* Hymes and Chomsky


I’ve just attempted a brief summary of Chomsky in the SLA section, in response to absolutely millions of requests, all of them from my son. He suspects that Chomsky is a genius but just doesn’t get it. Neither do I. But anyway it’s an attempt to summarise what I said in my book on theory construction about Chomsky, and I hope you’ll flood me with protests.

One of the reasons I mention it here, in a general post, is that time and time again, I read in MA papers that the CLT approach was inspired by Hymes’ “disagreement” with, or “rejection” of Chomsky’s view of language competence. But Hymes had no reason to disagree or reject Chomsky’s construct of language competence because he and Chomsky were talking about completely different things. Hymes suggested that, when looking at SLA, we need to see competence in a second language as involving a group of competencies. Chomsky, naturally, had no objection whatsoever to Hymes’ suggestion, because he recognised that Hymes was rowing a very different boat. Chomsky is concerned with the acquisition of core elements of any L1, starting from the daring theory that all languages share the same underlying features. Chomsky really doesn’t care very much about SLA: it’s not his thing.

And that’s the point. UG is essentially an attempt to describe a core grammar: it is not about SLA, and, really, it’s not a theory of learning at all. According to Chomsky we do not “learn” our I-Language in the usual sense of the word: we are born with linguistic competence, and all we need is some positive evidence to trigger particular parameters so that the particular version of UG corresponding to our L1 becomes instantiated in the mind. Thus the process of acquisition is not interesting, the main task is to describe the components of the core grammar. In SLA on the other hand, we are interested in explaining the language learning process. We are also interested in a variety of phenomena such as variability, fossilisation, and individual differences, all of which are deliberately ruled out of a theory of UG because they have nothing to do with the acquisition of L1 linguistic competence.

As I conclude in my article in the SLA section, Chomsky has nothing to say about pragmatics and discourse, linguistically he concentrates heavily on syntax, and even there only on core grammar; the acquisition of language-specific tense and case morphology, for example, are not included. Even assuming that UG exists, that UG theories of L1 acquisition are true, and that L2 learners have at least some access to UG, most of the questions that concern SLA researchers remain unanswered by Chomskian theory; indeed they are not even addressed. My opinion is that second language acquisition is a cognitive process involving the acquisition of increasing degrees of control over second language resources, but who knows: as yet there is no comprehensive cognitive theory of SLA. And Chomsky couldn’t give a fig, if you’ll pardon the not entirely mixed metaphor.


2 thoughts on “* Hymes and Chomsky

  1. I’m writing this for all the linguistics students who might be swayed by this blog post.
    Actually, Hymes criticised chomsky’s ideas quite rigorously. I can’t be bothered finding a link, but if you’re interested, just google it.

    Chomsky used to be a bit of a douche in the linguistics arena before he became a fantastic anti-war campaigner. Unfortunately, he was kind of right wing compared to Hymes when it came to linguistics academia.

    Again, a google search would elucidate this.


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