Universal Grammar

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October 20, 2012 by k. liz

It’s that time again! Essays and papers are coming, so I am going to share some of them with you. I do have a break coming up this week, so I am going to try and organize myself a little bit better and start sharing more ideas and resources. Let me know what you’d like to see!! Also, let me know in the comments your thoughts on Universal Grammar!

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In the early 1900s, methods of second language acquisition were primarily comprised of methods that followed Skinner’s behaviorism theories. However, beginning in the 1960s, Noam Chomsky severely criticized the behaviorist view of language acquisition and began research and publications that held to an innatist view of language learning. Since the 1960s, several theorists and researchers have added to the growing body of literature and study done on the topic of innatist language acquisition, some in favor and some against.

Briefly, the innatist theory of language acquisition posits that children are born with an innate sense of grammar, also known as a Language Acquisition Device (LAD) or more commonly, a Universal Grammar (UG). This LAD is activated when the child enters the world, and without much, or even appropriate input, the child is able to acquire a full adult-like language repertoire. From Chomsky’s point of view, external forces have very little to do with the acquisition of a child’s first language, it is all in the head. While there is some validity to his claims, not all linguists have agreed with him completely.

Researchers older than Chomsky, including Vygotsky (1920s) and Labov (1930s) hold to a more socially developed language that combines both the cognitive and the social influences in the action of language learning. Others have argued against the UG concepts that Chomsky adheres to, but other than proposing a stronger emphasis on the society or environment of the learner, there have not been strong enough cases to dissuade many from accepting at least to an extent the validity of a Universal Grammar.

There is a wealth of evidence and arguments that support the UG. Jackendoff (1994) especially provides some very good insights into why one should accept a UG as important in the realm of language acquisition. Some of the arguments include the genetic aspect of language learning. For example, families that suffer from aphasia or dyslexia often do so in patterns that seem to indicate a genetic mutation is causing the problem. Jackendoff cites a family in England in which several children were affected with an aphasic impairment, and many passed it on to their children. However, children of the child who was not affected were not born with the impairment. If language impairments are influenced by genetics, then there is a point to be made that language is indeed inherent, or hard-wired into our brains and bodies.

Another example that Jackendoff refers to is the fact that regardless of how poorly a parent speaks to a child, the child will always (with the exception of a physical impairment) become fluent in the language, and develop the grammar to native-like fluency. A good example of this is children born into the home of deaf parents. Though the parents do not communicate orally, the speaking child’s language and grammar do not suffer. If an innate UG did not exist, then children would be destined to only learn language as well as it was provided to them by their caregivers. This correlates well with Chomsky’s theory of Poverty of Stimulus. This theory posits that children develop grammatical rules far beyond what they are instructed to do. Children are only given so much input, and yet they are able to take that input, develop rules, and then find out where and when those rules apply and when they do not. If this were not the case, then children would have a hard time learning the exceptions of a language. As it is, there are only a few exceptions that must be explicitly taught to children, and many others are easily picked up in their language acquisition phase.

A third example that Jackendoff gives is the fact that children seem to know what is right and acceptable and what is not. Jackendoff talks about how children have been taught particular rules for years, and yet they still do not follow them (i.e. not ending a sentence with a preposition.) Jackendoff claims that this points to an innate grammar because this demonstrates that children internally know what can and cannot work in the language, regardless of what modern grammar teaches them.

Another argument for an innate grammar is that of the order of acquisition that children generally follow. Around the world, across languages, children generally follow an order of acquisition when they are learning their first language. Each child follows similar patterns, and they often do not pass on to the next level of acquisition until they have acquired the first. Because this is true regardless of where the children grow up, or what language they speak, it seems that there must be some innate reason that is driving this.

A final strong argument for an innate grammar comes from observations of children that are raised in a pidgin-speaking environment. Children that are raised in a home that speaks a pidgin language generally develop their own creole. Within a generation, the children are able to change the pidgin, a language with no set rules or phonological patterns, into a creole language that has its own set of rules that must be followed as well as a phonological system and a set vocabulary. Bickerton (1980s) developed his Language Bioprogram Hypothesis that echoes Chomsky’s UG theory stating that children are actually limited when they learn their first language because it is being imposed on them and their grammar building abilities are not allowed to be used to their full capabilities. There are issues with Bickerton’s hypothesis, but nevertheless, creole languages do point to some innate language ability that children have that allow them to develop a language to the point that it is comparable with other languages in the world in terms of grammar, syntax, morphology, and phonology.

In summary, Chomsky’s UG is not a perfect theory, but there is a lot of evidence pointing to to its validity. Chomsky’s ideal studies for UG include eliminating people so that one can study the mind alone, and that is simply not feasible or realistic. Language is connected to the people that speak it, and there is an environment that provides input when children are learning a language. Nevertheless, there are very important implications to be taken from Chomsky’s UG theory that can be used to influence second language acquisition and teaching methods and strategies. One should be aware of the first language acquisition realities if they are going to make any impact in a second language acquisition endeavor.

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