Chomsky

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.

Chomsky Chomsky

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Table of contents

    Who is Noam Chomsky?

    Chomsky revolutionised 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.

    Noam Chomsky theory

    Some of Chomsky's most influential theories within 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'.

    Noam Chomsky's famous work

    Chomsky is not only influential in the field of linguistics, but has also significantly contributed to the 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.

    Noam Chomsky Biography

    Born:

    • December 7, 1928, in 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

    What is Chomsky's theory of language acquisition?

    How do children learn their first language? Behaviourists believe that we learn it by copying our parents or caregivers. This was a popular view until 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 behaviorial 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 Nativist theory or Innateness theory.

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

    Chomsky Mother using baby talk StudySmarterChomsky believed language is innate rather than learned from caregivers (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 can 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 look at Chomsky's theory of language acquisition in action and some real-life examples that help support his theory.

    Chomsky suggests that all humans are born with a 'Language Acquisition Device' (LAD) whilst other animals are not. If we examine our closest living relatives, the ape, we'll find that this theory is supported. Pinker (1994) ¹ studied communication in chimpanzees and found that, while some chimpanzees can learn singular words and communicate through signs, none have been able to master syntax and form 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 recognise the past tense, associating words ending with a /d/ /t/ or /id/ sound with the past. Chomsky suggests this is why children make 'virtuous errors', e.g. they may say 'I goed' rather than 'I went' when first learning a language. They did not learn to say 'I goed' from their caregivers; instead, they applied the grammar rules they already knew to other words. To Chomsky, these virtuous errors suggest that children are there is an innate, subconscious ability to work out the grammatical rules of language.

    The formation and development of creole languages appear to support Chomsky's theory of the LAD. Creole languages grow and develop from the mixing of other languages which is done without any formal teaching. Linguist Derek Bickerton (1983) ² studied the formation of Dutch-based creoles that originated from escaped enslaved people. The adults all came from different linguistic backgrounds and therefore had to communicate using the small amount of Dutch they had learned before escaping. They were past the critical age for language learning (between 7 and puberty), resulting in a basic pidgin language (a simplified, second language used for communication). However, the children of the escaped enslaved people turned this basic pidgin language into a full creole language with its own consistent grammar rules. They were able to do this without any formal teaching, suggesting that the ability for language is innate.

    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 behaviourism 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 the 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 critic for being too theoretical and not accounting for real-life situations.

    ¹ Steven Pinker. The Language Instinct. 1994

    ² Derek Bickerton. Creole Languages. 1983

    Frequently Asked Questions about Chomsky

    Who is Noam Chomsky?

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

    What is Chomsky's theory?

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

    What is Chomsky's theory of Universal 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.

    What is Chomsky famous for?

    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. His most influential theories include the Nativist theory and Universal Grammar theory.

    What is an example of Chomsky's theory?

    Children have an unconscious ability to recognize the past tense, associating words ending with a / d / / t / or / id / sound with the past. Chomsky suggests this is why children make 'virtuous errors' such as, 'I goed' rather than 'I went' when first learning a language. 


    To Chomsky, these virtuous errors suggest that children are born with the subconscious ability to work out the grammatical rules of language.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false: Chomsky argues that children have a significant innate knowledge of grammar; otherwise, they wouldn't learn the language as quickly as they do.

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

    Choose the correct answer: What does LAD stand for?

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