Chomsky and LanguageAcquisitionUniversal Grammar in Action
The paradox of language acquisition2 [A]n entire community of highly trained professionals, bringing to bear years of conscious attention and sharing of information, has been unable to duplicate the feat that every normal child accomplishes by the age of ten or so, unconsciously and unaided. (Jackendoff 1994: 26)
Chomsky on the Nature of Language3 Acquisition Large-scale sensory deficit seems to have limited effect on language acquisition. Blind children acquire language as the sighted do, even color terms and words for visual experience like “see” and “look.” There are people who have achieved close to normal linguistic competence with no sensory input beyond that can be gained by placing one’s hand on another person’s face and throat. The analytic mechanism of the language faculty seem to be triggered in much the same way whether the input is auditory, visual, even tactual, and seem to be localized in the same brain areas, somewhat surprisingly.
4 These examples of impoverished input indicate the richness of innate endowment — though normal language acquisition is remarkable enough, as even lexical access shows, not only because of its rapidity and the intricacy of result. Thus very young children can determine the meaning of a nonsense word from syntactic information in a sentence far more complex that they can produce. A plausible assumption today is that the principles of language are fixed and innate, and that variations is restricted in the manner indicated. Each language, then, is (virtually) determined by a choice of values for lexical parameters: with the array of choices, we should be able to deduce Hungarian; with another, Yoruba. … The conditions of language acquisition make it plain that the process must be largely inner-directed, as in other aspects of growth, which means that all languages must be close to identical, largely fixed by initial state. (Chomsky 2000. New Horizons … : 121-2)
5 At present little is known on how UG is embodied in the brain. UG is considered as a computational system in the head, but we do not know about the specific operations of the brain itself and what leads to the development of these computational systems.
6 A plausible view is that language is a distinct and specific part of the human mind and not a manifestation of a more general capacity or ability (of general intelligence). Linguistic capacity rests on a specific module. It is not the sub-product of a general cognitive capacity.
Evidence7 People can “lose their intelligence” and yet they do not loose their language: substantial retarded children (e.g. Williams syndrome) manifest a good grammatical and linguistic competence. On the other hand, highly intelligent people may lack linguistic capacity (e.g. aphasia). The fact that two kinds of abilities can dissociate quantitatively and along multiple dimensions shows that they are not manifestations of a single underlying ability. (Pinker 2003: 23)
How does UG work? From autonomy to a black box… A black box problem: Something goes in, something comes out, but the process is hidden The hidden process is self-contained and independent Analysing the input and the output can tell us what’s happening in the black box
The “black box” What is in the UG black box? Chomsky says that the contents of UG explains: a) the nature of syntax b) language acquisition The description of the grammar and the explanation of how it is learnt are unified in this theory
The role of the input What is the input? Primarylinguistic data This means all the language the child hears From the child’s environment The input is critical Without input at the right stage of maturation, the child’s UG cannot develop into a grammar Evidence: “feral” children e.g. Genie Critical Period Hypothesis (Lenneberg)
What is the output? Chomsky sees language competence in terms of a formal language A lexicon Contains words, idioms, etc. Lexical items have meanings A set of abstract, algebraic rules Includingthe rules of syntax, phonology, etc. The rules have no meaning The lexicon is learned normally (from experience, trial and error, imitation) … but the rules are innate
Therefore… This answers our question! Q: What does UG contain? A: UG contains the core, formal rules of the grammar This is Chomsky’s explanation for how the generative creativity of language is acquired
Chomskyan rules How do these Chomskyan rules work? Instructions for generating sentence structures, e.g.: S NP VP NP Det Adj N Structural slots filled by elements from the lexicon, e.g. Det Adj N The tall building
Principles and parameters The rules that produce these “tree” structures are innate… … but these rules differ from language to language! Chomsky: the UG does not contain the actual rules of each language. Instead, it contains PRINCIPLES and PARAMETERS The rules of each language are derived from the principles and parameters
Universals revisited “Principles” == linguistic universals Features found in all languages So what exactly are these universals? Are there really that many firm universals? Probably not Many linguists take other approaches to universals
Other “universals” Chomskyan universals are not to be confused with… … Greenbergian universals Rooted in language typology Based on surveys of lots of languages Often involve percentages / probabilities (i.e. they can have exceptions) May involve implications (if a language has X then it also has Y)
Chomskyan universals Absolute (always found in every language) Based on Chomskyan syntactic analysis These universals are aspects of the Chomskyan theory of grammar… …and do not always make sense outside that theory! They are simply a feature of the biological UG
Substantive & Formal Universals Substantive universals Things you get in language e.g. nouns, verbs This distinction can arise even without input! Formal universals How those things work together in sentences Constraints on the forms of syntactic rules Structure-dependency principle
Structure Dependency: areminder Grammatical rules operate on categories Many languages have rules that move around specific parts of the sentence structure No language has any rule that ignores the structure (e.g. simply inverts the order of the words) For example: I can understand Chomsky’s theory. can I understand Chomsky’s theory? * theory Chomsky’s understand can I?
