Call that evidence? Russ Mayne on Chomsky


Mayne’s talk at the 2014 IATEFL conference exposed Neuro-Linguistic Programming and other claims about “Learner Styles” for the hocus-pocus they so obviously are. Thanks to the fact that NLP had actually been endorsed by leading ELT figures like Harmer and Rinvolucri, it was a job worth doing, and indeed it was a job done well. The problem was that, buoyed by all the attention his talk received,  Mayne was emboldened to seek bigger prey, and the result led to very serious doubts about Mayne’s credibility.  Could anybody really take Mayne seriously after his post about Chomsky? The post showed not only a complete failure to confront the evidence, but also a hopeless ignorance of matters discussed, including UG, scientific method, empiricist epistemology, and even the role of evidence in explanations. For someone claiming to be the champion of evidence-based ELT, someone, that is, urging us to base our views on a careful and critical interrogation of the facts, the Chomsky post amounts not just to shooting yourself in the foot, it’s more like hurling yourself off a very high cliff. To mix metaphors, one thing is to splash around in a paddling pool where silly ideas about ELT methodology are easily dispatched; another is to dive into the deep end of a discussion about generative linguistics without the slightest ability to swim.

The post about Skinner and Chomsky, called The Myth of Neat Histories, starts with what I take to be an attempt at humour – an exaggerated sketch of Skinner as the bad guy and Noam the brave young hero who showed that language was innate and that consequently “no one needed to teach grammar anymore.” That done, Mayne reveals the purpose of the piece, which is to explode “the top 5 myths and misconceptions about the infamous Chomsky/Skinner debate.”  Under the guise of helping his less well-informed readers to adopt a more critical view of the world, Mayne presents a number of  short, fatuous sections where cherry-picked “evidence” from a scarce selection of carefully-chosen sources is offered, with about the same disregard for scholarship or critical acumen as Harmer shows when talking about testing. Here’s a sample:

Chomsky ideas are accepted by few. The idea of Universal Grammar has been shown to be a myth, the Poverty of Stimulus argument has been rejected, and could only apply to syntax anyway. Vocabulary development in children has clearly been shown to be entirely affected by ‘stimulus’. the generative grammar paradigm he created has been rewritten several times by the (sic) Chomsky himself in a failed attempt to salvage it.

The bits in blue indicate references to books or articles. The evidence that Chomsky’s ideas are accepted by few is that Evans says so in a book published in 2014. UG is a myth because an article by Evans and Levinson in 2009 has shown it to be so. The poverty of the stimulus  argument can safely be rejected because two authors in a 1996 article rejected it.  (We’ll let the ridiculous comment about syntax go without comment.) Vocabulary development in children has clearly been shown to be entirely affected by ‘stimulus’ by Betty Hart in 1995. The claim that “the generative grammar paradigm” has been rewritten several times by Chomsky “in a failed attempt to salvage it” relies entirely on Mayne’s say so, but he obviously didn’t make up the sentence himself, so it must be true. Mayne doesn’t explain how generative grammar can be a “paradigm” and, at the same time,  “accepted by few”; and nor does he explain how a paradigm can be “re-written several times”, but these are minor matters. The major matter is that the post is pure bullshit.

Mayne gives further evidence of his ignorance, confusion and poor judgement in his replies to comments, and also in his contributions to Scott Thornbury’s post on Poverty of The Stimulus where he says the following

What I always found staggering (or brilliant?) about Chomsky was how he not only developed this new theory but developed a new set of rules for linguistic inquiry which insulated his theories from criticism. I’m sure Geoff will point out if/where I’m wrong, but Chomsky suggested that the stimulus is impoverished but based this on nothing but logic. A reasonable academic might ask “have you tested this? Where’s your evidence that it is impoverished?’ which may have undone C but he simultaneously introduced the concept that linguistics didn’t need, and in fact should spurn empirical research (I think he called it linguistic stamp collecting). He claimed that being a NS he could just sit in his office and come up with endless examples, -and that would suffice for evidence. How nice.

Where, we might ask, did Mayne get all the absurd misinformation which so continuously staggers him?

  • Who told him that Chomsky developed a new set of rules for linguistic inquiry which insulated his theories from criticism?
  • Where did he read that Chomsky introduced the concept that linguistics should spurn empirical research?
  • Which of Chomsky’s works contains the claim that being a native speaker meant that his own invented examples were evidence enough to support his theory?

