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This lesson covers the noted linguist Noam Chomsky’s nativist theory of language, which argues language acquisition is an innate or biological ability. We will focus on the major concepts of this important linguistic theory.

How Do We Learn to Talk?

Have you ever heard a toddler babbling on and on? How is it that babies are able to learn a language so quickly? What accounts for the fact that one moment a young child can barely form words, and the next, he or she speaks frequently and coherently? These questions captivated the noted linguist Noam Chomsky, who dedicated much of his career to explaining this phenomenon.

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The Nativist Perspective

Linguists have long debated how and why we’re able to learn a language. In some ways, this is sort of a chicken and egg kind of scenario: are we born with the ability to communicate with language, or do we learn it after we’re born?Guided by these burning questions about why children are so adept at learning a language, Noam Chomsky developed what is called the nativist perspective. According to Chomsky’s theory, infants have an innate ability to learn language.

From a very early age, we’re able to understand the basics of language. For instance, Chomsky argued, children are able to understand the appropriate order of words from a young age. Instead of saying ”Juice I want,” children know to say ”I want juice!” Chomsky noted that this is similar across languages. Children are able to do this even before they have developed much of a vocabulary.

This is an important point for Chomsky because it underscores his theory that children are able to understand the structure and rules even before they know many words.

Language Acquisition Device

So, what is responsible for this? The language acquisition device (LAD) is a hypothetical area of the brain that explains how children can learn languages so quickly. By hypothetical, we mean that if you were to take a look inside of a person’s brain you would not see a section labeled LAD. In other words, LAD is more of a theoretical idea.

It accounts for the ways in which children have an innate ability to understand language and syntax. The LAD is meant to help us understand the many underlying processes that explain why we’re so good at learning languages.Before Chomsky developed his theory, it was widely held by linguists and psychologists that babies learn a language by mimicking those around them.

In other words, we hear and see others talk and copy that. Language acquisition is a cultural phenomenon. However, Chomsky argued this approach could not explain how young children understand things like the arrangement of words. That’s more complicated than simply listening to your parents talk to you.

What happens if you’re an infant in Egypt but move to England? What language will you speak? Are you programmed to speak the language of the country you’re born in? Not quite. For Chomsky, the specifics of a particular language are less important than the mechanism for acquiring language. Sure, we’ll all need to acquire more vocabulary as we grow – something you know if you’ve ever taken a standardized test! But, the fact that we are able to understand how to string together sentences is the important take-away.Chomsky eventually developed his theory of LAD into the theory of a universal grammar. Now, this does not mean that all languages are the same or that there exists some cross-cultural shared language. He just means we have to have something in our brains that helps us out! For example, Chomsky noted that even infants could recognize small and complex parts of speech – something that mimicking or listening to your parents could not fully explain. While that might help us increase our vocabulary, it isn’t enough for babies to acquire all of the complicated rules of language.

That’s where universal grammar plays its part.For Chomsky, the environment one is born into is less important than biological functions. Now, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t think the environment matters. Chomsky just thinks of the environment as a secondary function. In other words, all infants are born with universal grammar and the environment may help trigger this ability in different ways, but Chomsky’s biggest concern is with this biological process that happens no matter one’s environment.

Lesson Summary

Noam Chomsky is a pioneer in the field of linguistics. He is credited with developing the nativist theory of language, which argues we all have an innate ability to learn a language. When you talk to a baby, you might not get much in response (outside of cute noises), but the infant is able to understand the sounds of human voices and start to put the pieces together on how to speak. Chomsky theorizes that this is due to the language acquisition device, a theoretical part of our brain that hardwires us to be proficient at learning language, even when we’re just babies.

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