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Chomsky and language learning.

Critics The evidence Wild children
from mother-
The Universal
The blind and
the deaf

Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky is perhaps the best known and the most influential linguist of the
second half of the Twentieth Century. He has made a number of strong claims about
language: in particular, he suggests that language is an innate faculty - that is to
say that we are born with a set of rules about language in our heads which he refers
to as the 'Universal Grammar'. The universal grammar is the basis upon which all
human languages build. If a Martian linguist were to visit Earth, he would deduce
from the evidence that there was only one language, with a number of local variants.
Chomsky gives a number of reasons why this should be so. Among the most
important of these reasons is the ease with which children acquire their mother
tongue. He claims that it would be little short of a miracle if children learnt their
language in the same way that they learn mathematics or how to ride a bicycle. This,
he says, is because :
1. Children are exposed to very little correctly formed language. When people
speak, they constantly interrupt themselves, change their minds, make slips of
the tongue and so on. Yet children manage to learn their language all the same.
2. Children do not simply copy the language that they hear around them. They
deduce rules from it, which they can then use to produce sentences that they
have never heard before. They do not learn a repertoire of phrases and sayings,
as the behaviourists believe, but a grammar that generates an infinity of new
1. 2. Children are born, then, with the Universal Grammar wired into their brains.
This grammar offers a certain limited number of possibilities - for example, over the
word order of a typical sentence.
Some languages have a basic SVO structure

The teacher gave a lecture
75% of the world's languages use either this (English, French,
Vietnamese) or SOV (Japanese, Tibetan, Korean) - others prefer VSO
(10 - 15% - Welsh) or VOS (Malagasy)
* Some languages, such as Latin, appear to have free word order, but even here,
SOV is very common. OSV is very rare - but you will find an example in the speech
of Yoda, in Star Wars.

When the child begins to listen to his parents, he will unconsciously recognise which
kind of a language he is dealing with - and he will set his grammar to the correct one
- this is known as 'setting the parameters'.
It is as if the child were offered at birth a certain number of hypotheses, which he or
she then matches with what is happening around him. He knows intuitively that there
are some words that behave like verbs, and others like nouns, and that there is a
limited set of possibilities as to their ordering within the phrase. This is not
information that he is taught directly by the adults that surround him, but information
that is given. It is as if the traveller were provided at the beginning of his journey
with a compass and an astrolabe.
This set of language learning tools, provided at birth, is referred to by Chomsky as
the Language Acquisition Device. (Notice that he uses the term "acquisition" rather
than learning).

How did you learn to speak your native language? Notice, this shouldn't be such a
puzzling question. We often ask questions such as, do you remember when did you
learned to tie your shoes, ride a bike, and eat with a fork. Sometimes we can
remember because a parent helped us learn how to do these things. Now, since we
always speak the language of our parents, they must have helped us learn to speak
our first language. But do you remember when your mother taught you the past
tense? When your father laid down the rules for passive sentences? We don't
remember these important moments of our childhood because they never occurred.
Our parents didn't teach us how to walk and they didn't teach us how to talk. Yet we
learned from them. How can this be? Certainly there must have been a subtle,
perhaps intuitive teaching process that neither our parents 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 punish us for the childish speech errors
we make (by not responding, correcting the error, etc.) and reward correct phrases
(by responding positively). As our speech improves, our parents respond more
positively and less negatively. No?
First, let's examine the assumption that children begin speaking by
trying to repeat what they have heard their parents say. Have you ever
heard a child say things like this:
Daddy go
1b He hitted me
No eat cake
Who did they hear utter such phrases? Daddy go is an attempt to express 'Daddy is
going'. But if the child were merely trying to repeat this common phrase, choosing
random two-word combinations, he or she would also occasionally say Daddy is or
simply is going? Yet these two phrases do not occur as normal speech errors of
children while Daddy go is a common one.
Second, research shows that while mothers often respond to the semantic content of
what their children say ('No, that's not a doggie, it's a cow'), they very rarely respond
to the grammatical status of their children's phrases. Indeed, when parents do
respond to speech errors, they most often respond positively. Here are a few
advanced errors from the history of my family. What do you think our response
wascorrection or laughter (which I take to be a positive response)?