Mayne’s comments make it clear that he’s no idea what he’s talking about. There are surely good grounds for the view that Mayne hasn’t read Chomsky, and that he hasn’t even read enough of his carefully-chosen secondary sources to get a minimal understanding of the issues involved.  The most elementary grasp of Chomsky’s work would make it clear that UG theory is carefully stated so as to make it open to empirical investigation; and the most basic study of UG would reveal that UG theory has been subjected to a great deal of empirical research. Mayne fails to appreciate the implications of the distinction Chomsky makes between performance and competence, completely misses the point of Chomsky’s decision to concentrate on other evidence for linguistic competence than that provided by spoken corpora, and seems astonished to learn that thousands of empirically-based studies (using grammaticality judgment tests and other tests) have been carried out in the last 50 years to test Chomsky’s theory.

Mayne jumps on the band wagon of emergentism to support his claim that no appeal to innate knowledge is required to explain language learning. Once again, nothing in what he says gives the impression that he knows what he’s talking about; perhaps emergentism recommends itself to Mayne because of his “personal dislike of everything Chomskyan.” Whatever the reasons, there’s no use looking to him for a reasoned critique of connectionist theories of SLA. As I said in reply to Scott Thornbury (whose enthusiastic writings on emergentism are a bit better informed than Mayne’s, i.e. not completely uninformed), data from corpora and appeals to general learning theories might be a starting point for an explanation that doesn’t rely on innate knowledge, but just repeatedly stating that they are enough to explain L1 acquisition isn’t good enough. Before Mayne makes another disastrous excursion out of the shallow end, he should at least get a good Dummies’ Guide to the next batch of work he decides to criticise. When you look at the hard graft MacWhinney and his colleagues, or Nick Ellis and his colleagues are putting in, and when you consider how meagre the results are to date (see Gregg, 2003 for a review which, while not up to date, gives a good indication of the size of the task), you can’t help feeling that Mayne would be well-advised to steer clear of theories of language learning.

Gregg, K.R. (2003) The state of emergentism in second language acquisition. Second Language Research, vol. 19, 2, 95-128.

32 thoughts on “Call that evidence? Russ Mayne on Chomsky

  1. What I would say is that Russ may deserve a little less intense roasting, although one must take into account your predilection for holding people close to the flames, Geoff!

    Had he published his findings in a peer-reviewed journal or as an academic treatise, he might reasonably expect to be taken to task if his knowledge was not up to scratch. But blogs are often just crucibles for thoughts that are in the process of being forged. Sometimes, one publishes something on a blog precisely to see if it can be blown to smithereens. Consequently, I don’t have any problems with Russ’s credibility nor with taking him seriously.

    That he may hold points of view about Chomsky that some would find risible is of no importance to me. At the risk of offending many (and fully conscious that I am only highlighting my own intellectual torpor), I have to say that I find a lot of SLA a bit too akin to the scholastic philosophers’ theorising about the numbers of angels that would fit onto a pinhead. This sounds rather too dismissive – I am merely bleating my own ignorance, I know. But the point being that if Russ’s academic rigour is restricted merely to the intellectual debates about how we acquire language, it is something that I am prepared to forgive him for!

    Of Chomsky, Ellis and MacWhinney I know little other than they are the possessors of intellects that extend way, way, way beyond mine. I know that Chomsky set the bar and created a whole framework upon which hundreds if not thousands have built varying scales of acquisition theories. Of Jordan, I know little too, other than he can be very irascible, but writes consistently thought-provoking and occasional wince-inducing blogposts. Of Mayne, I know that he is a thoughtful, eloquent and highly-readable writer. I am sure that the world is a better place for the presence of all!


    1. Hi Secret One,

      Thanks for your comment. The oft-used “It’s only a blog” defence does precisely nothing to counter the criticisms I made of Russ Mayne’s remarks on Chomsky. Mayne sets himself up as the defender of an evidence-based approach to ELT and then demonstrates that he neither knows nor cares about the evidence supporting the case for Chomsky’s theory of language acquisition. It seems fair to conclude that anyone who takes rational argument and evidence seriously will see Mayne’s post on Chomsky as a serious challenge to his credibility.


      1. All the same, Geoff, I do think that the “it’s only a blog” defence is a valid one. After all, how many murder trials have recourse to the “But I didn’t actually do it” defence?

