Is there universal agreement about universal grammar? AZARIA CROSS investigates

Theories of language acquisition are often be broken down into two sides –  nature versus nurture, and two of the main theorists behind these positions are Noam Chomsky and Michael Tomasello.

Chomsky’s first contributions to the nature debate were made in the 1960s when much of the empiricist work saw the mind as being a ‘blank slate’ upon which we learn language. Chomsky’s ideas, however, proposed just the opposite suggesting that language was ‘hard-wired’ into the brain which introduced a whole new side to the argument and led to Lyons (1970) calling these ideas a ‘Chomsky Revolution’.

The greatest contribution from Chomsky would be his idea of a ‘universal grammar’, which describes the mind as being the ‘linguistic core’ since there are some principles of grammar that are so abstract they would be impossible to learn, therefore, we must be born with them. This is supported by Chomsky’s related ‘poverty of the stimulus’ theory which gives the example of auxiliary fronting and says that children have no reason to favour auxiliary fronting, since they are not explicitly taught it, yet they do use them to produce the correct form. For example ‘the man who is eating is hungry’, becomes ‘is the man who is eating hungry?’ Pinker (1994: 4) supports the universal grammar theory and says “[l]anguage and grammar is a distinct piece of the biological make up of our minds”. Crain and Pietroski (2001) agree claiming every person is born with innately specified linguistic values of grammar formation.

However, there are also many who disagree with the concept of universal grammar. Tomasello (2005: 7), for instance, argues that universal grammar is not sufficient enough to link all the complex elements of a language that is being learnt, and he states that if universal grammar is always the same then how could a child’s language development be measured over time? Crain et al. (2010) also argue that Chomsky has no empirical evidence to support his theories and therefore the ‘language faculty’ part of the brain he describes cannot be located. The features of any given language across the world are also said to be a complex function of history and not due to the simplistic nature of universal grammar (Jackendoff 2002), therefore, Chomsky’s theory would overlook the crucial aspects of language formation over time. Tomasello (2009) sums up the criticisms simply by claiming “[t]he idea of a biologically evolved, universal grammar with linguistic content is a myth”.

Tomasello’s nurture stance involves what is often called the ‘usage-based approach’. This theory has developed from early behaviourist theories, such as those of Skinner (1957), to claim that language is acquired through integration with other cognitive and socio-cognitive skills, and essentially that language acquisition emerges from language use (Tomasello 2009: 85). He suggests that children use both intention reading, to determine what mature speakers say and mean to gain social benefits, and pattern finding, what children do to create their own linguistic schemas and language representations, to gain the skills they need to acquire language. Tomasello also proposed the idea of the ‘verb island hypothesis’ whereby children treat verbs as their own ‘islands’ of organisation from around which they build sentences. However, this view has caused more controversy than the usage-based approach and Ninio (2003) states that instead of an island, which isolates words, developing grammars are formed more like a web since all the items connect to each other.

Although both Chomsky and Tomasello’s approaches have their strengths and weaknesses it is difficult to highlight one as being the single best explanation for how we acquire language. Therefore, it is safer to adapt to an approach such as that of Yang (2004) who argues that both a theory of innate predisposition with learning must contribute to language acquisition, and that by assuming both it presents an extremely sophisticated body of linguistic knowledge. Future research should focus on how the mind integrates language capabilities that are both innate and learnt, and in doing so it could open up a whole new approach to the language acquisition debate.

AZARIA CROSS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Crain, S., Khlentzos, D., & Thornton, R. (2010). Universal Grammar versus Language Diversity. Lingua, 120(12). 2668–2672.

Crain, S., & Pietroski, P. (2001). Nature, Nurture and Universal Grammar. Linguistics and Philosophy, 24(2)

Jackendoff, R. (2002). Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. London: Oxford University Press

Lyons, J. (1970). Chomsky. United Kingdom: Harper Collins

Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind. London: Penguin Books

Tomasello, M. (2005). Constructing a Language: A Usage Based Theory of Language Acquisition. United States of America: Harvard University Press

Tomasello, M. (2009). Universal Grammar is Dead. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 32(5), 470-471.

Yang, C. D. (2004). Universal Grammar, Statistics or Both? Cognitive Sciences, 8(10), 451-456.


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