Noam Chomsky on Language: Theories, Lesson & Quiz
In this lesson you will learn about the key theories of language development put forth by Noam Chomsky. Following this lesson you will have the opportunity to test your knowledge with a short quiz.
Few would argue the significance of language in the evolution of the human species. Language serves many critical functions within the human experience, from keeping us safe to social engagement. While communication certainly exists in other species, the depth and complexity of human language is second to none.
Although linguists and psychologists tend to agree about the importance of language, there is some disagreement about how language acquisition occurs. Are we born with a clean slate when it comes to language, or do we enter the world with a set of language skills ready to be put to use?
American-born linguist Noam Chomsky believes that we are born with a predisposition to learn language.
The essence of his theories of language acquisition state that human beings are pre-wired to learn language and in fact are born with the basic rules for language intact. Many of the unique details of any specific language structure are heavily influenced by the environment, but according to Chomsky, the human brain is ready made to quickly acquire language at specific stages in the developmental process.
Prior to Chomsky, it was widely agreed that language acquisition was mostly a learned process. For instance, many believed that language skills were developed solely through watching and learning our parents and other people in our environment. Chomsky's notion that the brain is pre-wired for language was quite a contrast to the accepted beliefs of the time.
Chomsky's Views on Language Acquisition
Chomsky proposed some ideas that were new ways of thinking about language: the theory of universal grammar, the idea that language is innate, and the notion that language acquisition occurs during critical developmental stages.
The Theory of Universal Grammar
Chomsky believed that it was more than a coincidence that the majority of human languages follow similar rules and patterns when it comes to grammar. He believed that, while differences exist between languages, the fact that they all share core common grammatical traits was not just a chance occurrence. So, how could languages from across the globe share core grammatical features?
Chomsky believed that language is innate, or in other words, we are born with a capacity for language. Language rules are influenced by experience and learning, but the capacity for language itself exists with or without environmental influences. Chomsky believed that language is so complex, with an unlimited combination of sounds, words, and phrases, that environmental learning is not able to account for language acquisition alone. It would take a lifetime to teach someone all of the rules of language, but even small children can understand them. Chomsky believed that the human brain comes into the world with a pre-determined set of rules for how language works. Environment and learning are involved, but the foundation for language comes with us from the womb.
Language Acquisition During Critical Developmental Stages
Chomsky also believed that regardless of the language or culture, human beings demonstrate language skill development at similar developmental stages. If you have ever seen a child learn language skills, then you know that it happens very rapidly. On the other hand, watch an adult try to learn to learn a new language. It can literally take years.
Exposure to language-rich environments are also a key component of Chomsky's theory. Our brains do not acquire all of the rules of language without environmental influences and learning. Extreme cases of child neglect have supported the concept of critical periods of language development. Children who are isolated and not exposed to language-rich environments will not acquire language the same way as compared to children raised in language-rich environments. The brain comes equipped ready to learn language, but if the environment does not support language development it does not occur. Once those developmental milestones have passed it is much more difficult to learn language skills.
In summary, Chomksy's views on language development were quite revolutionary at the time. His ideas about the role of cognition and the brain being predisposed to acquire language were in contrast to the existing thought of the day, which emphasized experiential learning as the mechanism of language acquisition. Chomsky believed that the commonalities that exist between languages are explained through the notion that we are born with an innate ability to rapidly acquire language and that there are key points in development wherein language is most efficiently acquired.
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