        My point was that blogs are often part of the process of being educated, rather than educating the masses…and, as such, deserve a little more leeway. I don’t know how much off the mark Russ is, knowing very little about SLA theories, but I’m not suggesting that you hold back from taking him to task, just that you hold back as you take him to task! Public pillorying can sometimes hurt much more than it is intended to.


      2. Hi again,

        It’s a sad reflection on the ELT blogging world that there’s so little concern about badly-informed and poorly-argued posts, and so much concern for hurting people’s feelings. Why do you, for example, happily confess your intellectual torpor, your lack of interest in and knowledge about theories of language learning, while at the same time wincing in empathetic pain when the extreme weaknesses of somebody’s published work are pointed out? If I’d pointed out all the weaknesses in Mayne’s text as gently as possible, it would still reveal that the text is a disgraceful collection of poorly-judged assertions which show no proper regard for the evidence.

        Mayne’s disregard for evidence and misrepresentation of Chomsky’s work don’t worry you in the slightest – his credibility remains in tact. The succession of absurd pronouncements on Chomsky, UG, the Poverty of Stimulus argument, vocabulary development in children, and generative grammar should, in your opinion, be seen as a humble way of trying out ideas, of seeking to be educated. That’s one way of reading the text, but in my opinion there’s nothing in it that supports such an interpretation. To me, it smacks of blustering bullshit.

        Have a look here It’s a blog run by English Language undergraduates at the University of Chester (UK) where they review “debates and controversies in the world of English Language and Linguistics.” The posts on this thread – keep scrolling down to see more – discuss Chomsky, POS, etc.. These undergraduate posts highlight the poverty of scholarship on display in “The Myth of Neat Histories”, by Russ Mayne, MA.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Hi Geoff
        Actually I don’t find it a sad fact of the ELT world or, indeed, of any other world that people’s feelings are considered to be important.

        The empathetic pain comes less from your pointing out of perceived weaknesses and more from the spectacle of a man of vast experience apparently belittling and humiliating somebody who may just be beginning to establish themselves in the field. As I wrote in my most recent post, we all fuck up – it’s normal and to be expected.

        I have an eroded tolerance for the self-righteous anger of the left, but I always admired the Che Guevara quotation: “Let me just say, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by immense feelings of love. It is impossible to conceive of any true revolutionary who lacks this one quality.”


      4. Hi SecretDoS,

        Readers might like to go to Russ Mayne’s blog, read the page on Logical Fallacies and Heuristics , and then see how many fallacies they can find in your comments.

        The first sentence is a classic of it’s type. You begin “Actually”, signalling that a rebuttal is on the way, and then trot out a homily which imputes to me the statement “It’s a sad fact that in the ELT world people’s feelings are considered to be important.”

        After that, you abandon reason altogether and embark on an emotionally-charged series of non-sequiturs where I’m portrayed as a heartless old man, who in stark contrast to the genuine radical Che Guevara, has no feelings of love, and who sets out to heartlessly destroy the career of a promising young academic by belittling and humiliating him.

        You’re not the first who, shocked by the way I express my criticisms of the published written work of prominent figures in ELT, thinks it’s quite OK to insult me.


      5. I’m sorry you feel insulted, Geoff. That was not my intention.

        You wrote, “It’s a sad reflection on the ELT blogging world that there’s … so much concern for hurting people’s feelings.” I wrote that I don’t see it as a sad fact that people’s feelings are considered to be important. Perhaps I should have been more explicit and written, “…important enough not to be hurt.” I’m surprised that this seems like a homily to you.

        I’m equally surprised when you see a chain of non-sequiturs in my comment. Previously you had suggested that I winced in empathetic pain at your highlighting the weaknesses of Russ’s writing. Actually, I rebutted, if I was wincing at anything, it was the style in which you went for him: splashing around in the paddling pool, bereft of credibility, ignorant, bullshitter…

        You read far too deeply into my words, Geoff. Nowhere did I suggest you were a heartless old man; I acknowledged your vast experience. Nowhere did I suggest that you were out to destroy the career of a promising young academic; I used Russ’s relative inexperience to provide a contrast to your expertise in this field. I did not set you up in contrast to Che Guevara – I assumed that you would have respect and admiration for Che and used his words to bolster my point that criticism does not have to be belittling and humiliating.

