The Influence of Noam Chomsky in Child Language Acquisition

The influence of Noam Chomsky in child language acquisition Noam Chomsky dominated the world of linguistics like a colossus for decades after the late fifties. My main aim of this essay is to discuss his influence in the area of child language acquisition and inspect to see if his influence is waxing or waning. After that I will examine the reasons behind the increase or decrease of his influence. I will be relating back every so often to nativism and the great ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate since Chomsky’s reputation significantly depends on it.

Avram Noam Chomsky was born in 1928 and is, as reported by the online Encyclopaedia , “an Institute Professor Emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and also is the creator of the Chomsky hierarchy, a classification of formal languages. ” Apart from his linguistic work, Chomsky is also famous for his political views. Although, the field of children’s language development includes a whole range of perspectives , the issue that has outweighed the rest is that of whether language ability is ‘innate’ or not.

This matter which has been long debated concentrates on finding out whether children were born ‘preprogrammed’ to acquire language or is it merely a matter of cultural product . One of the most influential figures around this debate was Noam Chomsky, who believed in the innate capacity of children for learning language. As Harris (1990:76) explains, “Chomsky suggested that infants are born with innate knowledge of the properties of language. Further elaborating on Chomskys’s belief, Sampson (1997:23) says “Chomsky claims that this process of first language acquisition must be determined in most respects by a genetic programme, so that the development of language in an individuals mind is akin to the growth of a bodily organ rather than being a matter of responding to environmental stimulation. ” Noam Chomsky suggested that children are born with a genetic mechanism for the acquisition of language, which he called a “Language Acquisition Device” (LAD).

He claimed that they are born with the major principles of language in place, but with many parameters to set. Further supporting this claim Chomsky (1972:113) said “Having some knowledge of the characteristics of the acquired grammars and the limitations on the available data, we can formulate quite reasonable and fairly strong empirical hypotheses regarding the internal structure of the LAD that constructs the postulated grammars from the given data. ” Nevertheless, this theory of an innate Language Acquisition Device has not been generally accepted but in fact has been opposed on two grounds.

Firstly, in the famous ongoing debate between nature and nurture many people have criticised Chomsky for disregarding environmental aspects. Secondly, there is a difference of opinion as to whether language acquisition is part of the child’s wider cognitive development or as Chomsky believes, is an independent inborn ability. Disagreements such as these display the immense impact Chomsky’s theory has had on the field of linguistics. One of the central concepts which Chomsky introduced was the idea of Universal Grammar.

Chomsky greatly influenced Linguistic thinking by his theory that a universal grammar inspires all languages and that all languages have the same basic underlying structure. Collis et al (1994:11) further clarify “Chomsky argued that universals of linguistic form are innate: the child had inborn knowledge of the general form of a transformational grammar. ” He believed in Universal Grammar because children remarkably seem to be able to learn rapidly whatever language they are exposed to despite certain rules of grammar being beyond their learning capacity and in a couple of years they seem to master the system they are immersed in .

Harris

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(1990:76) supporting this view says: “After a period of some four to five years’ exposure to the language of those around them, children seem to have mastered the underlying rule system which enables them to produce an infinite variety of relatively well-formed, complex sentences. ” Also children progress so rapidly in acquiring their native language as though they know in advance the general form of the system to be acquired as Fromkin & Rodman (1998:339) state, “The similarity of the language acquisition stages across diverse peoples and languages shows that children are equipped with special abilities to acquire. Wilkipedia explaining this theory says: “it does not claim that all human languages have the same grammar, or that all humans are “programmed” with a structure that underlies all surface expressions of human language; but rather, universal grammar proposes a set of rules that would explain how children acquire their language(s), or how they construct valid sentences of their language. ” Although, Sampson (1997:108) gives the arguments in support of language universals some credit saying “the arguments from universals is the only one hat has some serious prima facie force” But, by and large, Sampson (1997:136) disagrees as he concludes: “there are some universal features in human languages, but what they mainly show is that human beings have to learn their mother tongues rather than having knowledge of language innate in their minds. ” Another argument, involving Chomsky, which is referred to as Poverty of data, is that children would be unable to learn language in a human environment where the input is of poor quality. Chomsky (1980) argued that the child’s acquisition of grammar is ‘hopelessly underdetermined by the fragmentary evidence available. He recognized this deficiency due to two major reasons. The first is the poor nature of the input. According to Chomsky, the sentences heard by the child are so full of errors and incompletions that they provide no clear indication of the possible sentences of the language. As well as this problem there is an unavailability of negative evidence and children have a hard time knowing which forms of their language are acceptable and which are unacceptable. As a result of all this, he believes language learning must rely on other constraints from universal grammar.

