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Chomsky

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Avram Noam Chomsky, better known as Noam Chomsky, is an American linguist whose work from the 1950s changed the field of linguistics as we know it today. As a result, he is often referred to as the father of modern linguistics.

Who is Noam Chomsky?

Chomsky revolutionized linguistics by treating language as a uniquely human, biologically based cognitive ability. He suggested that all humans are born with the innate ability to learn and make sense of both language and grammar. Some of Chomsky's most influential theories within the field of linguistics include the Nativist theory and Universal Grammar theory . Through his research in linguistics and other areas, such as cognitive psychology, Chomsky helped establish what we now refer to as the ' Cognitive Revolution '.

Chomsky is not only influential in the field of linguistics, but has also significantly contributed to fields of cognitive science, philosophy, psychology, childhood education, and anthropology. He has also written many political books, focusing on foreign policy, the United States' domestic policies, and wealth and power. Today, Chomsky is considered one of the most influential intellectuals in the world. In fact, he is currently the most cited living academic.

Chomsky's Biography

Born: December 7, 1928 - Pennsylvania

Career: PhD in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania

Professor of Linguistics at MIT

Professor emeritus

Notable works: Current Issues in Linguistic Theory (1964)

Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965)

Language and Mind (1972)

Studies on Semantics in Generative Grammar (1972)

Knowledge of Language (1986)

Gaza in Crisis (2010)

Who Rules the World? (2014)

Achievements: The Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences

The humanitarian Sydney Peace Prize

Ben Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science

Chomsky Photograph of Chomsky StudySmarter

Photo of Chomsky, Andrew Rusk - Flickr

What is Chomsky's theory of language acquisition?

How do children learn their first language? Behaviorists believe that we learn it by copying our parents or care givers. This was a popular view up to the 1950s, advocated by linguists like BF Skinner (he set out his theory in the book Verbal Behavior ). In response to this view, Chomsky proposed an alternative. Language learning is innate . Chomsky rejected Skinner's behaviorist theory because, he argued, children receive too little language stimulus to fully learn a language in such a short period of time, something he called 'impoverished language input' (baby talk). He set out his ideas in a review of Skinner's book (A Review of Skinner's Verbal Behavior) in 1967. Chomsky questioned how children could demonstrate signs of learning grammar before being taught it, and suggested that the human brain must have evolved to contain certain linguistic information from birth. Chomsky's theory of language acquisition is referred to as the Nativisit theory or Innateness theory.

Innate (adjective): Existing from the time a person or animal is born.

Chomsky Mother using baby talk StudySmarterMother using baby talk, Hannah Morris -StudySmarter Original

During the 1960s, Chomsky questioned the idea that the human mind begins as a 'blank slate'. Instead, he suggested that the basic concepts of language are innate in every human's mind and are influenced by our linguistic environment. Chomsky suggests that a child's predisposition to learn a language is triggered when they hear speech, and that their brain will begin to interpret what is heard based on underlying structures and principles it already knows. Chomsky referred to this area of the brain as the ' Language Acquisition Device ', or LAD for short, and suggests that it is the reason why children are able to learn a language only a few years after birth.

Chomsky has since gone on to revise his own theory on the LAD. He used to believe the LAD contained specific knowledge about language, but he now believes that it works more like a mechanism for working out the rules of language.

Of course, all languages are different, and humans assign different meanings to different sounds worldwide. Chomsky does not believe that a child born in England has an innate ability to speak English or that a child born in China can miraculously speak Chinese. Instead, he suggests that all human languages share many of the same grammar principles.

For example, most languages:

  • Differentiate between verbs and nouns
  • Have a way of talking about the past and present tense
  • Have a way of asking questions
  • Have a counting system

This sharing of common grammar principles is what Chomsky refers to as ' Universal Grammar '. According to Universal Grammar theory, the basic grammatical structures of language are already encoded in the human brain at birth. It is a child's environment that will determine which language they acquire.

Applications of Chomsky's language acquisition theory

Let's take a look at Chomsky's theory of language acquisition in action and some examples that help support his theory.

Chomsky suggests that all humans are born with a 'LAD', and other animals are not. This theory is supported by examining our closest living relatives, the ape. Pinker (1994) ¹ found that while some chimpanzees are able to learn singular words and communicate through signs, none have been able to master syntax or the intricacies of forming grammatically correct sentences.

It's perfectly obvious that there is some genetic factor that distinguishes humans from other animals and that it is language-specific. The theory of that genetic component, whatever it turns out to be , is what is called universal grammar. " Chomsky, 2012

Children have an unconscious ability to recognize the past tense and will begin to associate words ending with a / d / / t / or / id / sound with the past. Chomsky suggests this is why children make 'virtuous errors' such as, 'I went' rather than 'I went' when first learning a language. Nobody taught them to say 'I goed'; they figured that out for themselves. To Chomsky, these virtuous errors suggest that children are born with the subconscious ability to work out the grammatical rules of language.