        Finally, let me reassure you that I was not shocked at your approach. You might want to re-read my original reply. I know how irascible your online persona is; I recognised your predilection for bawling people out. When you are pointing out that the gods have feet of clay, I even find it endearing. When it’s directed at mere mortals, it seems more distasteful.


      6. Hi again,

        I’m very sorry Secret; I’ve pushed things towards the scratchy, nasty end of the cline again, so let me try to slide them back to the nice end. I know you mean well, and I know what you mean – an old campaigner shouldn’t be putting the boot into a young ‘un with such relish. I don’t intend to hurt people but I know that I sometimes do, and I’m sure lots of people share your concern. I hear you, and I’ll try harder to be nicer – but don’t hold your breath 🙂

        Lots of love, be ye man or woman,



      7. Geoff – the mantra “Everybody fucks up” also removes the need to apologise, but I appreciate the grace with which you do so. The zennists says that there is nothing to attain – we are all enlightened anyway. Similarly, I don’t think you actually have to try to be nicer – you’re already a nice enough person (writing such an informed/ing, amusing and entertaining blog for free is plenty of evidence of that).


      8. Hi SecretDoS,

        I think you miss the point of Geoff’s blog and his style. Nobody is obliged to come here read it – millions don’t! I do and I like it because it leads me, for example, to reconsider Chomsky and to try and understand what “poverty of stimulus” means. I’m sure elsewhere there are polite and dry-as-dust commentaries that say much the same thing – but they’re no fun to read and I don’t read them. Geoff is not our DoS, our employer or in any position of power vis-à-vis us, his blog readers.

        If Thornbury and Dellar choose to come here and defend their writing that doesn’t suggest to me that they’re weeping into their pillows at night. I get the impression that they rather enjoy it.

        Do you think Cameron is snuffling into his hankie because of all the pig jokes and cartoons? He is in a position of power but politicians who winge about hurt feelings are just ridiculous. Same goes for well-known figures in any field.

        Personally, I can’t stand the reverse – way things people write on the internet are greeted with Awesome! Great! Amazing! I find it false and condescending. To have one’s writings carefully read and amusingly analysed by Geoff is an honour, not an insult. That’s the way Russ Mayne apparently took it from his comment on Twitter: “At last!”



      9. Hi Glenys
        No – I don’t miss the point of Geoff’s blog, nor his style. I come here too.

        You draw some startling parallels with what I have written. Thornbury and Dellar may not be weeping into their pillows, but equally true is that they may be. As with most impressions that we have, I suspect you believe what you choose to believe. I thought this might be a case of reductio ad absurdum. But then I read your comments about Cameron…and it really is absurd to compare Russ Mayne -a young UK teacher- with the UK Prime Minister.

        A Jordan roasting might be an honour for you, but I happen to know for a fact that it is not an honour for everyone. Some find it quite hurtful. From what I have deduced from Geoff’s writings, I think there is too much of a golden streak for him to have hurt them intentionally. I know that he has written and immediately recalled a number of posts that he probably wished he hasn’t written. My point is merely that there are less combative ways of taking people to task – and I’m of the opinion that we should treat people with respect, no matter what they write.


  2. Isn’t it indeed the case that the poverty of stimulus argument only applies to syntax? Why do you consider Mayne’s comment to that effect ‘ridiculous’? Is it because you hold syntax to be so fundamental to language per se that the ‘only’ is absurd? While I am certainly convinced that the poverty of stimulus argument does indeed show that our mastery of the syntax of our first language entails some degree of innate, neurobiological (or some other such) structure, the argument does this only by appealing to the fact that we intuitively find certain utterances to be ill-formed though there is nothing in the growing child’s experience of language that would support her conclusion that this is so (since a corpus of utterances, such as that accumulated by the growing child, can only consitute evidence for what is admissible, not for what is not). The innate structure to which the poverty of stimulus argument points serves, therefore, surely, only as a constraint on what utterances we find to be well-formed. As such, it is not, despite the name of the school of linguistics to which it is central, particularly ‘generative’ at all. It serves only to exclude certain formulations that might otherwise have been considered acceptable.


