One of the greatest linguists of all times, Noam Chomsky asserts that language is innate. He wrote his famous book, “Language and Mind” in 1972, in which he proposed his famous theories on language acquisition. In this book Chomsky wrote, “When we study human language, we are approaching what some might call the ‘human essence,’ the distinctive qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man.” According to Chomsky, language is one characteristic that is unique to humans among all other living beings. Chomsky’s theories have made it easier to understand the evolution and development of the languages.
Chomsky’s theories on language are based upon the importance of linguistics in modern sciences. According to him, to study languages, it is important study human nature that lies in human mind.
Chomsky on Language Acquisition
Noam Chomsky postulated that the mechanism of the language acquisition is derived from the innate processes. Innate is something which is already there in mind since birth. The theory proposed by Chomsky is proved by the children living in same linguistic community. Moreover, they are not influenced by the external experiences which bring about the comparable grammar. He thus proposed his theory on language acquisition in 1977 as “all children share the same internal constraints which characterize narrowly the grammar they are going to construct.” He also proposed that all of us live in a biological world, and according to him, mental world is no exception. He also believes that as there are stages of development for other parts of the body, language development can also be achieved up to a certain age.
Innatism: Noam Chomsky
The linguist Noam Chomsky’s views have had a tremendous impact on language acquisition theory and research. Chomsky’s transformation-generative grammar (TG) approach differed substantially from previous views of language learning. For Chomsky, the essential rules of grammar (everything we know about our language: phonology, syntax, morphology, semantics, etc.) lie hidden in the abstract deep structure of language. Deep structure rules are
universal. It’s not what the environment brings to the child but what the child brings to the
Chomsky claimed that children are biologically programmed for language and that language develops in the child in just the same way that other biological functions develop. For example, every child will learn how to walk (if there is nothing wrong with the child). The child doesn’t need to be taught. Most children learn to walk at about the same age. For Chomsky, language acquisition is very similar. The environment makes a basic contribution – in this case, the availability of people who speak to the child. The child’s biological endowment will do the rest. This is known as the innatist position. Chomsky proposed his theory in reaction to what he saw as the inadequacy of the behaviorist theory of learning based on imitation and habit formation.
Evidence seems very strong that children are by no means systematically corrected or instructed on language. Have you ever tried to correct the grammar of a three-year-old? Not
many parents have been observed correcting their toddlers or pre-schoolers’ grammatical errors.
When parents do correct, research has shown, they tend to focus on meaning and not on language form, often simply repeating the child’s incorrect utterance in a more complete grammatical form. When parents do correct errors, children often ignore the correction, continuing to use their own way of saying things.
A Social Interaction Model of First Language Acquisition
The foundation of all language, according to Vygotsky, is social interaction. Vygotsky
originated the notion that the most fertile environment for all early learning, including child 4
language acquisition, is found in what he termed the Zone of Proximal Development. The
relation between thought and word is a living person. In the Vygotskian approach, children
attempt to communicate, and in these attempts they learn language.
Social interaction creates many opportunities for children to acquire the necessary social
features of their native language: they learn how to use speech in different contexts, and they
acquire the ability to know what to say to whom, when, and where. Consider the acquisition of various forms of requests. The zone of proximal development creates many opportunities for
English-speaking children to realize that a request such as â€•gimmeâ€- can work with younger
playmates and some siblings but may not work successfully with mom and dad. Older children learn more complicated variations of requests, such as knowing that â€•Wouldn’t you like toâ€¦.?â€-
is a more polite way of asking â€•Wannaâ€¦?â€-
Second Language Learning
It is clear that a child or adult learning a second language is different than a child
acquiring a first language, both in terms of personal characteristics and conditions for learning.
Questions to consider when trying to understand how second language learners learn are:
1. Does the learner already know a language?
2. Is the learner cognitively mature? That is, is she or he able to engage in problem solving,
deduction, and complex memory tasks?
3. How well developed is the learner’s metalinguistic awareness? That is, can the learner
treat language as an object (for example, define a word, say what sounds make up that
word, or state a rule such as â€-add an -s to form the plural’)?
4. How extensive is the learners’ general knowledge of the world? This kind of knowledge
makes it easier to understand language because one can sometimes make good guesses
about what the speaker is probably saying even when the language carrying the message
5. Is the learner nervous about making mistakes and sounding â€-silly’ when speaking the
6. Does the learning environment allow the learner to be silent in the early stages of
learning, or is he or she expected to speak from the beginning?5
7. Is there enough time available for language learning to take place, and is there plenty of
contact with proficient speakers of the language?
8. Does the learner receive corrective feedback when he or she makes errors in grammar or
pronunciation, or does the listener overlook these errors and pay attention to the
9. Does the learner receive corrective feedback when she or he uses the wrong word, or
does the listener usually try to guess the intended meaning?