2a. Mama, mama, there's a tree-knocker in the back yard!
2b. It's raining, where is the underbrella?
2c. Give me the beach-lookers! (binoculars)

In fact, parents themselves make grammatical errors when they speak. Despite the
fact that children don't know when their parents are speaking grammatically and
when they are making errors, all children grow up knowing (if not always speaking)
the language perfectly.
So how do we learn to speak? Take a look at example No. 1b above for a 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 make such an error is that he
or she is learning a rule that derives past tense verbs from verb stems. What the
child hasn't mastered at this stage is the 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 going' cookie mommy for 'Mommy's cookie'. By the time a
child begins putting two words together, he or she has already mastered the basic
rules of syntax and applies them correctly even in their erroneous speech. It takes
the child a little longer to master the rules of morphology.
The evidence then indicates that children do, in fact, absorb a massive number of
sentences and phrases but rather than parrot them back, they abstract rules from
them and create their own grammar which they then apply to create new utterances
they have never heard before. Over the years from 2-7, when language is mastered,
children constantly adjust their grammar until it matches that of the adult speaker
This critical period between the ages of 2-7 suggests that (first) language learning,
like walking, is an innate capacity of human beings triggered by a level of
development more than feedback from the environment. That is, so long as a child
hears a language-any language-when they reach this critical period they will learn
it perfectly. If this is true, any child not hearing language during this period not only
should not learn to speak but also should not be able to learn to speak. The ethical
implications of research on this question are obvious. However, there have been a
few tragic non-scientific bits of evidence that supports the innateness + critical
period hypothesis.

If I wanted to start the course off with a silly pun, I could say 'Learning a 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 be created :
- reduced syntax and vocabulary
- often no fixed order of words, with considerable variation from one speaker
to another
- used purely as a language of communication
o - not lived in
o - no-one speaks a pidgin as a mother tongue
But a pidgin can become a language - Creole. How does this happen?
According to Derek Bickerton, who has reconstructed the process of creolisation in
Hawaii, it takes one generation.
When children begin to use a pidgin, they automatically enrich the
vocabulary and the syntax - it becomes a full language. The community
of young children in Hawaii took the pidgin used by their parents -
workers from China, Japan, Korea, Portugal, the Philippines and Puerto
Rico - and created a language.
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 creates it anew.
Does this have anything to tell us about learning a foreign language?

Chomsky's critics
Those linguists who do not agree with Chomsky point to several problems, of which
I shall mention just four.
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 judgements, or that their judgements actually reflect the way people
really do use the language.
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, recognised 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 'Colourless green ideas sleep
furiously' 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
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.

That some kinds of migratory birds navigate thousands of miles toward their
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 amazing success
to the birds' instinctive behaviour is apparent, after all, that these animals cannot
learn such complicated astronomical facts through a trial and error fashion; they
neither have enough time nor necessary cognitive capacity.

The same scientists, however, including some professional linguists, are quite
reluctant to attribute any form of instinct to human infant, who arrives at complex
linguistic knowledge within a remarkably short period of time. The infant's is no less
a complicated task than that of the bird's as the linguists themselves have spent
decades (or even centuries) to discover the intricacies of the very same system and
with no final theory. Infants, on the other hand, not only arrives at an almost
complete knowledge of grammar in their brinds (brain+mind) but also accomplish
this task within less than a decade.

Although a human infant and a migratory bird are essentially alike in terms of the
complexity of the task to be accomplished and their inability to handle the task with
their current cognitive capacity, only the latter is believed to rely on its instincts.
There are, of course, some differences between an animal and a human baby; it
would be unwise to equate the cognitive capacities of the two. And it is also
impossible to underscore the importance of environmental factors in child language
acquisition. After all, thousands of hours of exposure is required in order for a child
to acquire his mother tongue, whereas animals like sonar-using bats or web-building
spiders seem to be ready to use their instinctive knowledge with minimum, if any,
learning experience. It is equally unwise, however, to suggest that a cognitively
immature child can accomplish a task which has yet to be accomplished by
professional linguists.

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 will have the
knowledge linguists formulate as the binding principles, none of which has been
explicitly taught.

