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Universal Grammar Revisited

English 169
(Theories of Language and Learning)
M.A. English Language
Xavier University–ATENEO DE CAGAYAN
Maria Luisa Saministrado, Ph.D.
English 169 Professor
A theory of language revisited
Many readers had been puzzled about the so-called Universal Grammar by Noam Chomsky.
This paper aims to discuss the entirety of it by presenting a thoroughly-researched, scholarly
articles and journals that prove that Universal Grammar does exist yet not at all times
consistent in various contexts.
Brief History
Noam Chomsky, a well-known and renowned linguist, during the 1960s has proposed a
revolutionary idea: We are all born with an innate knowledge of grammar that serves as the basis
for all language acquisition. In other words, for humans, language is a basic instinct. The theory,
however, has long been met with widespread criticism — until now. A new study presents
compelling evidence to suggest Chomsky may have been right all along.
The ability to walk upright for long periods of time is distinctly human; it sets us apart from
our closest genetic cousins, the great apes. However, walking is both innate and learned, and
while every human child is born with the underlying mechanisms needed to do so, the skill will
never manifest without proper guidance and examples, Slate reported. In this respect, Chomsky
taught that language is much like walking. Although humans learn by example, he proposed that
we are all born with a fundamental understanding of the underlying mechanisms of language.
Chomsky’s original work, called universal grammar, is the reason why humans can recognize
grammatically correct yet nonsensical phrases, such as “colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”
Past research has shown our ability to distinguish words from nonwords even without an
understanding of the language, is a skill that even non-verbal babies possess. Researchers have
long failed to prove this same instinctual knowledge also exists for grammar.
The most commonly accepted viewpoint on language acquisition suggests humans learn
language by observing and memorizing grammatical cues. This theory posits that our
understanding of language is built solely on experience, not an internal language processing
feature. However, researchers from New York University recently used new technology to prove
Chomsky’s theory may have been factual all along (unlike other scientists thought whose ideas
were ahead of their time).
For one thing, UNIVERSAL GRAMMAR has been defined as the “system of categories,
mechanisms and constraints shared by all human languages and considered to be innate”
(Chomsky, 1986). These are generally thought to include formal universals (principles, i.e., general
statements which specify the constraints on the grammars of human languages, and parameters,
which specify the options for grammatical variation between languages) as well as substantive
universals (e.g., lexical categories and features). There is very little agreement, however, on what
these actually are. Chomsky (1986) sees UG as “an intricate and highly constrained structure”
consisting of “various subsystems of principles.” These include “X-bar theory, binding theory,
Case theory, theta theory, bounding theory and so forth – each containing certain principles with
a limited degree of parametric variation. In addition there are certain overriding principles such as
the projection principle, FI (full interpretation), and the principles of licensing . . . [UG also
contains] certain concepts, such as the concept of domain . . . and the related notions of ccommand and government.” However, every major development in the theory since then was
accompanied by very substantial revisions to the list of proposed universals. Thus the list of UG
principles is quite different when we move to the Barriers period.
Controversy over the nature of the innate endowment for language is an ongoing theme in
the literature on language acquisition. While it might appear that this controversy reflects the
existence of fundamental unresolved issues in the field, the areas of disagreement are more
restricted than initial appearances suggest. In point of fact, there is general agreement that the
acquisition of language is innately guided—this much has been widely acknowledged even by
those opposed to the idea of an innate Universal Grammar (Tomasello, 2003). Absolutely no one
claims that language can be acquired by anything other than a human brain, and there is no
disputing, the fact that congenital neurological pathologies of various sorts can impede the
acquisition and use of language. There is then essential agreement on Chomsky’s observation that
‘every ‘‘theory of learning’’ that is even worth considering incorporates an innateness
hypothesis.’ The debate is over the formulation of that innateness hypothesis—disagreements
over the inborn endowment for language turn on its character, not its existence.
The most basic appeal to innateness involves the need for a ‘vocabulary’ of concepts and
contrasts in terms of which generalizations can be formulated. Gregg (2003) makes the point with
great effectiveness in his sweeping critique of emergentist approaches to second language
acquisition, and the observation is common in the literature on first language acquisition as well.
