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The genetic blueprint of language
Chomsky's idea of a blueprint being already in our brain, helping us to learn our first language, has been around for a few decades now. There are several examples and evidences to support this theory. However, scientists don't always agree with this idea, and most of these evidences are questioned. The question of the existence of such a blueprint is still open for debate, and several other theories compete to explain how children learn to talk. Here, I'll present some of the evidences that support Chomsky's view, then I'll try to prove that none of them are really conclusive, and finally, I'll introduce some other theories.
During our discussion, Simona said that this blueprint contained only primitive grammar, which was common to all natural languages. This is why adopted children can learn their adoptive parents' language without any extra difficulties, even if they come from different parts of the world.
As an example for Simona's idea of a primitive grammar, I have a friend, with German parents, who was born and raised in the French-speaking part of Canada. He can perfectly talk in English, French or German, and in each language, he has a "native speaker" pronunciation. For me, if the blueprint exists, it cannot be based on a particular language; otherwise my friend would have had troubles learning two out of his three mother tongues, which he didn't.
For Chomsky and the ones who believe in his theory, the blueprint is the only possible explanation for some facts. According to them, the speed and the ease at which a child learns his first language1 cannot be possible without some innate knowledge.
Also, the fact that any child, even the ones with low IQ, can learn his first language implies that this ability doesn't entirely rely on learning and hearing1. As Simona pointed out, this idea that everyone can learn to talk goes back a long time before Chomsky or Putnam. According to Simona, in the 17th century, the French philosopher Descartes already argued, in Simona's word, that "even idiots and otherwise mentally disabled people are able to arrange different words forming statements to express their thoughts".
Still relying on the "What else can it be?" 1, they use the "poverty of stimulus" argument2. The idea of the poverty of the stimulus argument is that there is such a huge difference between the small "primary linguistic data" 2 to which children are exposed and the rich linguistic knowledge they finally have, that the only possible way to explain this is the blueprint.
Simona told us about an experiment conducted in the 1970's. Two groups of 17 months old babies were formed. In the first group, they were shown dolls and told "this is dax". In the second group, they were told "this is a dax". Afterwards, they were told "show dax to mummy" and they had to choose from different dolls. The first group always picked the doll they were shown, while in the second group, they would take any of the dolls, so long as it would look like the one they were shown.
For Simona, this is a proof of the blueprint, as without being explained any grammar, the children could make the difference between a proper noun and a common noun.
In addition of these linguistic arguments, there are also some neurological evidences of such a blueprint in the brain. Vandervert argues that "through hundreds of thousands of years (â€¦) these protocols became hardwired in the brain (â€¦) and establishing a universal grammar3. According to him, the cerebellum and the cerebral cortex work together and added the "speech-loop" in the working memory, in Broca's area.
A study conducted by Maria Cristina Musso4 gives some more evidence about the location of this universal grammar. In this experiment, adult German-speakers were taught a few vocabulary in Italian or Japanese and a set of rules, some related to the universal grammar, some unrelated. The subjects were given sentences, and for each one of them, a brain scan showed that when the sentence used rules from the universal grammar, a specific part of Broca's area was activated, while with sentences that didn't use universal grammar the brain scan showed no activation of this part.
As an example of the importance of this blueprint, Romina told us about feral children. Feral children are children who grew up with very little contact with other human beings or without any contact at all. When they are found and brought back to civilization, they can never learn to talk. For Romina, this is a proof of the universal grammar; as they spent their first years alone or with animals, they never had the chance to talk, thus they lost this ability, and somehow the blueprint disappeared or they were not able to use it anymore.
In my opinion, none of the arguments prove in a definitive way the existence of a universal grammar. With the feral children, I think there are several other possible explanations for them not being able to learn to talk.
First of all, they spent their life in a very hard environment, which may have traumatised them. It may be some mental condition that prevents them from learning to talk.
To explain why feral children cannot talk, one can also use the critical period hypothesis5. In 1959, Wilder first stated this hypothesis: the first early years in a child's life are of the uttermost importance for him to learn his first language. This acquisition can take place if the appropriate stimulus is given to the child. If a child doesn't hear anything after this period, his chances of learning a language are nearly non-existent. Experts are divided on the correctness of this hypothesis and on the age at which this period ends. Lenneberg6 says it ends around the age of 3-5, while Pinker7 says it doesn't end before the age of 6.
For Romina, this is another proof for the universal grammar. However, I beg to differ. I agree that this hypothesis may be in favour of Chomsky's blueprint, but it can also be used to prove the opposite, in particular with recent discoveries concerning our brain's development.
Thompson-Schill, Ramscar and Chrysikou, in a recent study9, state that our prefrontal cortex development is delayed during the first few years of our live. This late development induces a delay in our cognitive control's development, and in turn, this could make convention learning easier and thus, allowing children to learn their first language. Obviously, this can be used to reinforce Chomsky's theory of a blueprint and the critical age hypothesis, as Romina said.
On the other hand, it can also mean that there is no blueprint at all, and that a child learns everything, thanks to this particularity of our brain.