The amazing success of children in picking up their mother tongue is no recent
discovery. Slobin (1979) quotes Rene Descartes commenting on human beings'
distinctive ability to formulate a linguistic system:

Even those who were born deaf and dumb, lacking the organs which others make
use of in speaking, and at least as badly off as the animals in this respect, usually
invent for themselves some signs by which they make themselves understood by
those who are with them enough to learn their language

In the literature of child language acquisition there are cases in which infants,
deprived of linguistic input, invent a rudimentary grammar not attributable only to
the external factors. Children are also known to build a natural language when
exposed to unsystematic pidgin data. The resulting creole is almost as systematic
and sophisticated as any natural human language and more interestingly contain
rules that are not attributable to the languages forming the pidgin, out of which the
creole is driven.
The Universal Grammar Theory
Among theories of language acquisition, Universal Grammar (UG) has recently
gained wider acceptance and popularity. Though noted among L2 acquisition
theories, the defenders of UG are not originally motivated to account for L2
acquisition, nor for first language (L1) acquisition. However, UG is more of an L1
acquisition theory rather than L2. It attempts to clarify the relatively quick
acquisition of L1s on the basis of 'minimum exposure' to external input. The 'logical
problem' of language acquisition, according to UG proponents, is that language
learning would be impossible without 'universal language-specific knowledge'
(Cook, 1991:153; Bloor & Bloor: 244). The main reason behind this argument is the
input data:

"Language input is the evidence out of which the learner constructs 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 language." (Cook, 1991: 154)

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 'degenerate' because it is
damaged by performance features such as slips, hesitations or false starts.
Accordingly, it is suggested that the input is not an adequate base for language
learning. Second, the input is devoid of grammar corrections. This means that the
input does not normally contain 'negative evidence', the knowledge from which the
learner could exercise what is 'not' possible in a given language.

As for L2 acquisition, however, the above question is not usually asked largely
because of the frequent failure of L2 learners, who happen to be generally
cognitively mature adults, in attaining native-like proficiency. But why can't adults
who have already acquired an L1, acquire an L2 thoroughly? Don't they have any
help from UG? Or if they do, then how much of UG is accessible in SLA? These
and similar questions have divided researchers into three basic camps with respect
to their approach to the problem:

Direct access -L2 acquisition is just like L1 acquisition. Language acquisition
device (LAD) is involved.

No access - L2 learners use their general learning capacity.

Indirect access - Only that part of UG which has been used in L1 acquisition is used
in L2 acquisition.

Proponents of UG, for example, believe that both children and adults utilize similar
universal principles when acquiring a language; and LAD is still involved in the
acquisition process. This view can be better understood in the following quote.

Advocates of UG approach working on second-language learning... argue that there
is no reason to assume that language faculty atrophies with age. Most second-
language researchers who adopt the UG perspective assume that the principles and
parameters of UG are still accessible to the adult learner.

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 morpheme at a later stage of their
overall acquisition process and have a great difficulty in acquiring it when compared
to other morphemes such as the plural morpheme -s or the progressive morpheme
-ing. This shows that such learners are somewhat affected by UG-based
knowledge. However, in the case of foreign/second language teaching it is very well
known that the third person -s is taught at the very beginning of a second language
learning program and presented in a great majority of textbooks as the first
grammatical item.

Accordingly, Fodors views have some parallels with the UG Theory. Jerry Fodor
studied the relationship between language and mind and his view that language is a
modular process has important implications for a theory of 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 learning, to be organized with many
modules of cells for a particular ability (for instance, the visual module). These
modules, according to Fodor (1983:47), operate in isolation from other modules that
they are not directly connected. The language module, if we are to follow Fodors
ideas, is one of such modules. This modular separateness has been termed as
informational encapsulation by Fodor. To put it simply, each module is open to
specific type of data. In other words, modules are domain specific. This is another
way of saying that conscious knowledge cannot penetrate your visual module or
language module or any other subconscious module.

Basically, Fodors arguments are somewhat similar to that of Chomsky or the
proponents of UG Theory in that the external input per se may not account for
language acquisition and that language acquisition is genetically predetermined. Add
to this, such a modular approach to language acquisition 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 development.

