Criticize the Chomskyan model of language learning.

Do you believe that human beings are programmed with an innate language learning capacity?


Answer: The “innateness question” has been a crucial problem over the last quarter century. The uniqueness of LAD is not unquestionable as mentalists cannot agree on what is LAD and what is innate. They cannot decide to what extent language ability is separate from other cognitive abilities. The supporters of process approach suggest that children could not possibly contain specific language universals: Instead they are innately geared to processing linguistic data, for which they utilize a puzzle-solving ability which is closely related to other cognitive skills.

A problematical feature of Chomsky’s theory is his view of the role of situation in the language learning process. According to him exposure to language in situations is a mere precondition for the activation of the language acquisition device, and is irrelevant to the actual course learning takes. As Ruth Clark has pointed out that:

“Situation has a fuller role to play in language learning than Chomsky implies, though not precisely the role assigned to it by the behaviorists.”

Children clearly need some kind of linguistic input to acquire a language. There have been occasional cases in history. Where abandoned children have somehow survived in forests, such as Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron (subject of a film by Francois Truffaut). Occasionally other modern children have grown up wild because depraved parents have raised them silently in dark rooms and attics; the chapter by Newport and Gleitman discuss some of those cases. The outcome is always the same: the children, when found, are mute. Whatever innate grammatical abilities there are, they are too schematic to generate concrete speech, words, and grammatical constructions on their own.

Crutandant has pointed out that parental speech to children is highly structured to provide a set of language-learning lessons. Moreover language is first le-amt in situations of immediacy. The situation acts as a crutch to language learning: the child is often able to guess at the meaning of an adult utterance.


Another crucial point has been thrown into question is that mans language learning ability is qualitatively, in opposed to quantitavely, different. The experiments with Washoe, a chimpanzee (Gardner and Gardner, 1971), proved that chimpanzee can be taught an elementary language system (sign language) and their failure to learn human language is due to their limitation of vocal apparatus. Thus the linguistic capacity which is supposedly innate in man may be partly innate in other animals as well.

Language acquisition studies within the frame of reference of Chomsky s theory of language have usually sought to establish which are the first grammatical structures and functions to emerge universally during language acquisition. But this approach seems to raise certain problems. If LAD contains information about the types of structure and function manifested in language, then presumably it contains all the necessary information.

Arguments as to whether it is inborn or learnt are quite irrelevant. Both nature and nurture are important. Innate potentiality lay down the framework, and within this framework, there is wide variation depending on the environment. When individuals reach a crucial point in their maturation, they are biologically in a state of readiness for learning the behavior. They would not learn it at this time without a biological trigger, and conversely, the biological trigger could not be activated if there was nobody around from whom they could learn behavior. (Jean Aitchinson)