The formation of creole languages appears to support Chomsky's theory of the LAD. Languages that grow and develop from the mixing of other languages, without any formal teaching, are known to linguists as creole languages. The linguist Derek Bickerton (1983) ² studied the formation of Dutch-based creoles that originated from escaped slaves. The adult slaves all came from different linguistic backgrounds and therefore had to communicate using the small amount of Dutch they had learned before escaping. The adults were past the critical age for language learning (between 7 and puberty, by some reckoning), resulting in a very basic pidgin language. However, the children of the escaped slaves turned this basic pidgin language into a full language with its own consistent grammar rules. The children were able to do this without any formal teaching.

Limitations of Chomsky's language acquisition theory?

Chomsky's theory of language acquisition has met with several criticisms.

Firstly, Chomsky's work on language is highly theoretical as he tends to look more at complex explanations of grammatical structures rather than studying children themselves. Chomsky's theory fails to account for real-life relationships, external factors, and motivations to learn that children may face in their day-to-day lives.

Secondly, although scientists have identified locations in the brain used for language processing, such as Broca's area and Wernicke's area, a specific area that can be defined as the LAD has not been found. Some modern theories have returned to behaviorism for answers, such as Connectionism.

Chomsky - Key takeaways

  • Noam Chomsky is an American linguist who is often referred to as the father of modern linguistics.
  • Chomsky is not only influential in the field of linguistics but has significantly contributed to fields of cognitive science, philosophy, psychology, childhood education, anthropology, and politics.
  • Chomsky believes that language learning is innate and that every child has an inbuilt ability to comprehend the structures of language due to their Language Acquisition Device (LAD). The LAD is a tool within the brain that facilitates the learning of language and grammar.
  • Universal Grammar theory suggests that all human languages share basic grammatical rules that humans have an innate and subconscious ability to learn.
  • Chomsky's theory has been criticized for being too theoretical and not accounting for real-life situations.

¹ Steven Pinker. The Language Instinct. (1994).

² Derek Bickerton. Creole Languages. (1983).

Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is an influential American linguist and academic, often referred to as the father of linguistics.

Chomsky believes that language learning is innate and that every child is born with the cognitive ability to learn words and grammar.

Universal Grammar theory suggests that all human languages share many of the same basic grammatical rules that humans have an innate and subconscious ability to learn.

The Language Acquisition Device (LAD), proposed by Noam Chomsky, aims to explain how children can acquire a language and its basic grammatical structures just a few years after birth.

Final Chomsky Quiz

Question

What is analytic philosophy?

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Answer

Analytic philosophy helps to analyse logical concepts emphasising the study of language.

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Question

What does cognitive science study?

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Answer

Cognitive science is the study of mind and intelligence.

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Question

True or false: Chomsky is a firm believer that syntactic knowledge is gained with inputs and feedback.

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Answer

False. Chomsky is a firm believer that syntactic knowledge is partially innate.

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What is syntactic knowledge?

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Answer

Syntactic knowledge is how we can combine words to create meaningful sentences.

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Question

What are the “special properties” acquired by universal grammar?

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Answer

Children will distinguish function words from content words or distinguish nouns from verbs.

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True or false: If children have experienced sensory deprivation, they still validate the universal grammar theory.

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Answer

False. If children have experienced extreme sensory deprivation they won’t prove the theory.

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Question

True or false:Chomsky argues that unless children have a significant innate knowledge of grammar, they can’t learn the language as quickly as they do.

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Answer

True.


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True or false:LAD by Chomsky states that languages have finite sequences of words and grammar.

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Answer

False. LAD by Chomsky states that languages have infinite sequences of words and grammar.

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Question

What are the four limitations of Chomsky’s theories stated in this article?

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Answer

A: Inconsistent evidence

B: Based on hypothesis and not on behavioural observation

C:Lack of universal characteristics between languages

D: Unproven link between innate structures

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What do constructivist researchers believe?

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Answer

Constructivist researchers believe that we build our knowledge.

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True or false: Chomsky observed that all children tend to make the same language mistakes, regardless of the spoken language.

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Answer

True.

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Does the “innate ability” have the knowledge of vocabulary of any particular language?Does the child learn words?

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Answer

No, it doesn’t. The child has to learn the meaning of words.

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True or false: The child is conscious of the innate ability and it is fully formed at birth.

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Answer

False. It is not to say that the child is conscious of it or that this innate capacity is fully formed at birth.

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Question

Choose the correct answer: What does LAD stand for?

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Answer

Language Acquisition Device

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Is Chomsky’s theory of language still considered valid?

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Answer

No, it is not. He was considered valid between 1960 and 1990, then it got rejected.

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