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Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is perhaps the best known and the most influential linguist of When the child begins to listen to his parents, he will unconsciously
the second half of the Twentieth Century. He has made a number of strong recognise which kind of a language he is dealing with - and he will set his
claims about language : in particular, he suggests that language is an innate grammar to the correct one - this is known as 'setting the parameters'.
faculty - that is to say that we are born with a set of rules about language in It is as if the child were offered at birth a certain number of hypotheses,
our heads which he refers to as the 'Universal Grammar'. The universal which he or she then matches with what is happening around him. He knows
grammar is the basis upon which all human languages build. If a Martian intuitively that there are some words that behave like verbs, and others like
linguist were to visit Earth, he would deduce from the evidence that there nouns, and that there is a limited set of possibilities as to their ordering
was only one language, with a number of local variants. Chomsky gives a within the phrase. This is not information that he is taught directly by the
number of reasons why this should be so. Among the most important of adults that surround him, but information that is given. It is as if the traveller
these reasons is the ease with which children acquire their mother tongue. were provided at the beginning of his journey with a compass and an
He claims that it would be little short of a miracle if children learnt their astrolabe.
language in the same way that they learn mathematics or how to ride a This set of language learning tools, provided at birth, is referred to by
bicycle. This, he says, is because : Chomsky as the Language Acquisition Device . (Notice that he uses the term
"acquisition" rather than learning).
1. Children are exposed to very little correctly formed language. When
people speak, they constantly interrupt themselves, change their How did you learn to speak your native language? Notice, this shouldn't be
minds, make slips of the tongue and so on. Yet children manage to such a puzzling question. We often ask questions such as, do you remember
learn their language all the same. when did you learned to tie your shoes, ride a bike, and eat with a fork.
2. Children do not simply copy the language that they hear around Sometimes we can remember because a parent helped us learn how to do
them. They deduce rules from it, which they can then use to produce these things. Now, since we always speak the language of our parents, they
sentences that they have never heard before. They do not learn a must have helped us learn to speak our first language. But do you
repertoire of phrases and sayings, as the behaviourists believe, but a remember when your mother taught you the past tense? When your father
grammar that generates an infinity of new sentences. laid down the rules for passive sentences? We don't remember these
important moments of our childhood because they never occurred.
1. 2. Children are born, then, with the Universal Grammar wired into their Our parents didn't teach us how to walk and they didn't teach us how to
brains. This grammar offers a certain limited number of possibilities - for talk. Yet we learned from them. How can this be? Certainly there must have
example, over the word order of a typical sentence. been a subtle, perhaps intuitive teaching process that neither our parents
Some languages have a basic SVO structure nor we were aware of. We begin by imitating what we hear our parents say
as best we can, repeating random phrases. Our parents in subtle ways
The teacher gave a lecture punish us for the childish speech errors we make (by not responding,
S V O correcting the error, etc.) and reward correct phrases (by responding
positively). As our speech improves, our parents respond more positively
75% of the world's languages use either this (English, French, and less negatively. No?
Vietnamese) or SOV (Japanese, Tibetan, Korean) - others First, let's examine the assumption that children begin
prefer VSO (10 - 15% - Welsh) or VOS (Malagasy) speaking by trying to repeat what they have heard their
parents say. Have you ever heard a child say things like this:
* Some languages, such as Latin, appear to have free word order, but even 1a Daddy go
here, SOV is very common. OSV is very rare - but you will find an example in He hitted
the speech of Yoda, in Star Wars. me
No eat apply to create new utterances they have never heard before. Over the
cake years from 2-7, when language is mastered, children constantly adjust their
Who did they hear utter such phrases? Daddy go is an attempt to express grammar until it matches that of the adult speaker population.
