Noam Chomsky claims that ‘language seems to be best understood as a ‘cognitive system’ ’ (1991: 17). Chomsky is considered to be one of the most, if not the most, important contributors to the ‘nativist’ theory of language acquisition. Nativists and generativists believe that language acquisition is an innate ability, one that we are born with as infants and acquire the structure for the acquisition of language. The ‘nurture’ theory meanwhile does not believe language acquisition is innate, but rather a development of one’s cognitive abilities. This leads us to the question of whether there is a difference between nativists and generativists?
It is possible for a proposal to be nativist but not generativist? A nativist assumes that children have some innate linguistic knowledge, whereas a generativist believes rather that it pertains to an area of language other than grammar. For example, ‘lexical principles account that word learning assumes that children are born with the assumption that new words are most likely to refer to whole objects’. This proposal is nativist in that it assumes innate knowledge but it is not generativist – the knowledge pertains to word meanings and not grammar, (Ambridge, B & Lieven, 2011:2).
Chomsky’s key argument was developed around the concept of ‘Universal Grammar’, whereby he claims ‘Universal Grammar may be thought of as some system of principles, common to the species and available to each individual prior to experience’ (1993:7). One problem that arises from Chomsky’s definition is that we have many different languages worldwide that are structured differently. An example of this is the Japanese language, in which the verb comes after the object – for example, ‘your apple eat’. This differs to the English language, where the verb comes before the object, such as, ‘eat your apple’. Chomsky suggests that there are principles which are universal. So when a child learns a particular language, for example, they do not learn an extensive list of rules, as they are born knowing a set of ‘super rules’. The child would therefore only need to learn whether their language has the parameter head first as we witnessed above in the English language, or head last as we witnessed in the Japanese language. This is achieved by simply realising where the verb is in the phrase. This will then enable large pieces of grammar to become available, as if the child flipped a switch a couple of times.
If the ‘Universal Grammar theory’ and its principles are true, we could then understand how a child can switch their language to adult-like complexity so soon. However, there are problems with Universal Grammar and the nature theory, due to it being heavily reliant on the factor of not actually knowing what aspects of our linguistic knowledge is innate. The nurture theory and its belief of imitation will always counter the belief that children just flick a switch in the brain. There is however, one thing that we can likely all agree on: there will likely always be two different approaches to language acquisition.
The question is, do you think Mr Chomsky and the nativist theorists are right?
IAN BAIN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK