A Study On The English Language English Language Essay

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The field of language acquisition is very rich and lively and, like in all dynamic areas of research, controversies and disagreements are legion. Indeed, we have witnessed a long-lasting opposition between two schools of thoughts going by the names of empiricism and rationalism. For empiricists, language is acquired through experience:

[It] is essentially an adventitious construct taught by 'conditioning' ( . . . Skinner or Quine) or by drill and explicit explanation ( . . . Wittgenstein), or built up by elementary 'data-processing' procedures ([for] modern linguistics . . . ), but, in any event, relatively independent in its structure of any innate mental faculties.

In short, empiricist speculation has characteristically assumed that only the procedures and mechanisms for the acquisition of knowledge constitute an innate property of the mind.

(Allen and Van Buren, 1971: 135-my emphasis)

On the other hand, according to rationalists, "language seems to be a true "species property", varying little among humans and without significant analogue elsewhere" (Chomsky, 2000: 3). Some faculties of language, constitutive of a Universal Grammar (UG), are thus innate in the mind, and "for the individual, learning is largely a matter of . . . drawing out [from that UG] . . . . The function of experience is to cause this generally schematic structure to be realized and more fully differentiated" (Allen and Van Buren, 1971: 135-my emphasis). One of the rationalists' main claims to support their theory is the "poverty of the stimulus argument" (PSA). Children supposedly do not receive a sufficient nor ideal input from their environment: "it seems that there is neither empirical evidence nor any known argument to support any specific claim about the relative importance of 'feedback' from the environment" (Chomsky, 1959: 42), and parents, as Pinker (1994) reminds us, generally do not correct children's grammatical errors. Empiricists, on the contrary, argue in favour of the "richness of the stimulus" (Sampson, 2002). Those are the reasons why I chose to discuss the PSA, which is, in a sense, the cornerstone of both theories-either positively or negatively. I will try, first, to critically assess the empiricist claims questioning the PSA. I will then look at the rationalist view and try to demonstrate why, in my opinion, it seems to be a more valid hypothesis-in spite of some very convincing empiricist counter-arguments.

My aim, in this first part, will be to analyse as thoroughly as possible the-renewed and reasserted-empiricist view that input has a major role in language acquisition and that the rationalists' PSA is false. To do so, I will notably, but not only, refer to the contemporary literature which has been written on the matter, especially by the very controversial Geoffrey Sampson (2002; 2005)-who even calls himself "a dissident" on his website.

According to Gullick, Noam Chomsky was the first to bring forth the now famous "poverty of the stimulus argument" (2007: 38). He took, among others, the example of the formation of yes/no questions to confirm the evidence of his PSA (notably in Piattelli-Palmarini, 1980) and his argument could be summed up as such:

The corpus of evidence presented to children during their language learning is insufficient to permit data-driven inference to the selection of the correct auxiliary fronting generalization and the elimination of all the alternatives.

(Chomsky, in Pullum, 1996)

Or, to be more precise:

A person might go through much or all of his life without ever having been exposed to relevant evidence, but he will nevertheless unerringly employ [the structure-dependent generalization], on the first relevant occasion.

(Chomsky, in Piattelli-Palmarini, 1980: 40, cited in Pullum, 1996)

Nevertheless, some commentators pointed out a several methodological issues over those yes/no questions and auxiliary formation examples. First of all, one could easily argue that it is precisely because some children are not exposed to false utterances that they would produce grammatically correct ones-argument going by the name of "negative evidence" (Sampson, 2002; Gullick, 2007): "If the evidence available to a child never identifies particular strings as ungrammatical, how can he learn to draw this distinction correctly" (Sampson, 2002)? Moreover, we cannot help noticing that "the formation of yes/no questions is dependent on the abstract property of structure-dependency" (Hendricks, n.d.); we could then be led to think that somehow Chomsky's demonstration might have shifted from its initial goal and that, in this particular case, it would rather be the innateness of structure-dependency that would be in question. On that specific point-and referring to initial adverbial clauses-, Sampson (2002) proves being very cautious and, I must say, quite peremptory. He describes experience as being "adequate though unneeded":