10. Is the learner exposed to language which is modified in terms of speed of delivery,
complexity of grammatical structure, and vocabulary, so that it matches the learner’s
ability to comprehend and interact?
All second language learners, regardless of age, have by definition already acquired at
least one language. This prior knowledge may be an advantage in the sense that the learner has an idea of how languages work. On the other hand, knowledge of other languages can also lead learners to make incorrect guesses about how the second language works, and this may cause errors which a first language learner would not make.
Young language learners begin the task of language learning without the benefit of some
of the skills and knowledge which adolescent and adult learners have. The first language learner does not have the same cognitive maturity, metalinguistic awareness, or world knowledge as older second language learners. Although they are developing cognitive maturity and metalinguistic awareness, they still have a long way to go in these areas, as well as in the area of world knowledge, before they reach the levels already attained by adults and adolescents.
Most child learners do not feel nervous about attempting to use the language, even when
their proficiency is quite limited. Adults and adolescents, on the other hand, often find it very
stressful when they are unable to express themselves clearly and correctly. Nevertheless, even very young children (pre-school) children differ in their nervousness when faced with speaking a language they do not know well. Some children happily chatter away in their new language; others prefer to listen and participate silently in social interaction with their peers. Fortunately for these children, the learning environment rarely puts pressure on them to speak when they are not ready.
One condition which appears to be common among learners of all ages – though perhaps not in equal quantities – is access to modified input. This adjusted speech style is sometimes called â€-foreigner talk’ or â€-teacher talk.’ Many people who interact regularly with language
learners, such as experienced teachers, seem to have a sense of what adjustments are needed to help their learners understand.
The Nativist Position
The best known and most influential proponent of the innatist position is Noam Chomsky. In his famous review of Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior he pointed out that imitation and SR-theories of learning fail to explain how people come to produce sentences which they never heard before. He argues that cognition plays the decisive part in creating the ability to produce an unlimited number of sentences with the knowledge of a limited number of grammatical rules. He calls this ability language competence and distinguishes it from performance, that is the actual use of language which under the heat of communicative exchanges or when people are tired may lead to the production of grammatically faulty sentences.
Explaining language learning on a cognitive basis raises the question, however, how children come to know the categories and rules of grammar which they need for a creative production of sentences. In that context the ‘logical problem of language acquisition’ and the ‘poverty of the input argument’ prompt researchers like Chomsky, Fodor, and Steven Pinker to argue that languages are not learned like any other complex faculty (flying airplanes or doing complex mathematical calculations, for instance) but ‘acquired’ on the basis of an innate knowledge of grammatical principles contained in a language acquisition device (LAD). In later versions of Chomskyan theories the LAD is renamed Universal Grammar. The ‘logical problem of language acquisition’, which gave rise to the problematic distinction of ‘language acquisition’ and learning, is seen to lie in the fact that adult language generally is full of grammatically errors, unfinished sentences and similar ‘handicaps’ which seem to make it impossible for the human brain/mind as a ‘logical machine’ to extract from that sort of controversial input the right sort of grammatical rules. Observation of children and their parents reveals, too, that adults do not give children explicit instruction in rules of grammar (which would undo the logical problem of language acquisition).
The protagonists of the nativist position of language acquisition aim to explain first language acquisition, not second language acquisition. Quite a few researchers in this camp doubt that UG (Universal Grammar) is available for second language acquisition. Some of them argue that UG may be available for second language acquisition up to a critical age only (early puberty) after which the plasticity of the brain would put an end to the beneficial workings of UG. We must remember, too, that second language acquisition (SLA) is different from foreign language learning.SLA takes place in a target language environment and provides the learners with plenty of language input in contextually meaningful situations. In contrast foreign language learning takes place under extreme time limits in a first language cultural context and provides comparatively poor environmental conditions for language acquisition.
Because of the reasons just mentioned it is problematic to directly connect nativist theories of language acquisition with new developments in FLT. The truth is, though, that nativist theories have definitely influenced theories on second language acquisition and they have indirectly had an effect on theories and methods in FLT. The perhaps most prominent example of such indirect influences and subterranean cross currents is the ‘comprehensible input hypothesis’ developed by Stephen Krashen. His theory of second language acquisition actually consists of five main hypotheses: 1. the acquisition-learning hypothesis, 2. the monitor hypothesis, 3. the natural order hypothesis, 4. the input hypothesis, and 5. the affective filter hypothesis. His position shares with nativist theories the learning – acquisition dichotomy. The crucial point of his arguments is that grammar acquisition is an unconscious process which cannot really be helped or replaced by the teaching and conscious learning of explicit rules of grammar. What teachers can do to help their learners is make comprehensible the second language input which they provide because learners will find it easier to figure out the rules underlying the production of the input if they understand its meaning.
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