Macwhinney (2004) says: “To solve this logical problem, theorists have proposed a series of constraints and parameterizations on the form of universal grammar. Plausible alternatives to these constraints include: conservatism, item-based learning, indirect negative evidence, competition, cue construction, and monitoring. ” According to Macwhinney (2004) Chomsky’s views about the poor quality of the input have not stood up well to the test of time. Many studies of child directed speech have shown that speech to young children is slow, clear, grammatical, and very repetitious.

Newport, Gleitman & Gleitman (1977) reported, ‘the speech of mothers to children is unswervingly well-formed. ’ More recently, Sagae et al (2004) examined several of the corpora in the CHILDES database and found that adult input to children can be parsed with an accuracy level parallel to that for corpora. Although, this failure of Chomsky’s claim has not so far led to the collapse of the ‘argument from poverty of stimulus’, however, as Macwhinney (2004) says, “It has placed increased weight on the remaining claims regarding the absence of relevant evidence. The overall claim as Macwhinney (2004) points out is that, “given the absence of appropriate positive and negative evidence, no child can acquire language without guidance from a rich set of species-specific innate hypotheses. ” Chomsky also claimed that there was a critical period for language learning which was first proposed by Eric Lenneberg. He claimed, as Cook & Newson (1996:301) explain, that there is a critical period during which the human mind is able to learn language; before or after this period language cannot be acquired in a natural fashion.

Although the rare cases of feral children who had been deprived of first language in early childhood seems to support the idea of critical period but it is not known for definite if deprivation was the only reason for their language learning difficulties as Sampson (1997:37) points out, “it is not certain if children in cases of extreme deprivation have trouble learning language because they have missed their so-called “critical period” or if it is because of the extreme trauma they have experienced. Although Chomsky was a very influential and successful nativist, Sampson (1997:159) claims ‘his theories were given a helping hand by external circumstances. ’ At the time when he was putting forward these ideas about language and human nature, Chomsky was also the leading intellectual opponent of American involvement in the Vietnam War as Sampson (1997:11) states: “politics had given Chomsky much of his audience in the early days as he was the leading intellectual figure in the 1960’s movement against American involvement in the Vietnam War. His opposition to the Vietnam War made him a popular figure amongst the young Americans who also opposed the decision and were eager to cheer on anyone speaking against it. Sampson (1997:11) also points out importantly “Many people came to listen to Chomsky on foreign policy and stayed to listen to him on linguistics. Giving other reasons Sampson (1997:159) claims that “it was a period when the academic discipline of linguistics found a new market in providing professional training for teachers of foreign language and this nativist style of language analysis was relatively appealing to them as nativism focused on language universals rather than on the peculiar individual features of particular languages. Similarly he points out that “it was a period when knowledge of other languages among the English speaking world was diminishing. ” Furthermore, the years around 1970 were also a period when the university system expanded massively in a very short eriod. Large numbers of people were taken on into the university teaching profession over a few years, and after entering they remained there as Sampson (1997:159) says, “they stayed; so an over-presentation of whatever intellectual trends happened to be ‘hot’ just then was locked into the system. ” Stating another reason Sampson (1997:161) claims: “American linguists who were not established in their careers were afraid to voice disagreement with nativism publicly for fear of damaging their chances of academic employment. The most important point keeping the nativist domination is the greater job availability as Sampson (1997:161) points out, “there are more jobs in nativism than empiricism” During the 1980s, Chomsky’s nativist discourse moved out of the public limelight as his political interference became less agreeable to many and so Chomsky’s influence started to diminish in significance to linguistic nativism as Sampson (1997:11) says “In the 1980’s Chomsky’s star waned” and then reasoning the 1980’s eclipse he says that ‘those were the Margaret Thatcher years, which meant that educated public opinion had other things to be interested in. But, beginning in the 1990s, a new wave of writing has revived basically the same idea about language and knowledge being innate in human beings and they rely on Chomsky’s ideas as Sampson (1997:14) says, “Many of the nativists work of the 1990’s depend on chomsky’s version of nativism. However, these books seem to better equipped to the test of time as Sampson (2003) points out “These books refer to a broader range of considerations, including issues high in human interest such as case studies of pidgin languages, young children’s speech, experiments in teaching language to apes whereas Chomsky’s arguments were rather dryly formal and mathematical. ” Furthermore, the contemporary nativists claim to identify some additional evidence which was never mentioned by Chomsky.