    1. Hi Patrick,

      No, it isn’t the case that POS only applies to syntax, as Kevin Gregg indicates in his comment. The POS argument is part of a theory which, as Gregg has said in more than one of his articles, offers both a property theory and a transition theory; that is it both describes the underlying structure of languages and explains how we learn them. The knowledge children have of language, as established from a wide range of tests (see, for example, Stephen Crain and Rosalind Thornton’s Investigations in Universal Grammar: A Guide to Experiments on the Acquisition of Syntax and Semantics) goes well-beyond the stimulus; hence Skinner is wrong and Chomsky might be right.


      1. Hi Geoff and hi Kevin

        Certainly the argument from the POS that human knowledge must depend on an underpinning of innate structure is not confined to language and also applies, as Plato’s example shows, to our intuitive understanding of space and number. Still, the Chomskyan program, in the unlikely event that I’ve understood it correctly, concerns the innate underpinnings specifically of our linguistic competence. As regards language, I’m fascinated by the suggestion that even our knowledge of lexis depends on this innate underpinning (at least in so far as as that underpinning is to be thought of as specifically linguistic; I can quite see that our grasp of words may depend on more general innate intuitions such as those concerning number and space, as well as others.) I was not aware of Chomsky’s example concerning the house and I have to say that I’m not particularly convinced by it. It seems to me that there is probably plenty in the experience of a growing child of those objects that clearly invite our conceiving of them as being possessed of an inside and an outside (objects such as houses, cars and boxes) to support the child’s forming the general rule that when colour is attributed to one of these objects then the colour so attributed, unless otherwise specified, is to be understood as its colour on the outside. Ordinary induction (itself, surely, an innate capacity, but not a specifically liguistic one) quite suffices to explain the lexical knowledge required for a correct interpretation of an expression such as ‘red house.’ I should say, though, that I’m very aware that I’m talking to two people who both know way more about this than I do.


      2. Hi again Patrick,

        Unlike Kevin, I’m not an expert on Chomsky; far from it. But, unlike Mayne, (and others I criticise in this blog), I try hard not to write bullshit.

        The POS argument doesn’t suggest that all lexical knowledge is innate, rather that some lexical knowledge can’t be explained by the stimulus. Mayne’s remark that it “could only apply to syntax” shows that he doesn’t understand either the argument itself or the way that linguists use the term “grammar” to refer to knowledge of a language.

        The controversy surrounding the POS concerns whether or not there is a specific acquisition device for language; Chomsky says there is, and other scholars say there isn’t. Mayne just says there isn’t without making any attempt to explain himself; Thornbury says that there isn’t and offers the view that language is “an emergent system”, drawing on Larsen-Freeman’s incoherent attempts to apply complexity theory to language learning (see Gregg, K.R. (2009) Review article: Shallow draughts: Larsen-Freeman and Cameron on complexity. Second Language Research, 26 (4) 549–560); Dellar, following Hoey, says that there isn’t, and that lexical priming adequately explains language learning, which it doesn’t; and then there’s the more serious work being done by MacWhinney, N. Ellis, and O’Grady.

        I hope Kevin won’t mind my quoting from his answer to a recent email I sent him, asking for references for Crain’s accounts of nativist studies done with children. “You should get William O’Grady’s How Children Learn Language (CUP 0-521-53192-6 pbk), 2005. William’s an emergentist, the only legitimate one out there, who’s brilliant, and who both denies everything Chomsky stands for and recognizes (again, unlike the rest of them) the challenges he has to face to compete with generative theory; the POS being one of them.” It’s available in a Kindle version, and I’m reading it now.

        Liked by 3 people

  3. POS arguments go beyond syntax, and indeed beyond language. The point of the ‘Meno’ is precisely that the slave boy had geometrical knowledge without having learned it. Going back to language, Chomsky himself gives examples of lexical knowledge that raise the POS question: say, our knowledge that ‘red house’ (maison rouge, akai iie, etc.) means a house that is red ON THE OUTSIDE. Arguments against the POS in language, to the extent that they are to be taken seriously at all–you can talk all day every day to any other animal than a human, and no language learning will result– are arguments that we do not need to appeal to specifically linguistic knowledge to explain the language acquisition. These anti-POS arguments have not fared well, to say the least.


    1. Dear Kevin,
      “…beyond language”, would that be cognition in general? If POS arguments are valid and reach beyond language, how far does this come close to the position that human capacity for “learning*” in general is sufficient to explain language? We can, for example, with equal result share our appreciation of Mozart with our closest cousins. (*The gap is huge, isn’t it? Meaning creating, value judgments, abstraction, aesthetic appreciation, etc. all need explanation.)



