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The Chomsky On Language Acquisition English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2517 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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By learning how to learn Bruner believes that one can transfer what was learnt from one situation to another. Life-long learning is closely associated with this concept.

Interactionist Theory and ESL

How does the Interactionist Theory fit in with ESL in a classroom? When faced with learning English as a second language, the student is essentially an infant. They cannot communicate with the teacher except through non-verbal communication. Therefore, it is up to the teacher to act as the adult in the infant-adult relationship. He or she is responsible for leading all interaction at first, and as the student becomes more familiar with the English language and able to communicate, the control of the interaction can be relinquished a bit and the students can take more control of their own language learning. Also, if students are encouraged to experiment with the language and learn that it is okay to make mistakes, they will be able to discover for themselves how to combine words and phrases to form full sentences and dialogues.

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Chomsky on Language Acquisition

Noam Chomsky postulated that the mechanism of the language acquisition is derived from the innate processes. Innate is something which is already there in mind since birth. The theory proposed by Chomsky is proved by the children living in same linguistic community. Moreover, they are not influenced by the external experiences which bring about the comparable grammar. He thus proposed his theory on language acquisition in 1977 as “all children share the same internal constraints which characterize narrowly the grammar they are going to construct.” He also proposed that all of us live in a biological world, and according to him, mental world is no exception. He also believes that as there are stages of development for other parts of the body, language development can also be achieved up to a certain age.



Language acquisition is one of the central topics in cognitive science. Every theory of cognition has tried to explain it; probably no other topic has aroused such controversy. Possessing a language is the quintessentially human trait: all normal humans speak, no nonhuman animal does. Language is the main vehicle by which we know about other people’s thoughts, and the two must be intimately related. Every time we speak we are revealing something about language, so the facts of language structure are easy to come by; these data hint at a system of extraordinary complexity. Nonetheless, learning a first language is something every child does successfully, in a matter of a few years and without the need for formal lessons. With language so close to the core of what it means to be human, it is not surprising that children’s acquisition of language has received so much attention. Anyone with strong views about the human mind would like to show that children’s first few steps are steps in the right direction.


Language acquisition is the process by which the language capability develops in a human. First language acquisition concerns the development of language in children, while second language acquisition focuses on language development in adults as well. In this paper, we are focussed on the first language acquisition which concerns in the development of language in children.

Nativist theories hold that children are born with an innate propensity for language acquisition, and that this ability makes the task of learning a first language easier than it would otherwise be. These “hidden assumptions” allow children to quickly figure out what is and isn’t possible in the grammar of their native language, and allow them to master that grammar by the age of three. Nativists view language as a fundamental part of the human genome, as the trait that makes humans human, and its acquisition as a natural part of maturation, no different from dolphins learning to swim or songbirds learning to sing.

Chomsky originally theorized that children were born with a hard-wired language acquisition device (LAD) in their brains. He later expanded this idea into that of Universal Grammar, a set of innate principles and adjustable parameters that are common to all human languages. According to Chomsky, the presence of Universal Grammar in the brains of children allows them to deduce the structure of their native languages from “mere exposure”.

The Language Acquisition Device (LAD) is a postulated “organ” of the brain that is supposed to function as a congenital device for learning symbolic language (i.e., language acquisition). The LAD concept is a component of the nativist theory of language which dominates contemporary formal linguistics, which asserts that humans are born with the instinct or “innate facility” for acquiring language.

Chomsky motivated the LAD hypothesis by what he perceived as intractable complexity of language acquisition, citing the notion of “infinite use of finite means” proposed by Wilhelm von Humboldt. At the time it was conceived (1957-1965), the LAD concept was in strict contrast to B.F. Skinner’s behavioral psychology which emphasized principles of learning theory such as classical and operant conditioning and imitation over biological predisposition. The interactionist theory of Jerome Bruner and Jean Piaget later emphasized the importance of the interaction between biological and social (nature and nurture) aspects of language acquisition.

Chomsky (1965) set out an innate language schema which provides the basis for the child’s acquisition of a language. The acquisition process takes place despite the limited nature of the primary linguistic data (PLD, the input signals received) and the degenerate nature (frequent incorrect usage, utterances of partial sentences) of that data. Given this poverty of the stimulus, a language acquisition model requires a number of components. Firstly, the child must have a technique for representing input signals and, secondly, a way of representing structural information about them. Thirdly, there must be some initial delimitation of the class of possible language structure hypotheses. Fourthly, the child requires a method for determining what each of these hypotheses implies with respect to each sentence. Finally, an additional method is needed by which the child can select which hypothesis is compatible with the PLD.

Equipped with this endowment, first language learning is explained as performed by a Language Acquisition Device progressing through the following stages:

1. The device searches the class of language structure hypotheses and selects those compatible with input signals and structural information drawn from the PLD.

2. The device then tests the compatibility using the knowledge of implications of each hypothesis for the sentences.

3. One hypothesis or ‘grammar’ is selected as being compatible with the PLD.

4. This grammar provides the device with a method of interpreting sentences (by virtue of its capacity for internally representing structural information and applying the grammar to sentences).