Other principles The XP principles Govern the internal structure of phrases e.g. Every XP contains an X Every NP contains an N… every VP contains a V… etc. Many other formal principles are very abstract; examples: • Principle of Proper Government • Empty Category Principle • Case Assignment Principle
Parameters Parameters explain variation across languages A parameter is like a “switch” It is a setting which can take one of a small number of values Yes/No, On/Off, +/- The setting of the parameter determines one or more aspects of the grammar The parameters are set during language acquisition
The Pro-drop Parameter Controls whether subject pronouns can be dropped in the language I understand Chomsky‟s theory * understand Chomsky‟s theory WRONG Spanish: [+ Pro-drop] English and French: [- Pro-drop]
Heads and complements The Head of a phrase is the “compulsory word” of the phrase A verb is the head of a verb phrase A noun is the head of a noun phrase The Complement of a phrase is an “optional” other element in the phrase A verb’s complement is its object ride a horse, explain the problem A preposition’s complement is its noun phrase
Some examples - Languages like English: Verbbefore Object Preposition before NP Question-words at start of sentence Languages like Japanese: Verbafter Object Preposition after NP (= postposition) Question-words at end of sentence
The Head Parameter In English, the head consistently comes before the complement… In Japanese, the head consistently comes after the complement… … in many different kinds of syntactic phrases! This same pattern is found in other languages
The Head Parameter The orders of verb & object, pre/postposition & NP, and question word & sentence are all controlled by the Head Parameter This has two settings: Head-First(e.g. English) Head-Last (e.g. Japanese)
Setting Parameters The child must set the parameter for their language, based on evidence in the input Remember, the input is vital! When the Head Parameter matures, the child sets it to: Head First if their input contains things like verb-object Head Last if their input contains things like object-verb
The power of parameters A single parameter can affect many areas of the grammar One example of verb-object or object-verb is enough to set the Head Parameter… Eatyour spinach! (Head First) Your spinach eat! (Head Last) … which is all the child needs to correctly order verbs, pre/postpositions and question words (and other constructions too)
The problems withparameters Some languages don’t fit into neat categories e.g. German : partly Head First and partly Head Last ??? It is hard to find good examples of parameter setting in child data Not much evidence for a sudden effect on children’s speech from a parameter being set e.g. young English-speaking children frequently drop subjects (in a [- Pro-drop] language!) … … and this falls off gradually not suddenly What ARE these parameters anyway?
Opposition to the UG theory General trend away from “instinctive” learning and towards “social” learning Autonomy of language not accepted by many linguists and psychologists Many linguists disagree with Chomsky’s analysis of grammar Functional grammar Usage-based models of language
Ignoring the data? “An I-language approach [i.e. a Chomskyan approach …] sees language acquisition as a logical problem that can be solved in principle without looking at the development of actual children in detail.” Cook and Newson (1996: 78) Is this valid?
Conclusion Chomsky’s theory has advantages… A simple explanation for complex acquisition It explains common features of language … but there are also problems Some data is difficult to interpret from Chomsky’s position Some data supports this position and other positions simultaneously.
Summary Chomsky’s theory of language separates lexicon and grammar Grammar (UG) is innate and matures It functions as an independent “black box” UG contains principles and parameters Principles: universal basic features of grammar e.g. nouns, verbs, structure-dependency Parameters: grammar “switches” with a small number of options e.g. Pro-Drop, Head direction Input is needed at the critical period, to learn the lexicon and to set the parameters
References• Neil, S, Dreidre, W. (1990). Modern Linguistics: The results of Chomsky’s Revolution. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Pelican Books.• Newmeyer, F. (1986). Linguistic Theory in America. Orlando: Academic Press.• Neil, S. (2004). Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals. New York: CUP.• Deneen, F. P. (1967). An Introduction to General Linguistics. Washington, D.C: Georgetown University Press.• Chomsky, N. „A Review of B. F. Skinner‟s Verbal Behaviour‟. Landmarks in American Language and Linguistics. Smolinski, F. (1986). Washington, D.C.:• http://www.uni-kassel.de/fb8/misc/lfb/html/text/2frame.htm• www.chomsky.info