  4. It is remarkable how much time defenders of Chomsky spend ridiculing critics when they could use that time to educate instead. Why is all the invective needed when a simple “Russ Meyne is wrong” would have provided the same information? And given that, allegedly, there is an entire bandwagon of ignorami, would it not have helped to follow up: “The most elementary grasp of Chomsky’s work would make it clear that UG theory is carefully stated” with a careful statement of that theory? It certainly can not be found in one of Chomsky’s most recent books [The Science of Language: Interviews with James McGilvray” – for some comments see: An explanation of how the “Galilean Style” fails to insulate Chomsky’s recent speculation from falsification would be appreciated as well. Or maybe engagement with long-standing and recent criticism from professional linguists [for a few examples see Especially if this can be done without distracting mudslinging the readers of this blog may actually profit…


  5. It is remarkable how much time defenders of Chomsky spend ridiculing critics when they could educate instead. Why is all the invective needed when a simple “Russ Meyne is wrong” would have provided the same information for a reader of this blog? And given that, allegedly, there is an entire bandwagon of ignorami, would it not have helped to follow up: “The most elementary grasp of Chomsky’s work would make it clear that UG theory is carefully stated” with a statement of that theory? It certainly can not be found in one of Chomsky’s most recent books [The Science of Language: Interviews with James McGilvray” – for some critical remarks see: An explanation of how the “Galilean Style” fails to insulate Chomsky’s recent speculation from falsification would be appreciated as well. Or maybe engagement with long-standing and recent criticism from professional linguists [for a few examples see Especially if this is possible without distracting mudslinging the readers of this blog may actually profit…


    1. hmm that second link you provide cites Oliver Kamm, David Horowitz well-debunked ramblings on Chomsky’s political writings as a launchboard to criticize his linguistics writings, not a promising start but thanks for the links



  6. Hi Christina,

    1. Just saying “Russ Mayne is wrong” fairly obviously wouldn’t have provided the same information.

    2. I’ve discussed Chomsky here:
    There are also 2 posts on Chomsky’s critics:
    In these posts, and elsewhere, I’ve attempted to “engage with long-standing critics”, but thanks for the 2 links.

    3. I’ve made it clear that I agree with those who say that Chomsky has more than once moved the goalposts. These moves don’t “insulate” his theory from falsification, but they certainly weaken it.


      1. Hi Mura,

        The claim is that by revising the theory, he moved the goalposts. The biggest revision was I suppose in 1981 – the Principles & Parameters framework. As I say in the post on Bates, she says that in the PP framework, in the case of binary universals (e.g., the Null Subject Parameter), any language either will or will not display them, they “exhaust the set of logical possibilities and cannot be disproven.” Other universals are allowed to be silent or unexpressed if a language does not offer the features to which these universals apply. For example universal constraints on inflectional morphology cannot be applied in Chinese, since Chinese has no inflectional morphology. Rather than allow Chinese to serve as a counter example to the universal, the apparent anomaly is resolved by saying that the universal is present but silent. Bates comments: “It is difficult to disprove a theory that permits invisible entities with no causal consequences”. Then there’s the Minimalist program, where PP is further stripped down, and it’s argued that there’s no way to falsify the new restricted hypotheses, although I find the whole thing too difficult to make sense of. Jackendoff and Pinker (2005) claim that Chomsky’s now driven by the idea which he’s had for a long time that language is not a tool for communication, but rather something that has evolved for other purposes, e.g. for thinking, But this is hardly best described as moving the goalposts, right?

        Jackendoff, R. and Pinker, S. (2005) The faculty of language: What’s special about
        it? Cognition 95 2: 201–236.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Don’t complaints that the innateness hypothesis cannot be falsified amount to complaints that it cannot be falsified given the manifest fact that humans acquire language? To put it another way, the hypothesis is easy to falsify. All you’d have to do is to find a human community that does not use language. Complaints that this is impossible because all human communities use language amount to an admission while we can ceratinly specify what would count as counter evidence, we have not been able to find any. It’s like claiming that the theory of gravity is unfalsifiable given that objects do indeed attract each other in proportion to their mass. If it’s unfalsifiable it’s unfalsifiable because it’s true.


