Feature Story: Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar Theory: Real or Fake?

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Picture of Noam Chomsky

 

Language is crucial because it is how people communicate with each other.

Most children do not start speaking until they are 10 to 12 months old. Every child is different, so children might start speaking earlier or later than this average. After children recite their first word, it seems like they acquire more words to their vocabulary at a rapid rate.

A question that has plagued linguists is: How do babies grasp language so quickly?

Linguist Noam Chomsky believes language is hard wired into the human brain. He believes babies are born with the knowledge of how language works. He calls his theory universal grammar.

Universal grammar is a terminology for language and mostly has nothing to do with the grammar mechanics learned in primary school.

Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar theory answers the question of how babies and toddlers grasp language at fast rates if they are considered “blank slates.”

Chomsky regards that language is biological and that babies develop language the same worldwide.

As babies grow, they babble. Babbling is a baby’s way of becoming acquainted with speaking a language. An American baby makes the same sounds with babbling that an Egyptian or Japanese baby makes.

All babies pick up words at the same approximate rate and stage. Babies are open to all sounds in order learn their native tongue. It does not matter the tone of the words spoken or if the verb comes at the beginning or end of a sentence, all babies understand the general construct of language.

Babies will start speaking their first words between 10 to 12 months. By 18 months, babies have acquired the knowledge of 50 words and by 2, toddlers are acquiring 10 new words a day.

Overall, Chomsky believes babies pick up sounds and words the same worldwide. Babies and toddlers understand the general structure of language and how to communicate in their native language.

Dr. Kathleen Hickey, an English professor at Dominican College supports Chomsky’s theory. She gives the example of her grad-niece Mira. Mira’s mother is American, her father is French Canadian, and her babysitter is German. Mira is only two but yet she talks to her mother in English, her father in French, and her babysitter in German. Mira does not confuse English words with German words, or German words with French words. She can distinguish between these three languages and knows how to properly speak each one.

Dr. Hickey believes children are born with descriptive grammar. Children know that if they are talking about the past tense then they add -ed. Sometimes adding -ed may not be grammatically correct, like hurt to hurted, but it makes sense.

Husband and wife, Randy and Marie Ostman have opposing views on universal grammar. Both doctors and professors, they are familiar with linguistic theories.

While Marie does not agree with all of Chomsky’s theories, she agrees with his universal grammar theory to an extent. Marie supports his theory, but yet believes understanding how children understand language is more complex than what he is indicating. Language development is the same for all children. Babies have the capacity to speak any language at birth. Toddlers have the ability to speak multiple languages and distinguish between the two; however, this innate ability is something toddlers lose as they get older. Toddlers have an increased capacity for language that surpasses what a teenager or adult human would have. She believes children lose this ability around five or six years old.

Randy believes language is learned and babies are not born with an understanding of all languages, since many are different from each other. Though babbling might be the same across cultures, does not mean there is an equal learning ability based on genetics. Randy gives the example of Tarzan. If Tarzan is born and lives in a jungle and has no human interaction, then he would not be able to speak. Tarzan would have no knowledge of how language works, since he has not been exposed to it. Babies learn by what they hear and see, so language cannot be something predisposed by genetics.

The theory of universal grammar is a topic people have mixed opinions about. Some wholeheartedly agree, some agree to an extent, and some believe Chomsky’s reasoning is not valid.

Chomsky’s theory is something one has to come to their own conclusions about because there are logical arguments for each side.

So what do you believe? Is Chomsky’s theory real or fake?

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References:

The Ling Space. (2014, August 3). Language Acquisition and Universal Grammar [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MLNFGWJOXjA

Universal Grammar. (1993). Bloomsbury guide to human thought. Retrieved from http://search.credoreference.com.libdb.dc.edu/content/entry/bght/universal_grammar/0?