'Daddy is going'. But if the child were merely trying to repeat this common This critical period between the ages of 2-7 suggests that (first) language
phrase, choosing random two-word combinations, he or she would also learning, like walking, is an innate capacity of human beings triggered by a
occasionally say Daddy is or simply is going? Yet these two phrases do not level of development more than feedback from the environment. That is, so
occur as normal speech errors of children while Daddy go is a common one. long as a child hears a language-any language-when they reach this critical
Second, research shows that while mothers often respond to the semantic period they will learn it perfectly. If this is true, any child not hearing
content of what their children say ('No, that's not a doggie, it's a cow'), they language during this period not only should not learn to speak but also
very rarely respond to the grammatical status of their children's phrases. should not be able to learn to speak. The ethical implications of research on
Indeed, when parents do respond to speech errors, they most often this question are obvious. However, there have been a few tragic non-
respond positively. Here are a few advanced errors from the history of my scientific bits of evidence that supports the innateness + critical period
family. What do you think our response was—correction or laughter (which I hypothesis.
take to be a positive response)?
If I wanted to start the course off with a silly pun, I could say 'Learning a
2a. Mama, mama, there's a tree-knocker in the back yard! language is a child's game'. But perhaps it is more accurate to say 'Creating a
language is a child's game'. Let us look at an example of how a language may
2b. It's raining, where is the underbrella? be created :
2c. Give me the beach-lookers! (binoculars) Pidgin

 - reduced syntax and vocabulary

In fact, parents themselves make grammatical errors when they speak.
 - often no fixed order of words, with considerable variation from one
Despite the fact that children don't know when their parents are speaking
grammatically and when they are making errors, all children grow up speaker to another
 - used purely as a language of communication
knowing (if not always speaking) the language perfectly.
o - not lived in
So how do we learn to speak? Take a look at example No. 1b above for a
o - no-one speaks a pidgin as a mother tongue
clue. Although hitted is not a word children hear adults utter, it is wrong for
an interesting reason: the verb, in a sense, has the 'right' ending on it for the
past tense. In other words, the only way a child learning language could But a pidgin can become a language - Creole. How does this happen?
make such an error is that he or she is learning a rule that derives past tense According to Derek Bickerton, who has reconstructed the process of
verbs from verb stems. What the child hasn't mastered at this stage is the creolisation in Hawaii, it takes one generation.
exceptions to the rule. Notice also that the words in the erroneous phrases
are all in the correct order. No child would say go Daddy for 'Daddy is When children begin to use a pidgin, they automatically
going' cookie mommy for 'Mommy's cookie'. By the time a child begins enrich the vocabulary and the syntax - it becomes a full
putting two words together, he or she has already mastered the basic rules language. The community of young children in Hawaii took
of syntax and applies them correctly even in their erroneous speech. It takes the pidgin used by their parents - workers from China, Japan,
the child a little longer to master the rules of morphology. Korea, Portugal, the Philippines and Puerto Rico - and
The evidence then indicates that children do, in fact, absorb a massive created a language.
number of sentences and phrases but rather than parrot them back, they
abstract rules from them and create their own grammar which they then According to the followers of the American linguist, Noam Chomsky, this can
stand as an emblem for what the process of acquiring a language consists in -
at least for a mother tongue. The child does not learn the language, but the Chomskian linguist. Nor would he be particularly interested in
creates it anew. most of the utterances heard in the course of a normal lecture.
Does this have anything to tell us about learning a foreign language? 4. Because he disregards meaning, and the social situation in which
language is normally produced, he disregards in particular the
situation in which the child learns his first language.
Chomsky's critics

Those linguists who do not agree with Chomsky point to several problems, of That some kinds of migratory birds navigate thousands of miles toward their
which I shall mention just four. destination by calibrating the positions of stars against time of day and year,
poses no serious problem for many scientists, who can easily attribute this
1. Chomsky differentiates between competence and performance. amazing success to the birds' instinctive behaviour is apparent, after all, that
Performance is what people actually say, which is often these animals cannot learn such complicated astronomical facts through a
ungrammatical, whereas competence is what they instinctively know trial and error fashion; they neither have enough time nor necessary
about the syntax of their language - and this is more or less equated cognitive capacity.
