Language Learning

What's universal grammar? Evidence rebuts Chomsky's theory of language learning


This article was originally published by Scientific American. The idea that we have brains hardwired with a mental template for learning grammar -- famously espoused by Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- has dominated linguistics for almost half a century. Recently, though, cognitive scientists and linguists have abandoned Chomsky's "universal grammar" theory in droves because of new research examining many different languages -- and the way young children learn to understand and speak the tongues of their communities. That work fails to support Chomsky's assertions. The research suggests a radically different view, in which learning of a child's first language does not rely on an innate grammar module. Instead the new research shows that young children use various types of thinking that may not be specific to language at all -- such as the ability to classify the world into categories (people or objects, for instance) and to understand the relations among things. These capabilities, coupled with a unique hu man ability to grasp what others intend to communicate, allow language to happen.