Through this process the device constructs a theory of the language of which the PLD are a sample. Chomsky argues that in this way, the child comes to know a great deal more than she has ‘learned’, acquiring knowledge of language, which “goes far beyond the presented primary linguistic data and is in no sense an ‘inductive generalization’ from these data.”

In some views of language acquisition, the LAD is thought to become unavailable after a certain age – the critical period hypothesis (i.e., is subject to maturational constraints).

Chomsky has gradually abandoned the LAD in favour of a parameter-setting model of language acquisition (principles and parameters).

Much of the nativist position is based on the early age at which children show competency in their native grammars, as well as the ways in which they do (and do not) make errors. Infants are born able to distinguish between phonemes in minimal pairs, distinguishing between bah and pah, for example. Young children (under the age of three) do not speak in fully formed sentences, instead saying things like ‘want cookie’ or ‘my coat.’ They do not, however, say things like ‘want my’ or ‘I cookie,’ statements that would break the syntactic structure of the Phrase, a component of universal grammar. Children also seem remarkably immune from error correction by adults, which Nativists say would not be the case if children were learning from their parents.


Non-nativist theories include the competition model, functionalist linguistics, usage-based language acquisition, social interactionism and others. Social-interactionists, like Snow, theorize that adults play an important part in children’s language acquisition. However, some researchers claim that the empirical data on which theories of social interactionism are based have often been over-representative of middle class American and European parent-child interactions. Various anthropological studies of other human cultures, as well as anecdotal evidence from western families, suggests rather that many, if not the majority, of the world’s children are not spoken to in a manner akin to traditional language lessons, but nevertheless grow up to be fully fluent language users. Many researchers now take this into account in their analyses.

Those linguists who do not agree with Chomsky point to several problems:

1. Chomsky differentiates between competence and performance. Performance is what people actually say, which is often ungrammatical, whereas competence is what they instinctively know about the syntax of their language – and this is more or less equated with the Universal Grammar. Chomsky concentrates upon this aspect of language – he thus ignores the things that people actually say. The problem here is that he relies upon people’s intuitions as to what is right or wrong – but it is not at all clear that people will all make the same judgments, or that their judgments actually reflect the way people really do use the language.

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2. Chomsky distinguishes between the ‘core’ or central grammar of a language, which is essentially founded on the UG, and peripheral grammar. Thus, in English, the fact that ‘We were’ is considered correct, and ‘We was ‘ incorrect is a historical accident, rather than an integral part of the core grammar – as late as the 18th Century, recognized writers, such as Dean Swift, could write ‘We was …’ without feeling that they had committed a terrible error. Similarly, the outlawing of the double negation in English is peripheral, due to social and historical circumstances rather than anything specific to the language itself. To Chomsky, the real object of linguistic science is the core grammar. But how do we determine what belongs to the core, and what belongs to the periphery? To some observers, all grammar is conventional, and there is no particular reason to make the Chomskian distinction.

3. Chomsky also appears to reduce language to its grammar. He seems to regard meaning as secondary – a sentence such as ‘Colorless’ may be considered as part of the English language, for it is grammatically correct, and therefore worthy of study by Transformational Grammarians. A sentence such as ‘My mother, he no like bananas’, on the other hand, is of no interest to the Chomskian linguist. Nor would he be particularly interested in most of the utterances heard in the course of a normal lecture.

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.

Bruner’s LASS

Let us look closely at this fourth objection. The psychologist, Jerome Bruner, holds that while there very well may be, as Chomsky suggests, a Language Acquisition Device, or LAD, there must also be a Language Acquisition Support System, or LASS. He is referring to the family and entourage of the child.

If we watch closely the way a child interacts with the adults around her, we will see that they constantly provide opportunities for her to acquire her mother – tongue. Mother or father provide ritualized scenarios – the ceremony of having a bath, eating a meal, getting dressed, or playing a game – in which the phases of interaction are rapidly recognized and predicted by the infant.

It is within such clear and emotionally charged contexts that the child first becomes aware of the way in which language is used. The utterances of the mother or father are themselves ritualized, and accompany the activity in predictable and comprehensible ways. Gradually, the child moves from a passive position to an active one, taking over the movements of the caretaker, and, eventually, the language as well.

Bruner cites the example of a well-known childhood game, in which the mother, or other caretaker, disappears and then reappears. Through this ritual, which at first may be accompanied by simple noises or ‘Bye-bye Hello’, and later by lengthier commentaries, the child is both learning about separation and return and being offered a context within which language, charged with emotive content, may be acquired. It is this reciprocal and affective nature of language that Chomsky appears to leave out of his hypotheses.

Bruner’s conception of the way children learn language is taken a little further by John Macnamara, who holds that children, rather than having an in-built language device, have an innate capacity to read meaning into social situations. It is this capacity that makes them capable of understanding language, and therefore learning it with ease, rather than an LAD.


Chomsky, then, sees the child as essentially autonomous in the creation of language. She is programmed to learn, and will learn so long as minimal social and economic conditions are realized. In Bruner’s version, the program is indeed in place, but the social conditions become more important. The child is still an active participant, is still essentially creative in her approach to language acquisition, but the role of the parents and other caretakers is also seen as primordial. Finally, we could draw the conclusion that we can successfully teach any child any language we like as it is provided with Language Acquisition Device (LAD) and supported with Language Acquisition Support System (LASS).


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