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by: William Fortune Butz, Rebecca Ramirez, Nickie Saintelot & Naomi Schimmel
"Human language appears to be a unique phenomenon,
without significant analogue in the animal world."
Noam Chomsky’s career in the field of linguistics has spanned over fifty years. He has produced a multitude of books, contributed articles to various journals, and continues to give lectures around the world. He is arguably one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century and holds the distinction of being included in the list of the 100 Most Cited Authors, according to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index from 1977-1978. (Garfield 1979). Chomsky’s inclusion as a modern author with the likes of Marx, along with classical writers such as Plato, perhaps shows a growing interest in language and linguistics (Garfield 1979). Of all these accolades, one must acknowledge Chomsky’s contributions to the field of linguistics in the form of the texts
The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory
Aspects of the Theory of Syntax
(1965) which are revolutionary in the eyes of many in the field of linguistics. Fellow linguist and professor, Dr. Neil Smith (2004) lauds the impact of Chomsky’s work, while simultaneously placing his ideas in a historical context:
Why is Chomsky important? He has shown that there is really only one human language: that the immense complexity of the innumerable languages we hear around us must be variations on a single theme. He has revolutionized linguistics, and in so doing has set a cat among the philosophical pigeons. He has resurrected the theory of innate ideas, demonstrating that a substantial part of our knowledge is genetically determined; he has reinstated rationalist ideas that go back centuries, but which has fallen into disrepute; and he has provided evidence that ‘unconscious knowledge’ is what underlies our ability to speak and understand. He has overturned the dominant school of behaviorism in psychology, and has returned the mind to its position of preeminence in the study of humankind. In short, Chomsky has changed the way we think of ourselves, gaining a position in the history of ideas on par with that of Darwin or Descartes (p.1).
As a graduate student, Chomsky’s work argued against those in favor of structural linguistics with his groundbreaking text
(1957), phonology with the
Sound Pattern of English
(1968) written with M. Halle (Smith 2004). His initial work in linguistics was profoundly influenced by his professor and mentor at the University of Pennsylvania, Zellig Harris. However, his later work in transformational grammar demonstrated a dramatic departure from Harris’ tutelage (Barsky 1997).
Chomsky’s ideas regarding linguistic theory include his theory of universal grammar also known as transformational grammar, postulating that all language is composed of understandable sentences. These sentences are bound to grammatical rules of the given language that are also connected to the rules of all other languages based on the fact that these rules can be transformed to another language due to the innate capacity of the human brain. Chomsky began his published work in linguistics with his honor’s thesis entitled,
Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew
(1949) that he later revised as his master’s thesis. This text contains some of Chomsky’s foundational work with regard to generative grammar. In terms of Chomsky’s contributions, Szabó writes:
First, Chomsky contributed substantially to a major methodological shift in the human sciences, turning away from the prevailing empiricism of the middle of the twentieth century: behaviorism in psychology, structuralism in linguistics and positivism in philosophy. Second, his groundbreaking books on syntax (Chomsky (1957, 1965) laid a conceptual foundation for a new, cognitivist approach to linguistics and provided philosophers with a new framework for thinking about human language and the mind.
Later Chomsky also introduced the notion of lexical representations in language as the discriminating factor that illuminates the differences among all languages (Smith 2004). Indeed, Maryanne Wolf and Rebecca Kennedy (2003), in their response to Dr. Steven Strauss’ claims about the origins of written language and the implications for teaching language, refer to Chomsky’s and Halle’s assertion in
The Sound Pattern of English
(1968) that English is almost a perfect lexical representation of English words. Therefore seemingly arbitrary word spellings are firmly grounded in English lexical history.
However, some authors challenge that Chomsky’s interpretations of the lexicon placed too much emphasis on English (Barsky 1997). Chomsky’s views regarding children’s development and thus their ability to acquire language put him at odds with other prominent thinkers. In his review of Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s work on a 1975 debate between Jean Piaget and Chomsky Joseph Karmos (1980) writes:
For Piaget, all children pass through the same stages of intellectual development, and thought is a constructive process whereby an active, exploring child seeks solutions to problems and puzzles. The ‘nativist’ notion that all intellect is present at birth, waiting only to unfold, is unacceptable to him. For Chomsky, there is no need for active construction by the child or for social or cultural input; the plan is already within the child. Nor are there separate stages of development based on the child’s mental capacities and on interaction with the environment. Chomsky sees language unfolding as naturally as the visual system, the heart, or the liver (p. 287).