As Bowerman (1987) puts it, ‘how does the child identify [grammatically relevant] features as
important if they are not present ahead of time?’ Jusczyk (1997) makes a parallel point with
regard to speech perception: Out of all the possible ways in which learners could conceivably
categorize the speech signal, some dimensions are favored, and others are not . . . [Infants] are
counting the right sorts of properties in any distributional analysis that they perform on the input.
Given that, minimally, language involves a relationship between phonetic forms on the one hand
and semantic representations on the other, we can be sure that generalizations about its
workings will have to refer both to phonetic notions (alveolar, voiced, vowel) and to semantic
concepts (plural, definite, stage-level, telic). Moreover, it is hard to imagine an account of the
availability of such concepts and contrasts that would not assume some sort of innate perceptual
system and some sort of innate conceptual system. And indeed a neurobiological contribution in
these areas is very widely accepted, if not always stated. What is open to dispute, however, is the
question of whether and to what extent the innate components of the perceptual and conceptual
systems qualify as instantiations of ‘Universal Grammar.’
Universal Grammar (UG) is the idea that the human ability to use language is derived from
an underlying innate system in the mind for specifically formulating linguistic structure. It is an
idea that has generated a great deal of controversy. The main opposition to this idea of ‘linguistic
nativism’, or Generative Linguistics, comes from Cognitive Linguistics. Cognitive Linguistics
suggests language is grounded in domain-general representational and/or processing capacities,
rather than language-specific ones, though there is huge variation in ideas about how this might
work in practice. Some Cognitive Linguists suggest exposure to statistical language usage
patterns in the environmental stimulus is sufficient to formulate the possible outputs of the
language system arguing, for example, that usage patterns determine the strength of the neural
networks in the brain that are responsible for language, and that language is the product of a
purely real-time set of weights-and-balances that are determined by usage statistics (a ‘stochastic
grammar’). We will see in the course of the current paper, however, that usage patterns alone
cannot account for the nature of human grammar. Meanwhile, other Cognitive Linguists suggest
there are no ‘grammatical’ neural networks, and language is merely an artifact of a combination
of conceptual structure and real-time processing resources such as working-memory, prediction,
and control over the activation and inhibition of information. And still other Cognitive Linguists,
the ‘general nativists’ argue that there is an innate underlying representational system that is not
itself grammatical but from which a representational system for grammar can be formulated.
Vivian Cook in an article that he published entitled “Chomsky's Universal Grammar and
Second Language Learning,” he made several points on the subject matter. Yes, he made the
following points on the published article:
A typical way in to the Chomskyan position is through a simple conundrum: an adult native
speaker of a language knows things he could not have learnt from the samples of speech he has
heard; since this knowledge is not based on his experience of the world, it must come from some
property inside his own mind.
“An adult native speaker of a language knows things he could not have
learnt from the samples of speech he has heard . . . [thus] it must come
from some property inside his own mind.”
- (Baker, 1979)
Cook gave some concrete examples to stress his main points: Take the following two
sentences, 'Is the program that is on television any good?' and 'Is the program that on television is
good?' A speaker of English immediately knows that the first sentence is possible and that the
second is not; he knows in some sense that the 'is' that is shifted to the beginning of a sentence
in a question comes out of the main clause, rather than the subordinate clause.
“But how could he have acquired this piece of knowledge about English?” Cook continues.
Some of the sentences he might have encountered during his life are 'The program is good', "The
program that is on television is good', 'Is the program good?', and so on. None of these shows the
rule being broken; they give him information about what he can say, not about what he can't say.
The rule can be demonstrated to exist only by concocting an ungrammatical sentence that would
never occur in real life, 'Is the program that on television is good?', or by giving a grammatical
analysis. But these are the kinds of information that the child learning his first language precisely
does not have available to him. If native speakers find the sentence ungrammatical, their
judgment must be based on something other than their experience of the world; the remaining
possibility is that it is derived from some property of the human mind that they all share.
