Noam Chomsky's Universal Grammar

Topics: Linguistics, Language acquisition, Second language acquisition Pages: 16 (4415 words) Published: May 25, 2013


Based on the discussion of the validity of Noam Chomsky’s perception of Universal Grammar (UG), some past & current researches which maintain & contest Chomsky’s UG from different areas are represented. The essay focuses on: 1) Chomsky’s Universal Grammar in brief, in Second Language Acquisition (SLA) context; 2) Evidences supporting Chomsky’s UG - views offered by linguists such as Williams and White, etc, to provide arguments to support UG pertaining to first language acquisition and second language acquisition; 3) Evidences refuting Chomsky’s UG - according to Piaget and Haspelmath, etc, based on the insufficient assumption of SLA and also biological evolutions; 4) UG and language teaching;

5) and in the conclusion, I shall add my two-cent worth of perspective as a language teacher.

1) Chomsky’s Universal Grammar in Brief
Universal Grammar is the brainchild of Noam Chomsky, adopting the cognitive approach. Human beings have implicit knowledge of grammar but may not be able to explain how they get this ability. This is because they have no conscious awareness of the processes involved. 1) Universal grammar is a theory of knowledge: It is mainly concern with the internal structure of the human mind, suggesting that the speaker knows a set of principles that apply to all languages, and parameters that vary from one language to another. It makes precise statements about properties of the mind based on specific evidence. It is important to note that the theory attempts to integrate grammar, mind and language at the same time. Chomsky considers UG to be comprised of what he terms “principles” and “parameters.” The term principles refers to highly abstract properties of grammar that underlie the rules of specific languages. Principles are thoughts to constrain the form that grammatical rules can take and they constitute part of a child’s innate knowledge of language. (Ellis, 1987, pgs. 430, 719) While principles function as the pool of possibilities from which a language can draw on in the construction of a grammar, parameters function to set limits on the options available to a specific language. It is differing parameter settings that cause languages to exhibit variations in grammars. 2) Competence and Performance: Chomsky says that native speakers may have grammatical or language competence (implicit/subconscious knowledge) of their native language, and yet be unaware of performance competence, also known as pragmatic competence (knowledge on actual use of language in actual situations). Universal Grammar (UG) is concerned with what someone should know to have both language and performance competencies in a language. Thus, Chomsky’s UG centralises on three main questions: 1. What constitutes knowledge of language? The linguist’s duty is to describe what people know about language. 2. How is such knowledge acquired? The linguist has to discover how people acquire this knowledge. 3. How is such knowledge put to use? The linguist has to see how people use the language knowledge acquired. (1.2a) Question 1: What constitutes knowledge of language? The linguist’s duty is to describe what people know about language. When linguists examine grammatical expressions in English (or any other language), they find that a host of rules about how to utter grammatical sentences are structure dependent and that none are linear. It would be simpler in the sense of the number of steps involved and the calculations required to form grammatical phrases if the rules of human languages were just linear, but in human languages they are not. So, an analysis of what kinds of phrases and sentences are grammatical, and what kinds are not, shows linguists that structure dependency is a principle of universal...
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