with the Universal Grammar. Chomsky concentrates upon this aspect
of language - he thus ignores the things that people actually say. The The same scientists, however, including some professional linguists, are quite
problem here is that he relies upon people's intuitions as to what is reluctant to attribute any form of instinct to human infant, who arrives at
right or wrong - but it is not at all clear that people will all make the complex linguistic knowledge within a remarkably short period of time. The
same judgements, or that their judgements actually reflect the way infant's is no less a complicated task than that of the bird's as the linguists
people really do use the language. themselves have spent decades (or even centuries) to discover the intricacies
2. Chomsky distinguishes between the 'core' or central grammar of a of the very same system and with no final theory. Infants, on the other hand,
language, which is essentially founded on the UG, and peripheral not only arrives at an almost complete knowledge of grammar in their brinds
grammar. Thus, in English, the fact that 'We were' is considered (brain+mind) but also accomplish this task within less than a decade.
correct, and 'We was ' incorrect is a historical accident, rather than
an integral part of the core grammar - as late as the 18th Century, Although a human infant and a migratory bird are essentially alike in terms of
recognised writers, such as Dean Swift, could write 'We was ...' the complexity of the task to be accomplished and their inability to handle
without feeling that they had committed a terrible error. Similarly, the task with their current cognitive capacity, only the latter is believed to
the outlawing of the double negation in English is peripheral, due to rely on its instincts.
social and historical circumstances rather than anything specific to
the language itself. To Chomsky, the real object of linguistic science There are, of course, some differences between an animal and a human
is the core grammar. But how do we determine what belongs to the baby; it would be unwise to equate the cognitive capacities of the two. And it
core, and what belongs to the periphery? To some observers, all is also impossible to underscore the importance of environmental factors in
grammar is conventional, and there is no particular reason to make child language acquisition. After all, thousands of hours of exposure is
the Chomskian distinction. required in order for a child to acquire his mother tongue, whereas animals
3. Chomsky also appears to reduce language to its grammar. He seems like sonar-using bats or web-building spiders seem to be ready to use their
to regard meaning as secondary - a sentence such as 'Colourless instinctive knowledge with minimum, if any, learning experience. It is equally
green ideas sleep furiously' may be considered as part of the English unwise, however, to suggest that a cognitively immature child can
language, for it is grammatically correct, and therefore worthy of accomplish a task which has yet to be accomplished by professional linguists.
study by Transformational Grammarians. A sentence such as 'My
mother, he no like bananas', on the other hand, is of no interest to A child may well not have grasped the property of conservation of volume
nor be able to perform but the most rudimentary arithmetic calculations, yet language." (Cook, 1991: 154)
will have the knowledge linguists formulate as the binding principles, none of
which has been explicitly taught. The views supports the idea that the external input per se may not account
for language acquisition. Similarly, the Chomskyan view holds that the input
is poor and deficient in two ways. First, the input is claimed to be
The amazing success of children in picking up their mother tongue is no 'degenerate' because it is damaged by performance features such as slips,
recent discovery. Slobin (1979) quotes Rene Descartes commenting on hesitations or false starts. Accordingly, it is suggested that the input is not an
human beings' distinctive ability to formulate a linguistic system: adequate base for language learning. Second, the input is devoid of grammar
corrections. This means that the input does not normally contain 'negative
Even those who were born deaf and dumb, lacking the organs which others evidence', the knowledge from which the learner could exercise what is 'not'
make use of in speaking, and at least as badly off as the animals in this possible in a given language.
respect, usually invent for themselves some signs by which they make
themselves understood by those who are with them enough to learn their As for L2 acquisition, however, the above question is not usually asked
language largely because of the frequent failure of L2 learners, who happen to be
generally cognitively mature adults, in attaining native-like proficiency. But
In the literature of child language acquisition there are cases in which infants, why can't adults who have already acquired an L1, acquire an L2 thoroughly?
deprived of linguistic input, invent a rudimentary grammar not attributable Don't they have any help from UG? Or if they do, then how much of UG is
only to the external factors. Children are also known to build a natural accessible in SLA? These and similar questions have divided researchers into
language when exposed to unsystematic pidgin data. The resulting creole is three basic camps with respect to their approach to the problem:
almost as systematic and sophisticated as any natural human language and
more interestingly contain rules that are not attributable to the languages Direct access -L2 acquisition is just like L1 acquisition. Language acquisition
forming the pidgin, out of which the creole is driven. device (LAD) is involved.