One could argue that Chomsky’s view of early childhood development may have been influenced by his education for almost ten years at progressive Deweyite school in Pennsylvania (Barsky 1997; Smith 2004). Nevertheless it is clear that Chomsky’s views regarding childhood language acquisition have produced interesting debates among scholars and educators alike.
In an interview for a trade journal for teachers of reading, Chomsky noted clearly that he does not perceive himself as an educator or as one skilled in making broad pedagogical recommendations (Putnam & Chomsky, 1995). However, given Chomsky’s views regarding the innate capacities of the brain, one can perceive an educator’s desire to make connections between Chomsky’s work and recommendations for pedagogical practices as reasonable, regardless of scientific merit. Thus it seems fitting to conclude this survey of the historical context of Chomsky’s linguistic theories with his own words regarding the goal of linguistics:
At the heart of language, and much of human action and thought, is a system of mental representations and computations. The goal of linguistics, then, is to discover these systems, and more deeply, to discover the fixed, invariant biological endowment that enables each child to develop a very rich and highly articulated system of knowledge on the basis of quite fragmentary and limited evidence (Putnam & Chomsky, 1995, p. 330) .
Significant Contributions of Generative Grammar
One does not have to search far to find the many contributions generative grammar has played on different aspects of psychology, neuroscience, language education, and linguistics (to name only a few).
VanPatten (2003) states “Chomsky challenged Skinner’s ideas as far back as the mid-1950s…[he] demonstrated how grammar of a language is generative, meaning that you could generate an infinite number of sentences from a finite set of rules” (p. 3).
How Languages are Learned
, Lightbrown and Spada (2003) explain the biological basis for generative grammar. They state:
Chomsky’s ideas are compatible with those of the biologist Eric Lenneberg, who also compares learning to talk with learning to walk: children who for medical reasons cannot move about when they are infants may soon stand and walk if their problems are corrected at the age of a year or so. Similarly, children who can hear but who cannot speak can nevertheless learn language, understanding even complex sentences. (Lightbrown & Spada, 2003, p. 19)
There is even talk today that theorists are working on a grammar gene that would support a genetic link to language (Owens, 2005). Owens suggests:
Chomsky and others’ search for linguistic universals has led them to theorize about a Human Sentence Processing Mechanism (HSPM). Of interest is the relationship of the components of language and the steps in sentence processing which may be serial, parallel, or a combination of the two. (Owens, 2005, p. 48)
However, not everyone is a supporter of Generative Grammar. Sam Featherston (2007) states the following in his article
Data in generative grammar: The stick and the carrot
It gives us no pleasure to find fault with colleagues, but it is our view that this immobilism is undermining the reputation of syntax and the respect that the field of syntax should enjoy in the wider academic sphere. The work of many syntacticians is entirely contained within the generative world, which makes this weakness less visible, but for those researchers whose activities overlap with other related fields, the weak empirical basis of much work in the generative paradigm is very apparent. (p. 271)
Nevertheless, here is a satirical video on generative grammar with Sarah Palin on Larry King Live:
Video Created by: William Fortune Butz
His Language Theory
Noam Chomsky believes humans are born with an innate ability to utilize grammar in order to form sentences. Basic elements of language, such as nouns and verbs, are manipulated in order to create new sentences and novel ideas in a variety of combinations. Shrum and Glisan (2005) explain how Chomsky:
"Observed that children use elements of language they know to say something they have never heard before. Chomsky proposed that humans are born with an innate “language acquisition device” (LAD) that enables them to process language. He posited that the LAD contained abstract principals of language that are universal to all languages" (p. 12).
