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Learn about Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, how it influences language development, and why babies might understand more than we think.

Examples are provided, and a short quiz follows.

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Universal Grammar Theory Explained

Have you ever tried to have a conversation with a baby? It’s all ‘goo’ this and ‘gah’ that – not a particularly scintillating conversation. You might think that babies don’t understand anything that’s being said to them, which is, in a sense, true. Babies don’t comprehend the words that are being said to them, but they do possess an innate ability to understand the sound of the human voice and to discriminate between parts of language. Experiments done on babies as young as a few days old have shown they recognize phonemes, which are the smallest units of speech that differentiate one word from another. A baby can tell the difference between the words ‘mom’ and ‘mop,’ for instance, without actually knowing what the two words mean.

The idea that explains this is known as Universal Grammar Theory and states that all children are born with an innate ability to acquire, develop, and understand language. If we look at grammar as the laws of language, we could say that all humans are born with an understanding of these laws. While different languages may have different kinds of grammar, humans have a natural predilection to learn and use them.The realization that very young children innately understand aspects of language has shattered the long-held belief that the mind starts as a blank slate.

Behavioral psychologists had assumed that grammar and language were learned solely by listening to it being spoken. Now, the common belief is that language has an inherent genetic component. The human brain is hardwired to develop grammatical language, even without being exposed to it as a baby.The man credited with this revolution is MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky. Chomsky developed the theory in the 1950s and 60s before there was scientific equipment, such as the MRI, to show brain activity. Chomsky believed grammar must be a universal constant in humans because of something he dubbed the poverty of stimulus.

This aspect of universal grammar argues that it is not possible that children are exposed to enough of their native language to learn it in a purely behavioral context. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean exposure to one’s native language isn’t necessary, just that it can’t account for the entirety of learning a language.

Universal Grammar Theory in Action

Universal Grammar Theory is a complex idea that can be understood easily with a few examples. Look at this sentence:Tom store the to runs.You may have to read it more than once, but you can understand the gist of it, right? This is because the sentence has meaning, even though the grammar is incorrect. If you said this to a child of two or three years old they would look at you funny. Even though they have no formal training in grammar or sentence construction, they can still tell that this just isn’t quite right.

Let’s try another example:Potatoes gain electric naps easily.Grammatically that sentence is correct. It follows the classic ‘subject-verb-object’ form of a sentence with which we are all familiar. However, it lacks meaning.

It is, essentially, gibberish. In this case, our hypothetical toddler, not understanding what you’re getting at, wouldn’t be puzzled in the same way as we are. They might wonder about these new ‘electric naps’ and why they haven’t been told about them, but the sentence will ‘sound’ right to them. This is because, according to the universal grammar theory, they already have an understanding of how language is supposed to work and sound.

Lesson Summary

Universal Grammar Theory proposes that all humans are born with an innate ability to acquire, develop, and understand language. We can look at grammar as the laws that govern language, so humans are born with an ability to understand these laws. Behavioral psychologists had assumed that grammar and language were learned solely by listening to it being spoken. Now, the common belief is that the human brain is hardwired to develop grammatical language, even without being exposed to it as a baby. MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky proposed an idea called the poverty of stimulus that claims it is not possible that children are exposed to enough of their native language to learn it in a purely behavioral context.

This doesn’t mean exposure to one’s native language isn’t necessary, but it can’t account for the entirety of learning a language.

Learning Outcomes

Once this lesson ends, you can test your capacity to reach these goals:

  • Paraphrase the Universal Grammar Theory
  • Note Noam Chomsky’s contribution to this theory
  • Explain what the poverty of stimulus is
  • Reference examples of the Universal Grammar Theory in action

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