The Universal Grammar Theory No access - L2 learners use their general learning capacity.

Among theories of language acquisition, Universal Grammar (UG) has Indirect access - Only that part of UG which has been used in L1 acquisition is
recently gained wider acceptance and popularity. Though noted among L2 used in L2 acquisition.
acquisition theories, the defenders of UG are not originally motivated to
account for L2 acquisition, nor for first language (L1) acquisition. However, Proponents of UG, for example, believe that both children and adults utilize
UG is more of an L1 acquisition theory rather than L2. It attempts to clarify similar universal principles when acquiring a language; and LAD is still
the relatively quick acquisition of L1s on the basis of 'minimum exposure' to involved in the acquisition process. This view can be better understood in the
external input. The 'logical problem' of language acquisition, according to UG following quote.
proponents, is that language learning would be impossible without 'universal
language-specific knowledge' (Cook, 1991:153; Bloor & Bloor: 244). The main Advocates of UG approach working on second-language learning... argue that
reason behind this argument is the input data: there is no reason to assume that language faculty atrophies with age. Most
second-language researchers who adopt the UG perspective assume that the
"…Language input is the evidence out of which the learner constructs principles and parameters of UG are still accessible to the adult learner.
knowledge of language – what goes into the brain. Such evidence can be
either positive or negative. … The positive evidence of the position of words in
a few sentences the learner hears is sufficient to show him the rules of a To support the view above, the acquisition of the third person “-s” can be
given as an example. According to research both child L1 and adult L2
learners (e.g. Turkish learners of English) acquire the third person “-s” As for the problems with Universal Grammar, it can be said that UG’s
morpheme at a later stage of their overall acquisition process and have a particular aim is to account for how language works. Yet UG proponents had
great difficulty in acquiring it when compared to other morphemes such as to deal with acquisition to account for the language itself. “Acquisition part”
the plural morpheme “-s” or the progressive morpheme “-ing”. This shows is thus of secondary importance. A second drawback is that Chomsky studied
that such learners are somewhat affected by UG-based knowledge. However, only the core grammar of the English language (syntax) and investigated a
in the case of foreign/second language teaching it is very well known that the number of linguistic universals seems to be the major problem. And he
third person “-s” is taught at the very beginning of a second language neglected the peripheral grammar, that is, language specific rules (i.e., rules
learning program and presented in a great majority of textbooks as the first of specific languages which cannot be generalized). Thirdly, the primary
grammatical item. function of language is communication, but it is discarded. The final and the
most significant problem is a methodological one. Due to the fact that
Accordingly, Fodor’s views have some parallels with the UG Theory. Jerry Chomsky is concerned only with describing and explaining 'competence',
Fodor studied the relationship between language and mind and his view that there can be little likelihood of SLA researchers carrying out empirical
language is a modular process has important implications for a theory of research.
language acquisition. The term modular is used to indicate that the brain is
seen, unlike older views such as behaviouristic view of learning and language In summary, UG has generated valuable predictions about the course of
learning, to be organized with many modules of cells for a particular ability interlanguage and the influence of the first language. Also, it has provided
(for instance, the visual module). These modules, according to Fodor invaluable information regarding L2 teaching as to how L2 teachers (or
(1983:47), operate in isolation from other modules that they are not directly educational linguists) should present vocabulary items and how they should
connected. The language module, if we are to follow Fodor’s ideas, is one of view grammar. As Cook (1991:158) puts it, UG shows us that language
such modules. This modular separateness has been termed as “informational teaching should deal with how vocabulary should be taught, not as tokens
encapsulation” by Fodor. To put it simply, each module is open to specific with isolated meanings but as items that play a part in the sentence saying
type of data. In other words, modules are domain specific. This is another what structures and words they may go with in the sentence. The evidence
way of saying that conscious knowledge cannot penetrate your visual module in support of UG, on the other hand, is not conclusive. If the language
or language module or any other subconscious module. module that determines the success in L1 acquisition is proved to be
accessible in L2 acquisition, L2 teaching methodologists and methods should
Basically, Fodor’s arguments are somewhat similar to that of Chomsky or the study and account for how to trigger this language module and redesign their
proponents of UG Theory in that the external input per se may not account methodologies. The UG theory should, therefore, be studied in detail so as to
for language acquisition and that language acquisition is genetically endow us with a more educational and pedagogical basis for mother tongue
predetermined. Add to this, such a modular approach to language acquisition and foreign language teaching.
