Chomsky offers a theory of language and of language learning. The theory claims that all human languages share an underlying grammar and that human beings are born with a knowledge of this grammar, which partly explains how they learn their first language(s) as young children. Criticism of Chomsky’s theory is mounting, as evidenced by a recent article in Scientific American which claims that “evidence rebuts Chomsky’s theory of language learning”. Here, I question that claim.
First, the Scientific American article doesn’t give any evidence to “rebut” Chomsky’s theory. The article talks about counter evidence, but it doesn’t actually give any. The real thrust of the current popular arguments against Chomsky’s theory have nothing to do with its ability to stand up to empirical challenges. Arguments against Chomsky’s theory are based on
- the weaknesses in Chomsky’s theory in terms of its reasoning and its falsifiability,
- the claim that no recourse to innate knowledge, specifically to a Language Acquisition Device, is necessary, because language learning can be explained by a general learning theory.
As to the first point, I refer you to Sampson and Bates, the latter particularly eloquently voicing a strong case. You might also look at my discussion of Chomsky’s theory itself. There are, I think, serious weaknesses in Chomsky’s theory. To summarise: it moves the goal posts and it uses ad hoc hypotheses to deflect criticism.
As to the second point, no theory to date has provided an answer to the poverty of the stimulus argument which informs Chomsky’s theory. No attempt to show that usage can explain what children know about language has so far succeeded – none. Theories range from what I personally see as the daft (e.g. Larson Freeman and Cameron ) through the unlikely (e.g. Bates and MacWhinney ) to the attractive (e.g. O’Grady and Rastelli).
As Gregg (1993) makes clear, a theory of language learning has to give a description of what is learned and an explanation of how it’s learned. UG theory acts in a deliberately limited domain. It’s a “property theory” about a set of constraints on possible grammars, which has a causal relation to L1 acquisition through a “transition theory”, which connects UG with an acquisition mechanism that acts on the input in such a way as to lead to the formation of a grammar. Describing that grammar is the real goal of Chomsky’s work. In successive attempts at such a description, those working within a Chomskian framework have made enormous progress in understanding language and in helping those in various fields, IT, for example. Chomsky roots his work in a realist, rational epistemology and in a scientific method which relies on logic and on empirical research.
Any rival theory of language learning must state its domain, give its own property theory (its own account of what language is), and its own transition theory to explain how the language described is learned. You can take Halliday’s or Hoey’s description of language, or anybody’s you choose, and you can then look at the transition theories that go with them. When you do so, you should not, I suggest, be persuaded by silly appeals to chaos theory, or by appeals to the sort of emergentism peddled by Larsen-Freeman, or by circular appeals to “priming”. And you should look closely at the claim that children detect absolute frequencies, probabilistic patterns, and co-occurrences of items in the linguistic environment, and use the resulting information to bootstrap their way into their L1. It’s a strong claim, and there’s interesting work going on around it, but to date, there’s very little reason to think that it explains what children know about language or how they got that knowledge.
To say that Chomsky’s theory is dead and that a new “paradigm” has emerged is what one might expect from a journalist. To accept it as fact is to believe what you read in the press.
The post on Scientific American’s article on Chomsky prompted suggestions for further reading. Here’s a summary.
Kevin Gregg recommends Evans, N. and Levinson, S.C. (2009) The myth of language universals: language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioural & Brain Sciences 32:429-492.
This is an excellent article. The main article makes an argument that I don’t think stacks up (more importantly, neither does Gregg) but it’s well presented and it’s followed by “Open Peer Commentary”, where a very wide selection of scholars , including Baker, Bevett, Christiansen and Chater, Croft, Adele Golberg, Habour, Nevins, and Pinker & Jakendoff respond. Very highly recommended.
Scott Thornbury recommends Christiansen and Chater (2016) Creating Language: Integrating Evolution, Acquisition and Processing. MIT. Scott makes a refreshing confession that he didn’t finish reading Everett’s awful book Don’t sleep, There are snakes, which inspired his post “P is for Poverty Of the Stimulus”. The post sparked a lively discussion, where Scott showed signs of a less than complete grasp of UG theory, so it’s good to see him recant here on his previous enthusiastic endorsement of Everett. Among other daft stuff, Everett claims that the Pirahā language refutes Chomsky’s claim that recursion is a universal characteristic of natural languages, which it doesn’t. Anyway, the book Scott recommends looks interesting, and, judging from reviews, follows what we’ve come to expect from Christiansen and his colleagues. At the risk of sounding condescending, it’s good to see Scott moving on from Everett and from the equally unscholarly nonsense found in Larsen Freeman and Cameron’s attempts to promote emergentism, to a more sophisticated view.
Talk of Everett brings us nicely to Ruslana Westerlund, who urges those “with an open mind and more importantly, critical mind” (sic) to read an article in Harpers magazine which reports on Tom Wolfe’s book on Chomsky, The Origins of Speech. The article is what one might expect from something in Harpers – it’s rubbish, and it only confirms one’s suspicion that Wolfe has nothing much to contribute to any critical debate about Chomsky’s UG theory. Wolfe apparently says that Chomsky is a nerd, and a nasty person to boot, while his hero Everett is a macho man, i.e., in Wolfe’s scheme of things, a good and proper man. Wolfe thinks that Everett’s ability to pose for a photo up to to his neck in dangerous waters while one of the Pirahā tribe looks on from his boat, is evidence to support Everett’s theory of language learning. I don’t really get Westerlund’s insistance that only those with open and critical minds will appreciate the Harper piece; I reckon that only those lacking both will be impressed.
Phil Chappell, a valued contributor to this blog, suggests we look at a blog post by a mother with a Ph.D. in linguistics who says that her relationship with her baby proves Chomsky wrong. More rubbish. The Ph.D. enriched mum confuses Chomsky’s treatment of linguistic competence, a carefully defined construct in a deliberately restricted domain, with a baby’s need to interact lovingly with his mother.
Phil also suggests that we read Lee, N., Mikesell, L., Joaquin, A. D. L., Mates, A. W., & Schumann, J. H. (2009). The interactional instinct: The evolution and acquisition of language. Oxford University Press. I’ve read this, well, sort of, and I think it’s terrible. To quote the promotional blurb: “Language acquisition is seen as an emotionally driven process relying on innately specified “interactional instinct.” This genetically-based tendency provides neural structures that entrain children acquiring their native language to the faces, voices, and body movements of conspecific caregivers”. I don’t know if Phil goes along with this mumbo jumbo, and I hope he’ll comment.
Robert Taylor says “Here’s some interesting research about sounds for common ideas being the same across languages (roughly 2/3rds)”. I’m not sure what to make of it, but maybe it’s grist for the mill.
Finally, I recommend an article from the Stanford Encycopedia of Philosophy, a website that I love and that I visit almost as often as I visit VinoOnLine. The article is called Innateness and Language, and I think it gives a good review of the stuff we’re talking about. I particularly like its discussion of the Popperian view versus the “inference to the best explanation” view (best articulated, I think by the ever so wonderful Ian Hacking).
Gregg, K. R. (1993) Taking explanation seriously; or, let a couple of flowers bloom. Applied Linguistics 14, 3, 276-294.