In the case of foreign/second language teaching, the common view is that inductive
learning (teaching a language through hidden grammar or) leads to acquisition.
However, dwelling on Fodors views as discussed above, it is obvious that inductive
learning is confused with acquisition and that by learning something via discovery
learning, students just improve their problem-solving skills, but not acquire a

As for the problems with Universal Grammar, it can be said that UGs particular aim
is to account for how language works. Yet UG proponents had to deal with
acquisition to account for the language itself. Acquisition part is thus of secondary
importance. A second drawback is that Chomsky studied only the core grammar of
the English language (syntax) and investigated a number of linguistic universals
seems to be the major problem. And he neglected the peripheral grammar, that is,
language specific rules (i.e., rules of specific languages which cannot be
generalized). Thirdly, the primary 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 Chomsky is concerned only with describing and explaining
'competence', there can be little likelihood of SLA researchers carrying out empirical

In summary, UG has generated valuable predictions about the course of inter
language and the influence of the first language. Also, it has provided invaluable
information regarding L2 teaching as to how L2 teachers (or educational linguists)
should present vocabulary items and how they should view grammar. As Cook
(1991:158) puts it, UG shows us that language teaching should deal with how
vocabulary should be taught, not as tokens with isolated meanings but as items that
play a part in the sentence saying what structures and words they may go with in the
sentence. The evidence in support of UG, on the other hand, is not conclusive. If the
language module that determines the success in L1 acquisition is proved to be
accessible in L2 acquisition, L2 teaching methodologists and methods should study
and account for how to trigger this language module and redesign their
methodologies. The UG theory should, therefore, be studied in detail so as to endow
us with a more educational and pedagogical basis for mother tongue and foreign
language teaching.
Chomsky - the Evidence
1) Acquisition under extreme conditions
a) Neurological evidence
Language functions do appear to be localised in the brain, much as we would expect
were Chomsky to be correct in his surmise that language is innate. 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 recognise that although
neurobiologists now know a lot about the brain, there is also a lot that is not known.
The brain is an extremely complex organism.
1) Normal development of L1 in young children
We saw that Chomsky is certainly mistaken in believing that children hear only
partial and ungrammatical sentences. Studies of the ways in which parents, and
particularly mothers, interact with their babies and infants show that they use a
special kind of language, and take great care to speak in full correct sentences to
their children. Nevertheless, the rapidity with which children do learn their mother
tongue does suggest that there may be some underlying mechanism that fits them for
this task.
It is necessary to note that children in some cultures are not spoken to by their
parents directly, and yet they learn their mother tongue all the same. Pinker suggests
that the neurotic behaviour of Western middle-class mothers is a parallel to that
observed in some African societies, where mothers are very anxious to teach their
children to sit up.
2) Language learning under extreme conditions
2.1. Wild Children
From time to time, there appear in our midst beings who challenge our 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 does not enable them to live a social
life. This is particularly true if they are already through puberty when they are
found. They suggest to us that there may be a 'critical age', an age beyond which
any child who has somehow missed out on learning a language will never completely
master one.
For example, Victor, the wild boy of Aveyron, found when he was about 11
years old, never learnt to speak, although he could understand, and could read
a little.
Kamala, of Midnapore, found at the age of 8, was able to speak a little, and to
communicate through sounds.
The most striking recent case, however, is rather more ambiguous in its results:
In 1970, two women, one of them suffering from cataracts, and partially 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 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.
On further investigation, she turned out to be 13 years old. She could understand
some words - about 20, including the colours, red, blue, green and brown, the word
'Mother' and some other names, the verbs 'walk' and 'go' and a few other nouns, such
as 'door' or 'bunny'. She could say only two things - 'Stopit', and 'Nomore'.
Why was she in this condition? When she had been about 20 months old, her father,
who was suffering from a severe depression, sparked off by the accidental and brutal
death of his mother, decided that she was severely retarded, and that she needed
protection from the world. This protection he provided by shutting her up in a small
bedroom, and leaving her there for the next eleven years.
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 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 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 daughter, her father would bark or growl like a dog.