is totally different from the views of Piaget and Vygotsky who have laid the
primary emphasis on the role of social or environmental factors in language Chomsky - the Evidence
1) Acquisition under extreme conditions
In the case of foreign/second language teaching, the common view is that
inductive learning (teaching a language through hidden grammar or) leads to a) Neurological evidence
acquisition. However, dwelling on Fodor’s views as discussed above, it is
obvious that inductive learning is confused with acquisition and that by Language functions do appear to be localised in the brain, much as we would
learning something via discovery learning, students just improve their expect were Chomsky to be correct in his surmise that language is innate.
problem-solving skills, but not acquire a language. However, language functions appear to be distributed throughout the brain,
and in normal use, the whole brain is brought into play. It is also important to The most striking recent case, however, is rather more ambiguous in its
recognise that although neurobiologists now know a lot about the brain, results:
there is also a lot that is not known. The brain is an extremely complex In 1970, two women, one of them suffering from cataracts, and partially
organism. blind, stumbled into the social services bureau of Temple City, in California,
bringing with them a child. At first, the staff thought that the child was about
1) Normal development of L1 in young children 6 or seven years old, and that she was autistic - she weighed four stone, and
stood 4' 6" high. She did not appear to talk.
We saw that Chomsky is certainly mistaken in believing that children hear On further investigation, she turned out to be 13 years old. She could
only partial and ungrammatical sentences. Studies of the ways in which understand some words - about 20, including the colours, red, blue, green
parents, and particularly mothers, interact with their babies and infants show and brown, the word 'Mother' and some other names, the verbs 'walk' and
that they use a special kind of language, and take great care to speak in full 'go' and a few other nouns, such as 'door' or 'bunny'. She could say only two
correct sentences to their children. Nevertheless, the rapidity with which things - 'Stopit', and 'Nomore'.
children do learn their mother tongue does suggest that there may be some Why was she in this condition? When she had been about 20 months old, her
underlying mechanism that fits them for this task. father, who was suffering from a severe depression, sparked off by the
accidental and brutal death of his mother, decided that she was severely
It is necessary to note that children in some cultures are not spoken to by retarded, and that she needed protection from the world. This protection he
their parents directly, and yet they learn their mother tongue all the same. provided by shutting her up in a small bedroom, and leaving her there for the
Pinker suggests that the neurotic behaviour of Western middle-class mothers next eleven years.
is a parallel to that observed in some African societies, where mothers are
very anxious to teach their children to sit up. Genie was attached to a potty by a special harness for most of the day, and
then, at night, she would be fastened into a sleeping bag, unable to move her
2) Language learning under extreme conditions arms, and put into a cot. There was very little sound in the house, for the
father forced the rest of the family to speak in whispers. If Genie herself
2.1. Wild Children attempted to make any noise, her father would beat her with a stick. On
those occasions upon which he felt the need to communicate with his
From time to time, there appear in our midst beings who challenge our daughter, her father would bark or growl like a dog.
conception of what it means to be human. These beings are often referred to
as wild children or wolf children. They are often tragic figures, offering
glimpses of what might have been, of fully human intelligence that somehow Genie had very little visual or physical stimulation. Hung up in the room were
does not enable them to live a social life. This is particularly true if they are a couple of plastic raincoats, and she was sometimes allowed to play with
already through puberty when they are found. They suggest to us that there them. Other small toys - plastic containers, or the TV journal - were
may be a 'critical age', an age beyond which any child who has somehow sometimes given her. Her feeding was swift and silent, and she had eaten
missed out on learning a language will never completely master one. nothing but baby foods and cereals - she did not know how to chew.