Several different writers have contributed to this “new wave” of present-day arguments for nativism. By far the most influential, however, as Sampson (2003) suggests, has been Steven Pinker’s 1994 book The Language Instinct. Regarding this new revival Sampson (1997:12) says: “The nativists of the 1990’s are quite different. Their books are full of fascinating information about languages and linguistic behaviour so that people enjoy reading for the data alone. He further states: “As a result, the new generation of linguistic nativists have succeeded very quickly in winning audiences and attracting praise from distinguished and sometimes influential onlookers. ” Criticising the content of these books he says: “The reader is taken on a magical mystery tour of language and urged to agree that nativism makes a plausible account of it all- rather than herded through a bare corral in which every side exit is sealed off by barriers of logic and the only way out is the gate labelled ‘innate knowledge. In conclusion, it is very obvious to see the great impact Chomsky’s ideologies have had in the area of child language acquisition which subsequently enhanced his status. Describing his huge influence Sampson (1997:10) says, “It would be hard to exaggerate the impact that these ideas of Noam Chomsky’s achieved. ” He further states “By many objective measures, he became the world’s most influential living thinker. Sampson (1997:11) further reports that, “in the comprehensive computerized registers of references that scholars make to one another’s writings in the academic literature; within the sphere covered by the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, Chomsky is the most- quoted living writer, and the eighth most quoted in history. ” Although his ideas suffered a blow in the 1980’s, it has been strongly revived since the 1990’s as Sampson (1997:161) critically states “in the 1990’s the public mood has changed again.

Society is showing signs of reverting to an almost medieval acceptance of intellectual authority, from which dissent is seen as morally objectionable” Further, reasoning the success of these new nativist writers he says “When Chomsky originally spelled out an argument, the reader would assess it and might detect its fallacies; but when recent writers refer to something as having been established back in the 1960s–70s, most readers are likely to take this on trust, for lack of time and energy to check the sources. Finally, on the subject of ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate, which so heavily involves Chomsky, it seems impossible to distinguish whether language is only acquired due to environmental exposure or simply due to innate faculties. From the evidence it seems that humans possess innate capabilities which enable linguistic development, but the correct environment, with exposure to adult language throughout the critical period, also seems to be necessary in order for a child to develop and become a proficient speaker.

In regards to this issue Collis (1994:10) makes a valid conclusion “current thinking about language acquisition treats nativist and empiricist explanations as forthrightly opposed, but as potentially varying in degree: language acquisition is mostly a realisation of innate principles, or mostly a consequence of learning. ” Similarly, Sampson (2003) clarifies: “Clearly this issue is not an all-or-nothing question. It is about where truth lies on a spectrum of possibilities. Nature must have some role in human cognition; conversely, nurture must also play a role. ”

Bibliography Chomsky, N. (1972) Language and Mind New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Chomsky, N. (1980). Rules and representations. New York: Columbia University Press Chomsky, N. (1986) Knowledge of language: it’s nature, origin and use. New York: Praeger Cook, V. J, & Newson, M. (1996) Chomsky’s Universal Grammar : An Introduction(2nd ed. ) UK:Blackwell Publishers Collis, G. , Perera, K, & Richards, B (1994) (Eds. ), Growing points in child language UK: CUP Fromkin, V. and Rodman, R. (1998) An Introduction to Language. 6th. ed. US: Harcourt Brace College Publishers

Harris, J (1990) Early Language Development- implications for clinical and educational practice London:Routledge Macwhinney, B(2004) ‘A multiple process solution to the logical problem of language acquisition’ Journal of Child Language. Vol. 31 No. 4, pp. 883–914 UK:CUP Newport, E. , Gleitman, H. & Gleitman, L. (1977). Mother, I? d rather do it myself: some effects and non-effects of maternal speech style. In C. Ferguson (ed. ), Talking to children :language input and acquisition. Cambridge: CUP Sagae, K. , MacWhinney, B. & Lavie, A. (2004). Automatic parsing of parent–child interactions.

Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, and Computers 36, 113–26. Sampson,G (2005) The ‘Language Instinct’ Debate: Revised Edition of Educating Eve Continuum International Publishing Group Sampson, G (2003) Empiricism v. Nativism [http://www. grsampson. net/REmpNat. html](07/05/05) Sampson,G (1997) The ‘Language Instinct’ Debate: Educating Eve London and New York: Cassell Wikipedia (2005) The Free Encyclopedia – Noam Chomsky [http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Noam_Chomsky] (07/05/05) Wikipedia (2005) The Free Encyclopedia- Universal grammar [http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Universal_Grammar] (07/05/05)

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