  7. Hello Geoff,

    Many thanks, as always, for an entertaining and informative post, but I wanted to make a brief comment in defence of Mayne’s “The Myth of Neat Histories” which I recall reading when it was first posted. This is going to be a challenge, however, as when I clicked the link just now it says “Sorry, the page you were looking for in this blog does not exist.” so presumably he has now taken this down.

    Anyway, that said, my feeling at the time was that the real target was not Chomsky himself but Chomsky’s reputation in certain quarters and so the target of Mayne’s rather mild polemic was – I believe – the curriculum notes for teacher training courses such as the CELTA and the DELTA.

    I vividly recall from DELTA (admittedly taken in 2000-2001) a part of the course in which we were told (by Jim Scrivener no less) that Skinner is supposed to have slunk away after Chomsky’s review of ‘Verbal Behaviour’ 1959 having the good sense and grace to close the door of history behind him on the way out.

    Assuming that DELTA courses still put forward this strong interpretation of this ‘crushing defeat’ of behaviourism at the hands of progress, Mayne’s piece is a worthwhile corrective reminding DELTA candidates and others who are interested in the pedagogical and linguistic theories that lay behind EFL that Chomsky’s work and ideas are in fact still quite hotly disputed.

    As you may or may not be aware, incidentally, this lesson on Chomsky is (or used to be) presented on the DELTA in the context of giving a background to Krashen – someone with whom you yourself have had some salty criticisms to make.

    So while I agree with you that to say that “Chomsky ideas are accepted by few” is perhaps going a little bit too far, it is not untrue to say that Chomsky has had some challenges over the last few years especially since the growth in corpus linguistics e.g. Sinclair, Hoey etc. (I know you take issue with the latter, but you at least acknowledge that it presents a significant challenge to Chomsky – at least that’s my guess; not trying to put words in your mouth).

    So anyway, my main point is that one of Mayne’s targets over the past couple of years has been some of the things that have been included on the curriculum of the CELTA and DELTA, and as I also remember being presented with a very similar myth about Chomsky as some kind of Prometheus of Progress, I think there is value in Mayne’s one-sided refutation of exactly that myth.


  8. Hi Nik (Is that right? – I can’t even find your name on your blog)

    First let me say I’ve just discovered your blog and the post “Challenging the Coursebook – Challenge Accepted” I haven’t read it yet, but I will.

    To the issue, then. I quite agree with you that if CELTA and DELTA present Chomsky as a mythical hero, Mayne is to be commended for pointing this out. I also quite agree that Chomsky’s theories are being challenged more these days (tho I’m not sure Sinclair challenged them, did he?) and that someone (probably NOT Hoey!) will soon come up with a strong enough (connectionist?) theory to offer a serious challenge to the nativist paradigm.

    Now, back to your blog. 🙂


    1. Hi Geoff,

      I didn’t mean to imply that Sinclair had directly challenged Chomsky, only that he – along with Hoey – worked very closely together and so by default it could be seen as a challenge to Chomsky’s views on language/linguistics (albeit indirectly) – there are a number of points in ‘Lexical Priming’ where Hoey is obliged to point out the distinctions between his own theory and that of Sinclair’s.

      You would have to ask Russell to be sure – even more so as I was making that comment from memory only, the original post having been apparently removed – but I’m pretty sure that was the intention behind it as he has critiqued the CELTA curriculum for including learning styles for instance in the past.

      As for the blog … this will sound implausible but I’d actually forgotten about that. Although I’m kind of embarrassed about it now, I do basically still stand by what I said there and hope that you take it in the (slightly cheeky) spirit in which it was intended (It’s also unfinished FYI).

      Nik / Nick whichever (just not ‘Nic’ which seems wrong to me).


  9. Hi Nick,

    Hoey’s ventures into ELT, with his unqualified support of Krashen’s Monitor Hypothesis and Michael Lewis ‘s Lexical Approach are almost bizarre. Sinclair sticks to what he’s good at.

    Your post makes the perfectly good point that it’s unwise to make generalisations such as “In coursebooks, everybody speaks in complete, well-formed sentences …er .. nobody swears, nobody shouts, nobody mumbles, stutters and, uh, nobody code switches ” But the problem would be fixed by saying “most coursebooks” “most people”, “very few people”, etc., wouldn’t it? I look forward to episode 2.


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