Genie was immediately surrounded by a team of scientists. These people
 For example, Victor, the wild boy of Aveyron, found when he was were particularly interested in her progress in language. Would she ever
about 11 years old, never learnt to speak, although he could learn to speak?
understand, and could read a little. According to the neuropsychologist, Eric Lenneberg, in his book Biological
 Kamala, of Midnapore, found at the age of 8, was able to speak a Foundations of Language, 1967, the capacity to learn a language is indeed
little, and to communicate through sounds. innate, and, like many such inborn mechanisms, it is circumscribed in time. If
a child does not learn a language before the onset of puberty, the child will
never master language at all. This is known as the critical period hypothesis. If more progress. It could be that she had been so emotionally damaged by her
Lenneberg was right, then Genie, at over 12 years old, would never be able to father's treatment that all learning processes would be interfered with.
speak properly. If, on the other hand, she did learn to produce grammatically Others suggested that perhaps her father had been right in judging that she
correct sentences, then Lenneberg was wrong. was mentally abnormal. Brain scans had shown some unusual features - in
At first, a number of the people working with her were convinced that she particular that Genie's brain was dominated by her right hemisphere.
was going to demonstrate the falsity of the critical period hypothesis. One Language is mainly situated in the left hemisphere. Was it her brain that was
year after her escape, her language resembled that of a normal 18-20 month interfering with her language, or was it the lack of linguistic stimulation, and
old child. resulting under utilisation of the left hemisphere that had resulted in right
brain dominance?
 - she could distinguish between plural and singular nouns, and Genie's lack of progress with language is, as so often with the evidence that I
between positive and negative sentences. She was producing two- have quoted, capable of interpretation either in a Chomskian framework, or
word sentences, and sometimes sentences of three words. in line with Bruner's ideas. Her experience does suggest that, over a certain
age, any child who has not learnt a language will have great difficulty in
It is at this point that the language of the normal child begins to take off - acquiring one. Lenneberg's hypothesis is not proven, but it is strongly
there is a sudden qualitative change, and the infant learns not only more and supported. Is there further evidence?
more vocabulary, but also more and more complex grammar. But with
Genie, this did not happen. 2.2. The blind and the deaf

 Four years later, she still had not mastered negation, and was stuck Blind children, particularly when born to sighted mothers, do not receive the
at the 'No' + V + Object stage. And although she appeared to same degree of stimulation, and that they therefore fall behind in their
understand WH- questions, she was incapable of producing them linguistic development. In most cases, they catch up pretty quickly - thus
correctly. Instead, she would say things like - comforting the Chomskian line ; parents may hasten the speed of progress a
little, or they may hold it back a little, but in the long run, all children brought
 "Where is may I have a penny?" up in normal circumstances achieve fluency.
 "I where is graham cracker on top shelf?" What about deaf children? Here there is some evidence that being unable to
hear can have long-term effects upon language acquisition. This is true not
 In Chomsky's terms, she appeared to be unable to use 'movement' - simply of spoken language, but also of sign language.
that is, the capacity to reorganise the underlying declarative
sentence. ASL (American Sign Language) is a fully articulated language. It has its own
 Genie also continued to confuse her pronouns, using 'you' and 'me' grammar, which is not the same as that of English - nor the same as that of
interchangeably. She was unable to learn that she should say 'Hello' French sign language. Often, it is learnt late in life, and when this is the case,
in response to 'Hello', and was unable to understand 'Thank you'. the learner 'speaks' it with a foreign accent - and makes the same kind of
The words 'Stopit', and 'Nomore', which she had already known, grammatical errors that a foreigner makes. If the deaf person learns the
were addressed to herself, and never to anyone else. Although she language as a child, however, they learn it fluently, and can use all the
craved social contact, she was unable to achieve it through language. resources that it offers.