Genie had very little visual or physical stimulation. Hung up in the room were a
couple of plastic raincoats, and she was sometimes allowed to play with them. Other
small toys - plastic containers, or the TV journal - were sometimes given her. Her
feeding was swift and silent, and she had eaten nothing but baby foods and cereals -
she did not know how to chew.
Genie was immediately surrounded by a team of scientists. These people were
particularly interested in her progress in language. Would she ever learn to speak?
According to the neuropsychologist, Eric Lenneberg, in his book Biological
Foundations of Language, 1967, the capacity to learn a language is indeed 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 Lenneberg was right, then
Genie, at over 12 years old, would never be able to speak properly. If, on the other
hand, she did learn to produce grammatically correct sentences, then Lenneberg was
At first, a number of the people working with her were convinced that she was going
to demonstrate the falsity of the critical period hypothesis. One year after her escape,
her language resembled that of a normal 18-20 month old child.
- She could distinguish between plural and singular nouns, and between
positive and negative sentences. She was producing two-word sentences, and
sometimes sentences of three words.
It is at this point that the language of the normal child begins to take off - there is a
sudden qualitative change, and the infant learns not only more and more vocabulary,
but also more and more complex grammar. But with Genie, this did not happen.
Four years later, she still had not mastered negation, and was stuck at the 'No'
+ V + Object stage. And although she appeared to understand WH- questions,
she was incapable of producing them correctly. Instead, she would say things
like -
"Where is may I have a penny?"
"I where is graham cracker on top shelf?"
In Chomsky's terms, she appeared to be unable to use 'movement' - that is, the
capacity to reorganise the underlying declarative sentence.
Genie also continued to confuse her pronouns, using 'you' and 'me'
interchangeably. She was unable to learn that she should say 'Hello' in
response to 'Hello', and was unable to understand 'Thank you'. The words
'Stopit', and 'Nomore', which she had already known, were addressed to
herself, and never to anyone else. Although she craved social contact, she was
unable to achieve it through language.
So had Genie's case proven that Chomsky and Lenneberg were right? No, she had
not. Lenneberg himself observed that Genie's personal history was so disastrous,
that it would not be at all clear why she had been unable to make more progress.
It could be that she had been so emotionally damaged by her father's treatment that
all learning processes would be interfered with.
Others suggested that perhaps her father had been right in judging that she was
mentally abnormal. Brain scans had shown some unusual features - in particular that
Genie's brain was dominated by her right hemisphere. Language is mainly situated
in the left hemisphere. Was it her brain that was interfering with her language, or
was it the lack of linguistic stimulation, and resulting underutilisation of the left
hemisphere that had resulted in right brain dominance?
Genie's lack of progress with language is, as so often with the evidence that I have
quoted, capable of interpretation either in a Chomskian framework, or 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 acquiring one. Lenneberg's
hypothesis is not proven, but it is strongly supported. Is there further evidence?
2.2. The blind and the deaf
Blind children, particularly when born to sighted mothers, do not receive the same
degree of stimulation, and that they therefore fall behind in their linguistic
development. In most cases, they catch up pretty quickly - thus 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 up in normal circumstances
achieve fluency.
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 simply of spoken
language, but also of sign language.
ASL (American Sign Language) is a fully articulated language. It has its own
grammar, which is not the same as that of English - nor the same as that of French
sign language. Often, it is learnt late in life, and when this is the case, the learner
'speaks' it with a foreign accent - and makes the same kind of grammatical errors
that a foreigner makes. If the deaf person learns the language as a child, however,
they learn it fluently, and can use all the resources that it offers.
A particularly interesting case is that of 'Chelsea'; her behaviour gave her parents
cause for concern. They took her to see a series of doctors, who 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 recognised that she was, in fact, deaf.
She was given hearing aids, which brought her auditive capacity up to about normal
levels. After therapy, she now scores on IQ tests at levels for a normal ten year old,
she works at a vets, reads, writes and communicates. But when she speaks, she
produces strings of words, with no apparent underlying syntactic structure. Her
utterances may be comprehensible in context, but they look nothing like normal
Other evidence from deaf people is also interesting. Recently, linguists have been
showing more and more interest in the language of the hard-of-hearing - Sign
language. We now know that Sign Language is a full language - it has a full lexical
range, it has a complex syntax, and a complex system of signs, whose relationship
to referents is as arbitrary as is that of other languages - even when they seem most
iconic. There is not simply one sign language - people who use British Sign
Language cannot understand people who use ASL - neither language is directly
related to English.
People who learn to sign in adolescence or adulthood are very similar to people who
learn a foreign language - they have an accent, and they never master the more arcane
syntactic rules. Children who learn do master the language - and, according to Steven
Pinker, they master it even when they learn from parents who do not speak it
properly. Once again, this is suggestive - children are specially programmed to learn
a language, and they lose this skill at puberty - once again, both Chomsky's and
Lenneberg's positions appear to be vindicated.
Evidence from neurology is also suggestive - many children who have suffered
damage to the left hemisphere are able to acquire a language by transferring language
to the right hemisphere. Adults are not able to perform the same feat as easily. Once
again, it would seem that Lenneberg may be right - there is a critical period for first
language learning.
This obviously interests us as teachers of a second language. Many observers have
noted that a second language appears to be more difficult to learn after puberty. Later
on, we shall see that this observation has not gone unchallenged, and that for certain
kinds of linguistic knowledge, adults and 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 upon the LAD to learn a second language, adults and teenagers
have to use other strategies, and in particular, they have to lean heavily upon their
first language.