Chomsky deems grammar universal, irrespective of the natural language spoken. He emphasizes the child’s ability to naturally produce language as a result of meaningful input and by applying linguistic rules, not necessarily learned formally. Shrum and Glisan (2005) elaborate: "Children who say “I falled down” are overgeneralizing a grammatical rule about formation of past tenses even though they have not heard that irregular form used by family, friends, and others around them; they are creating language based on what they already know” (p. 12). In other words, children acquire language progressively and utilize prior knowledge to relay different messages, both in the present, as well as past tenses. Evidently, oversimplifying grammatical rules will often lead to erroneous output, which will be corrected over time. Notwithstanding, the idea behind the child's utterance is not lost and his or her message is conveyed to the listener.
Chomsky draws a distinction between performance and competence when analyzing language use. Performance is the ability to produce language and competence is the ability to utilize grammatical rules (Shrum & Glisan, 2005).
Limitations to Psycholinguistics Theory
One limitation to Chomsky’s linguistic theory is that his research does not concentrate on the ways in which children use language in relation to their social or cognitive growth. Children develop and mature greatly throughout infancy and childhood that may affect their rate or precision of language acquisition, but the theory does not emphasize or address these factors. Perhaps a child’s cognitive abilities are significant in language development, but Chomsky focused only on the innate language system (Owens, 2007).
A second limitation of Chomsky’s research is that it may have limited practical implications to language acquisition. Chomsky’s theory was significant in its claim that language develops from innate, internal processing mechanisms. However, it contributes little to the understanding of how to best teach language and effective communication (Owens, 2007). For example, should parents or caregivers use specific strategies to teach their children to acquire language faster or more effectively? How can teachers apply this theory to help educate their students?
Chomsky’s theory on language has been momentous in the field of psycholinguistic theory. In contrast to his predecessors who claimed that language is a learned behavior, Chomsky and other psycholinguistic theorists concentrated on language form and structure. Chomsky’s contributions of universal grammar and the language acquisition device (LAD) changed the way people think about language and the human brain, that we are born with an innate mechanism designed to learn a language and that all languages follow the same finite set of rules.
The purpose of learning a language is to be able to communicate as a social tool, either orally or in writing. Studying linguistics and the structure of language can be a complex subject. However, academic and intellectual communication cannot take place without attention to language form, or grammar. For this reason, it is important to continue to teach grammar to students in elementary and middle school, so that they can be effective and intelligent communicators. Likewise, some study of linguistics should be included in teacher training programs, so that teachers have a greater understanding of language and can serve as models for correct usage of the rules that govern language. According to Berns (1990), a person’s competence as a language learner is viewed in terms of relative correctness, increasing the important of studying language form.
One question that remains is how Chomsky’s theory can be applied to second language acquisition. If humans have an innate mechanism to learn language, then the same theory should apply for second language learning. Does the LAD remain operative in learning a second language? Although some research has been conducted on this topic, there is no clear answer whether L2 acquisition also relies on the LAD and notion of universal grammar (Gass & Selinker, 2008).
The psycholinguistic theory relies on the assumption that humans have an innate mechanism that allows us to acquire language, which Chomsky labeled the language acquisition device, or LAD (Owens, 2007). In order to be activated, the LAD must receive linguistic input, taking the form of the speech that an infant hears. Input alone cannot be the only factor to impact language development. Gass and Selinker (2008) call this argument the poverty of stimulus. What about a child who is in a language-impoverished environment whose language exposure is limited?
Chomsky’s theory has been extremely significant in the field of linguistics and language acquisition, and offers fascinating and relevant ideas of how humans learn languages.
The Noam Chomsky Website
Chomsky's MIT Profile
Barsky, R., F. (1997).
Noam Chomsky: A life of dissent
[Google Books version]. Retrieved from
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How languages are learned
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Language development: An introduction
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Owens Jr., R.E. (2007).
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Szabó, Z., G. (2004). Noam Chomsky. In E. LePore (Ed.).
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VanPatten, B. (2003).
From input to output: A teacher’s guide to second language acquisition
. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
Wolf, M., & Kennedy, R. (2003). How the origins of written language instruct us to teach: A response to Steven Strauss.
Educational Researcher, 32
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