“It seems plain that language acquisition is based on the child’s discovery of what from a formal point of view is a deep and abstract theory – a generative grammar of his language – many of the concepts and principles which are only remotely related to experience by long and intricate chains of unconscious quasi-inferential steps. A consideration of the character of the grammar that is acquired, the degenerate quality and narrowly limited extent of the available data, the striking uniformity of the resulting grammars, and their independence of intelligence, motivation, and emotional state, over wide ranges of variation, leave little hope that much of the structure of the language can be learned by an organism initially uninformed as to its general character.”
Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge: MIT Press.
- the character of the grammar that is acquired: the astounding complexity of language
- the degenerate quality and narrowly limited extent of the available data: speech input from adults consists of interruptions, mistakes, false-starts, and so on; the fact that infants only hear a finite number of utterances during development, yet are later able to produce an infinite amount of utterances
- the striking uniformity of the resulting grammars: the idea that all English speakers will agree when a sentence is ‘correct’ or not (although people do disagree on subtle grammaticality-judgement tasks)
- and their independence of intelligence, motivation, and emotional state,
over wide ranges of variation: language must be considered a
disparate faculty since it bears no relation to intelligence, motivation,
- uninformed as to its general character: Chomsky argues that considering the four points above, it is very unlikely that humans could master such a complex system in such adverse circumstances without being ‘predisposed’ to learning it from birth. In other words, infants must be prepared in advance to learn language and have access to some kind of innate structure or representational system.
Chomsky's theory is formidable and necessarily posits a Universal Grammar - the claim that Czech, Japanese, Hebrew, Swahili, Hindi, English, Swedish, Portuguese, and all other languages share a common underlying structure. There's a good deal of evidence for this.
However, Emergentism, the arch nemesis of Nativism, claims on the other hand that in fact we are not born being predisposed to linguistic structure but that instead we possess extremely powerful learning mechanisms. Improving technology and investigative techniques have allowed researchers to explore this idea more thoroughly, and I intend to cover it at a later date. It's really a very interesting topic because it incorporates attentional as well as cognitive processes.