As with the case of complex auxiliary sequences, though, note that I do not myself assume that individuals without specific innate knowledge of language would need such experience in order to choose the correct form of the question rule.  I [think] that considerations about the nature of learning as a general process, not related to language-acquisition in particular, predict that a person acquiring the verb-fronted question construction would adopt the "structure-dependent" rather than "structure-independent" version of the rule, whether or not he had encountered crucial examples.  But my central point in the present context is that, if language-learners needed experience of crucial cases to decide between structure-dependent and structure-independent variants of the question rule, they would succeed in acquiring the structure-dependent variant, because they would have the relevant experience.

(Sampson, 2002)

Furthermore, another rationalist claim concerning those examples seems to have been contradicted by statistical evidence. Indeed, "Chomsky and others (without providing any empirical motivation for this claim) [posited] that these examples are very rare" (Hendricks, n.d.). But, Pullum (1996) very interestingly, through accurate research, shows us that:

[His] examination of the full corpus of polar interrogatives in the corpus suggested that about 12 percent of the examples crucially confirmed the structure-dependent regularity over the structure-independent one.

. . . Chomsky's assertion that "you can go over a vast amount of data of experience without ever finding such a case" [in Piattelli-Palmarini, 1980: 40] is unfounded hyperbole.

(Pullum, 1996-my emphasis)

We have not yet mentioned another critical point, once again raised by Sampson (2002), which is the one of the impact of reading and writing-i.e. of literacy-on oral communicative skills. It is very likely that if children do read or acquire the written capacity of forming complex utterances, they are very likely to use them when they speak, too:

It seems that the ability to produce these patterns must be one of the skills acquired in the process of moving from being an articulate speaker to being, in addition, a literate writer. . . .  The fact that people typically do acquire this skill does nothing to support the poverty-of-stimulus argument, unless it can be shown that some people are not exposed to relevant models in the language they encounter during literacy-acquisition.

(Sampson, 2002)

Indeed, when I was a child, I do remember being corrected on grammatical issues at school, or by my family-albeit "adults merely fail to utter ungrammatical strings" (Sampson 2002) to differentiate them from grammatical ones-while doing class work or homework. Thus, the other capital rationalist idea, that is the alleged absence of error correction, does not seem right to me. Children are urged to speak properly in many occasions, notably through the expression of correct manners (e.g.: Could I have some water, please?). "And even if adults do not often explicitly correct children's linguistic errors, they might react in ways (e.g. a puzzled facial expression) which show the child, inexplicitly but nevertheless effectively, that a particular utterance is erroneous" (Sampson, 2002). Nevertheless, I will not argue more here since my demonstration is purely anecdotal and is no scientific proof. What would be, however, even though Sampson (2002) acknowledges quite easily that he is no specialist on the matter himself, is the importance of the "adult/child interaction in language acquisition". Two eminent specialists-a sociolinguist and a psychologist-, William Labov (1972) and Roger Brown (1973), both have argued that parents' correction of deviant children language was systematic. But this view has been rejected since, notably by Pinker (1994; n. d.). A very good question to ask ourselves then-instead of wondering why a child sometimes makes a mistake, and is sometimes (hypothetically) corrected-would rather be, as we reach here the very limits of the empiricist claim of falsity of the PSA, why there are mistakes a child would never make in spite of never being told about them. In my opinion, Mark Turner (1998), in The Literary Mind, brings about an interesting and perceptive answer, "emphasizing the importance of story-"narrative imagining"-as the "fundamental instrument of thought," crucial for planning, evaluating, explaining, for recalling the past and imagining a future (pp. 4-5)" (Richardson, 1998). In other words, it means that the language acquisition process draws from more extensive sources than just the language we hear. "Turner claims that humans are designed to learn to organize the world (and their interaction with it) . . . . Experience, not least social experience, is necessary for realizing the innate capacities for comprehending and negotiating the environment" (Richardson, 1998). Therefore, the PSA, as argued by the rationalists might show some inaccuracies.