So had Genie's case proven that Chomsky and Lenneberg were right? No, she A particularly interesting case is that of 'Chelsea'; her behaviour gave her
had not. Lenneberg himself observed that Genie's personal history was so parents cause for concern. They took her to see a series of doctors, who
disastrous, that it would not be at all clear why she had been unable to make diagnosed her as being retarded. Her family refused to believe this - she was
brought up in a very sheltered and loving environment, but never learnt how
to speak. Then, at the age of 31, she was taken to see a neurologist, who 1. For a readable and touching account of Genie's history, see Russ Rymer,
recognised that she was, in fact, deaf. She was given hearing aids, which 'Genie : A Scientific Tragedy', Penguin, 1994. There are numerous accounts
brought her auditive capacity up to about normal levels. After therapy, she of 'wild' or 'feral' children : I have found Douglas Keith Candland, 'Feral
now scores on IQ tests at levels for a normal ten year old, she works at a Children & Clever Animals ; Reflections on Human Nature' particularly useful.
vet’s, reads, writes and communicates. But when she speaks, she produces 2. In this section, I have mainly relied on Pinker. David Crystal, 'The
strings of words, with no apparent underlying syntactic structure. Her Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language' is also very informative, as it is on
utterances may be comprehensible in context, but they look nothing like other aspects of language disability, such as aphasia.
normal sentences.
Other evidence from deaf people is also interesting. Recently, linguists have 3) Evidence from mother-tongue acquisition
been showing more and more interest in the language of the hard-of-hearing Now let us look at how children actually do learn language.
- Sign language. We now know that Sign Language is a full language - it has a They may begin to learn in the womb. We know that they react to their
full lexical range, it has a complex syntax, and a complex system of signs, mothers' voices from birth - they have been listening to her over the last
whose relationship to referents is as arbitrary as is that of other languages - three months of pregnancy. However, the first noticeable active vocal
even when they seem most iconic. There is not simply one sign language - activity begins at about 8 weeks - the baby begins to coo - at first producing
people who use British Sign Language cannot understand people who use individual sounds, but later stringing them together in a rhythmical pattern.
ASL - neither language is directly related to English. Then, at around 20 weeks, the baby diversifies the sounds she is producing,
People who learn to sign in adolescence or adulthood are very similar to and gradually starts babbling. Babbling involves a selection process.
people who learn a foreign language - they have an accent, and they never - in the first stage, the child appears to produce the whole gamut of sounds
master the more arcane syntactic rules. Children who learn do master the used by human beings in the production of speech - it is the tower of Babel
language - and, according to Steven Pinker, they master it even when they indeed.
learn from parents who do not speak it properly. Once again, this is Bit by bit, however, the range of sounds used narrows down, and the child
suggestive - children are specially programmed to learn a language, and they concentrates more and more upon the sounds used by the mother tongue.
lose this skill at puberty - once again, both Chomsky's and Lenneberg's She is listening to you. So what is being said to her?
positions appear to be vindicated. We remember that Chomsky claims that children only hear very partial and
Evidence from neurology is also suggestive - many children who have ungrammatical input. It is now known that this claim is almost certainly false
suffered damage to the left hemisphere are able to acquire a language by - adults in our culture, when speaking to children, take great care to phrase
transferring language to the right hemisphere. Adults are not able to perform their utterances correctly. This is probably not because they are thinking
the same feat as easily. Once again, it would seem that Lenneberg may be primarily about offering the correct syntactic model, but because they are
right - there is a critical period for first language learning. aiming for clarity of expression. It has been noticed that mothers and other
This obviously interests us as teachers of a second language. Many observers caretakers, when speaking to children, adopt a certain number of specific
have noted that a second language appears to be more difficult to learn after verbal strategies. The style of speech that they use is sometimes referred to
puberty. Later on, we shall see that this observation has not gone as 'Motherese', although non-sexist linguists prefer to call it 'caretaker talk'.