As another example of the existence of this blueprint, Romina said that chimpanzees don't have it, so even if they can be taught words like "banana" or "orange", they cannot understand the meaning of a sentence like "do you want a banana or an orange ?". In the view of this study, only the human beings' brain develops itself in such a way. So if chimpanzees don't understand sentences, it may not be because of a missing blueprint, but because they can't learn convention as easily as human beings can.
Now that we've seen some of the major arguments for Chomsky's blueprint, I'll try to explain why they don't convince me, and how they can be turned around and used to prove just the opposite, in the way that I did for the neurological evidences and the critical period hypothesis.
In his book1, Putnam refutes the arguments used to prove the existence of the blueprint. About the primitive grammar, he says that if it were true, it would imply that language originated from one group of individuals and then spread to all mankind like a virus, like Deacon thinks. This is probably true, but according to Putnam, if the blueprint existed, it should contain more than just a primitive grammar, and common quantifiers, proper nouns or names should have survived and be present in every language.
Concerning the ease of a child to learn, Putnam1 states that it's not as impressive as it looks. For him, "600 hours (â€¦) will enable any adult to speak and read a foreign language with ease". The accent won't be perfect, but it doesn't matter for him. In my opinion, if an adult cannot master a "native speaker" kind of accent, it's not because of the blueprint, but because he has been used to hear particular sounds and to recreate them, so his vocal cords and everything that is used to produce sounds slowly became fixed, and they cannot produce foreign sounds. A Spanish friend of mine never succeeded in saying the sound [y] as in the French word "lune". She could only make the sound [u], like in "mouche".
For the "independence of intelligence level", Putnam1 says that "nine or ten years is enough time to become pretty darn good at anything", thus saying that there is no need for a blueprint. Personally, in light of the study of the prefrontal cortex development9, I would say that brain development is the same for every child, so low IQ or not, any child benefits from it and can learn a first language.
For my part, I don't feel confident with the poverty of stimulus argument. Saying that a blueprint exists "just because there is no other explanation" doesn't suits me at all. Still referring to Thompson-Schill, Ramscar and Chrysikou's study9, and to be personal beliefs, I think that our brain may be able to re-create all the natural rules from the small amount of information it gets, without using any pre-existing knowledge.
In the experiment Simona told us, I disagree with Simona and Romina and I still have doubt about it, especially because of the way the experiment was conducted. First, if the blueprint exists, then this is a good example. But this cannot be use to prove that the blueprint exists. Second, the children have been exposed for 17 months to language. They could have acquired the difference between a proper noun and a common noun before the experiment. In my view, the scientific grounds for this experiment are not sound enough.
For me, this experiment is a "soft version" of the so-called forbidden experiment. This is a language deprivation experiment that has been tried in different times and places to find out if language was innate, and which language the children would speak. For example, Herodotus claims, in his Histories, that such an experiment had been done by an Egyptian pharaoh. According to the monk Salimbene di Adam, in his Chronicles, the Emperor Frederick II also tried in the 13th century. However, it seems that none of these experiments ever succeeded; either the children would hear someone talking, or they would become mute.
Finally, the study of Musso4 may give us evidences about a part of the brain that is activated when we use natural rules, but it doesn't help us to understand how the knowledge got there. It may have been re-created and stored there, thanks to our prefrontal cortex.
Even if Chomsky's idea is quite appealing, in my opinion, the arguments provided are not sufficient to prove it beyond doubt. That's why several other theories exist, like emergentism, where, as Romina said, after listening to some phrases many times, we can use them as templates to form new sentences.
Empiricists say that "nothing is innate, the mind is a 'blank slate'" 2. For them, everything comes through our senses and interactions with the world around us and other people.
To conclude, I would say that I tend to believe Chomsky's theory of a blueprint, even if the scientist inside me thinks that we don't have enough evidence to support this view.
 : Putnam, H. (1967, January). The 'innateness hypothesis' and explanatory models in linguistics. Synthese, 17, 10-22.
 : Laurence, S., & Margolis, E. (2001). The Poverty of the Stimulus Argument. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 52, 217-276.
 : Vandervert, L. (2008). Working Memory, the Cognitive Functions of the Cerebellum and the Child Prodigy . International Handbook on Giftedness (pp. 295-316). Alexandria, VA: Springer Netherlands.
 : Musso, M., Moro, A., Glauche, V., Rijntjes, M., Reichenbach, J., Büchel, C., et al (2003). Broca's area and the language instinct. Nature Neuroscience, 6, 774 - 781.
 : Roberts, L., & Wilder, P. (1981). Speech and Brain Mechanisms. Princeton: Princeton Univ Pr.
 : Lenneberg, E. H. (1984). Biological Foundations of Language. Huntington, New York: Krieger Pub Co.
 : Pinker, S. (2007). The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (P.S.). New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
 : Thompson-Schill, S., Ramscar, M., & Chrysikou, M. (2009) Cognition without control: When a little frontal lobe goes a long way. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 8(5), 259-263