Noam Chomsky’s theory of language development
How do children acquire language? Chomsky explains it through “Universal Grammar.”
Language development: programmed for speech?
According to Noam Chomsky’s research, children are born with an innate ability to speak . They are able to learn and assimilate communicative and linguistic structures. Thanks to the Universal Grammar Theory , Chomsky proposed a new paradigm in language development. According to their postulates, all languages that we use human beings have common characteristics in their own structure.
From this evidence, Professor Chomsky deduces that the acquisition of language during childhood can occur thanks to the ability of human beings to recognize and assimilate the basic structure of language , a structure that constitutes the essential root of any language.
The Universal Grammar
The theory of language development during childhood that Noam Chomsky enunciated is based on a controversial precept: “Human language is the product of deciphering a program determined by our genes.” This position clashes diametrically with the environmentalist theories of development, which emphasize the role of the influence of the environment on the individual and the ability of the environment to adapt to the different contexts that they live.
In addition, Chomsky states that children have the innate ability to understand the grammar of language , which they develop through their experiences and learning. regardless of family or cultural context. To designate this innate artifact to understand grammar, Chomsky uses the term “Universal Grammar”, common in all language systems known to date.
Plasticity to acquire language
It is well known that, during childhood, there is a “critical” period during which it is easier for us to learn the language . This period of greater cerebral plasticity during which we are a sponge for languages goes from birth to pre-adolescence.
Chomsky, through his review of the work of German linguist and neurologist Eric Lenneberg , emphasizes that children go through a stage of what he calls “linguistic alert.” During this key period, the understanding and learning ability of new languages is greater compared to other vital stages. In the words of Chomsky himself, “We all go through a specific maturation period in which, thanks to the appropriate external stimuli, our ability to speak a language will develop rapidly.”
Therefore, children who are taught several languages during their childhood and preadolescence will surely be able to correctly acquire the basis of these languages . This does not happen with adults, since their plasticity, their ability to acquire languages is no longer in such good shape.
How does language acquisition occur?
According to Noam Chomsky’s theory, the process of language acquisition only occurs if the child deduces the implicit norms of language, such as the notions of syntactic or grammar structure.
In order for us to be able to develop and learn language during childhood , Chomsky argued that we all have a “language acquisition device” in our brain . The hypothesis of the existence of this device would enable us to learn the norms and recurrences that constitute language. Over the years, Noam Chomsky was revising his theory and included the analysis of several guiding principles of language, in relation to the acquisition of it during childhood.
These principles, such as the existence of grammar and various syntactic rules, are common to all languages. Instead, there are other elements that vary depending on the language we study.
The learning process and the evolution of language
As Chomsky explains, human language allows us to express countless ideas, information and emotions . Consequently, language is a social construction that does not stop evolving. Society is setting the guidelines on the common norms and uses of language, both in its oral and written versions.
In fact, it is very common for children to use language in a very particular way: mixing concepts, inventing words, distorting others, building sentences in their own way … Little by little, your brain assimilates the rules and recurrences of language, committing each fewer errors and using the wide range of artifacts that language gives them.
Criticisms and controversies around Chomsky’s theory
The theory of Universal Grammar formulated by Noam Chomsky does not have unanimity within the scientific and academic community . In fact, it is an idea that, although it had a strong impact on the study of language acquisition, is considered surpassed, and Chomsky himself has changed his position in this regard. Critical currents argue that, with the idea of Universal Grammar, Chomsky made a mistake in his postulates: overgeneralization.
The sectors that have most questioned Chomsky’s theory reject the postulate of the language acquisition device because, they argue, it does not have any empirical support. Other scholars have criticized the theory of the American linguist for his excessive innatism , and therefore for not sufficiently picking up environmental factors in language acquisition.
These criticisms have caused Chomsky to review and modify some aspects of his postulates over the years, while adding new evidence and complementary aspects to this body of knowledge.