unchallenged, and that for certain kinds of linguistic knowledge, adults and What are the characteristics of this kind of language?
adolescents apparently learn more quickly than children - but it may be that
the way that they learn is totally different - whereas children may still call  1. Simplified in grammar and meaning
upon the LAD to learn a second language, adults and teenagers have to use  2. Shorter sentences - from about 8 words per sentence to four,
other strategies, and in particular, they have to lean heavily upon their first when speaking to two year olds
language.  3. More restricted range of sentence patterns
 4. Expansion and repetition of sentences
 5. Slower speech
 6. Use of special words and sounds youngsters' utterances. They correct wrong information, and not
 7. High pitch wrong grammar. So, Roger Brown reports the following dialogue :
 8. Large number of questions and utterances with high rising
intonation - looking for feedback. Child : Mamma isn't boy, he a girl.
 9. Embedded in the here and now.
Mother : That's right.
So the language that children hear is by no means necessarily partial and
ungrammatical. It has been suggested that these characteristics offer the Child : And Walt Disney comes on Tuesday.
child such clear samples of language, that there is no need to posit a
Chomskian black box, or UG. However, supporters of the UG approach point Mother : No he does not.
out that -
Indeed - and this is of direct interest to language teachers - correction of
 Grammatical forms in caretaker language are not as simple as they grammatical form appears to be a waste of time.
may appear. The mistakes that the child makes do not appear to be simply random errors.
Linguists argue that they are not, in fact , ungrammatical, but that they are
· - large number of Wh- forms. based upon the child's own grammar. Interestingly enough, all children tend
to make the same kinds of mistakes at roughly the same period in their
 Moreover, no-one has yet found a close correlation between linguistic development. For example, English-speaking children working on
language used by caretakers, and language produced by children. negation go through a predictable sequence :

 Not all social groups adapt their speech to young children 1. First the negative words 'No' and 'Not' appear as single word
In Samoa, for example, adults very rarely speak directly to 2. These combine with other words to form two-word sentences - 'No
their children, and among some black communities in the car', 'Not gone' etc.
US, it is considered a waste of time to speak to children who 3. During third year - negative words used within constructions
are too young to give sensible replies - why talk to them,
they don't know anything yet? And yet, these children also You no do that, Mummy
learn language.
You not got it
 Children do not simply repeat the language they hear from their
caretakers while negative auxiliaries also appear. - Won't, can't

Not only do they fail to copy the utterances their mothers give them, they  Greater accuracy - not replaces no. Double negatives are used for
also produce utterances that they have never heard, and use structures that emphasis
they have never heard.  Use of any, hardly, scarcely acquired during early years of school.

 When mothers interact with their young children, they appear to pay As we shall see, there are interesting similarities between this sequence, and
very little attention to the grammatical correctness of their the sequence of acquisition of the negation in English by second-language
Followers of Chomsky claim that the regularity of these errors, and the fact
that they are not based upon what the child hears, demonstrate that they
are derived from the Universal Grammar. The child works through from the
simplest possibilities offered by the UG to the more complex, until his own
grammar is the same as the grammar of the mother-tongue. The claim is
almost that the child does not make mistakes, but simply has a different
grammar to the grammar of the adult.


The evidence from neuroscience and from first-language learning is

suggestive. We find a number of observations that do fit in with what we
would expect if Chomsky were right. However, the evidence needs to be
treated with caution.
We have also seen that Chomsky is certainly incorrect in his claim that
children do not hear well-formed language. On the other hand, children do
seem to understand almost instinctively that language is a rule-bound
system, and are capable of discovering the rules underlying their mother
tongue with remarkable rapidity. But it needs to be borne in mind that the
fact that children seek out the rules underlying language does not mean that
they necessarily have a specific approach to language itself. It may simply be
a product of the peculiar nature of human intelligence, which makes us look
out for and be sensitive to the underlying rules which govern phenomena in
the world - this is one of the main characteristics of all human cultural
activities, and not just of language-learning.