1. For a readable and touching account of Genie's history, see Russ Rymer, Genie:
A Scientific Tragedy', Penguin, 1994. There are numerous accounts of 'wild' or 'feral'
children: I have found Douglas Keith Candland, 'Feral Children & Clever Animals;
Reflections on Human Nature' particularly useful.
2. In this section, I have mainly relied on Pinker. David Crystal, 'The Cambridge
Encyclopaedia of Language' is also very informative, as it is on other aspects of
language disability, such as aphasia.

3) Evidence from mother-tongue acquisition
Now let us look at how children actually do learn language.
They may begin to learn in the womb. We know that they react to their mothers'
voices from birth - they have been listening to her over the last three months of
pregnancy. However, the first noticeable active vocal activity begins at about 8
weeks - the baby begins to coo - at first producing individual sounds, but later
stringing them together in a rhythmical pattern. Then, at around 20 weeks, the baby
diversifies the sounds she is producing, and gradually starts babbling. Babbling
involves a selection process.
- in the first stage, the child appears to produce the whole gamut of sounds used by
human beings in the production of speech - it is the tower of Babel indeed.
Bit by bit, however, the range of sounds used narrows down, and the child
concentrates more and more upon the sounds used by the mother tongue. She is
listening to you. So what is being said to her?
We remember that Chomsky claims that children only hear very partial and
ungrammatical input. It is now known that this claim is almost certainly false -
adults in our culture, when speaking to children, take great care to phrase their
utterances correctly. This is probably not because they are thinking primarily about
offering the correct syntactic model, but because they are aiming for clarity of
expression. It has been noticed that mothers and other caretakers, when speaking
to children, adopt a certain number of specific verbal strategies. The style of
speech that they use is sometimes referred to as 'Motherese', although non-sexist
linguists prefer to call it 'caretaker talk'. What are the characteristics of this kind of
1. Simplified in grammar and meaning
2. Shorter sentences - from about 8 words per sentence to four, when speaking
to two year olds
3. More restricted range of sentence patterns
4. Expansion and repetition of sentences
5. Slower speech
6. Use of special words and sounds
7. High pitch
8. Large number of questions and utterances with high rising intonation -
looking for feedback.
9. Embedded in the here and now.
So the language that children hear is by no means necessarily partial and
ungrammatical. It has been suggested that these characteristics offer the 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 out that -
Grammatical forms in caretaker language are not as simple as they may
- large number of Wh- forms.
Moreover, no-one has yet found a close correlation between language used by
caretakers, and language produced by children.
Not all social groups adapt their speech to young children
In Samoa, for example, adults very rarely speak directly to their
children, and among some black communities in the US, it is considered
a waste of time to speak to children who are too young to give sensible
replies - why talk to them, they don't know anything yet? And yet, these
children also learn language.
Children do not simply repeat the language they hear from their
Not only do they fail to copy the utterances their mothers give them, they also
produce utterances that they have never heard, and use structures that they have
never heard.
When mothers interact with their young children, they appear to pay very little
attention to the grammatical correctness of their youngsters' utterances. They
correct wrong information, and not wrong grammar. So, Roger Brown reports
the following dialogue :
Child: Mamma isn't boy, he a girl.
Mother: That's right.
Child: And Walt Disney comes on Tuesday.
Mother: No he does not.
Indeed - and this is of direct interest to language teachers - correction of grammatical
form appears to be a waste of time.
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 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 linguistic development.
For example, English-speaking children working on negation go through a
predictable sequence:
1. First the negative words 'No' and 'Not' appear as single word sentences.
2. These combine with other words to form two-word sentences - 'No car', 'Not
gone' etc.
3. During third year - negative words used within constructions
You no do that, Mummy
You not got it
While negative auxiliaries also appear. - Won't, can't
Greater accuracy - not replaces no. Double negatives are used for emphasis
Use of any, hardly, scarcely acquired during early years of school.
As we shall see, there are interesting similarities between this sequence, and the
sequence of acquisition of the negation in English by second-language learners.
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.