Among the 500 languages studied by Cinque, languages do not only have similar properties, but are “identical” in all languages only because it is inscribed in our innate predesposition for language. His results lead him to believe that structure is just a frozen accident of evolutionary history, just as we are genetically endowed with one pair of eyes and five fingers instead of seven.
Meanwhile, Chomsky has been revising his theory of universal grammar with what he terms the Minimalist Program.(Lewin, 1999). In an attempt to resolve the tension between innate structure and behaviourist theories, Chomsky has softened his stand slightly by agreeing to certain ‘minimum attributes’ which are prerequisites for language development. But too much that is at stake here requires empirical questions. The environments role has not been undermined, but the nativist idea has simply been enforced for the reason that it is that predesposition that primarily orients a child to communicate.Without that predisposition, a child may even choose not to communicate even though her circumstantial needs will compel her to.
Children in this physically healthy environment without language would still nonetheless attempt to explore a range of communicative activity (Goldin-Meadow & Mylander, 1990 cited in Reed, 1995). As this paper has attempted to argue throughout, the empirical evidence adduced in support of Chomsky’s theory of language, is comprehensively significant, to say the least. There has to be a balance between acquiring the many complexities of languages and the limited set of structure that are present to do it. The bottom line is, despite Chomsky admitting some of his standard assumptions to be false, he, along with the writer, still believe that an innate device in the brain acquires grammar, it is not simply learnt from the ‘environmental inputs’.
Brent, M., & Cartwright, T. (1996) Distributional regularities are useful for segmentation. Cognition, 61, 93-105
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