A second example from English is the well-known pair, 'John is eager to please' and 'John
is easy to please', taken from the earlier Aspects model;-on the surface the two sentences seem
to have the same structure but, looked at more closely, their underlying structures differ in that
in the first John is claimed to please other people, in the second other people are claimed to
please John. The sentences of English that the speaker has heard may have included 'Mary is
eager', "This is easy', 'Is John eager to please?', and so on, none of which differentiates the two
structures. Conceivably an adult might explain the difference to the child, or some feature of the
particular situation might make it obvious; such accidental and improbable occurrences cannot
explain why children go through the same stages in acquiring 'eager/easy to please' and are
successful at about the same age (Cromer 1970). If the child has not learnt the distinction from
the input, he must have done so from some property of his own mind. Both examples therefore
exploit the same argument, known as 'the poverty of the stimulus', to show that the child knows
things about language he could not have learnt from outside, that important aspects of language
are not strictly speaking learnable.
The language properties inherent in the human mind make up 'Universal Grammar' which
consists, not of particular rules or of a particular grammar, but of a set of general principles that
apply to all grammars and that leave certain parameters open; Universal Grammar sets the limits
within which human languages can vary.
A native speaker of English knows that the sentence 'The train is arriving' is grammatical
but *'arrives the tram' and *'arrives' are not; the native speaker of Spanish knows that not only
is 'el tren llega' (the train arrives) grammatical, but so also are 'ha llegado un tren' (arrives a train)
and 'han llegado' (arrives). One of the parameters that is open in Universal Grammar is the prodrop parameter which is concerned roughly speaking with the relationship of government
between Subjects and Verbs (Chomsky 1981a). English chooses not to have pro-drop; a Subject is
required for every sentence and it cannot be inverted with the verb in declarative sentences.
Spanish, however, is a pro-drop language in which 'empty' Subjects can occur and inversion can
take place, indeed is compulsory in certain circumstances (Green 1976). Hence a particular
grammar amounts to a specification of the ways in which it selects from the different possibilities
inherent in Universal Grammar. 'The grammar of a language can be regarded as a particular set of
values for these parameters, while the overall system of rules, principles, and parameters is UG'.
A partial analogy might be made to the relationship of the European Convention on Human Rights
to laws passed in the UK Houses of Parliament; the Convention does not force particular laws on
the UK, but it establishes certain principles that the actual laws must conform to; it sets
parameters within which the laws can vary.
One way of visualizing Universal Grammar is to see it as part of the brain: 'we may usefully
think of the language faculty, the number faculty, and others as "mental organs" analogous to
the heart or the visual system or the system of motor coordination and planning' (Chomsky 1980).
Consequently, 'learning' is not the right word to describe how language develops.
A bulb becomes a flower; some cells become a lung. We do not say that the bulb 'learns'
to be a flower or the cells 'learn' to be a lung, although in both cases certain aspects of the
environment such as water and nourishment are necessary to the process. Instead we say the
bulb and the cells 'grow'. Their growth is the realization of their genetic potential in conjunction
with 'triggers' from the environment, the achievement of something that was within them from
the start. Why then do we say that the child 'learns' language rather than language 'grows'?
Universal Grammar present in the child's mind grows into the adult's knowledge of the language
so long as certain environmental 'triggers' are provided; it is not learnt in the same way that, say,
riding a bicycle or playing the guitar are learnt: 'a central part of what we call "learning" is actually
better understood as the growth of cognitive structures along an internally directed course under
the triggering and potentially shaping effect of the environment' (Chomsky, 1980). Language
acquisition is the growth of the mental organ of language triggered by certain language
experiences. Hence the theory of Universal Grammar is frequently referred to as part of biology.
Indeed the theory is not dissimilar from ideas current in biology on other issues, for instance the
view that 'Embryogenesis may then be seen as the progressive, orderly manifestation of the
knowledge which is latent in the egg' (Goodwin, 1976).
So, to acquire language, the child needs not only Universal Grammar but also evidence
about a particular language; he needs to hear sentences of English to know how to fix the
parameter for the order of Verb, Subject, and Object. The evidence he encounters can be positive
or negative (Chomsky 1981). Positive evidence consists of actual sentences of a language; by
hearing 'The cow jumped over the moon' or 'Johnny loves cabbages', the child learns that English
has Subject-Verb-Object order. Negative evidence falls into two categories, direct and indirect.
Direct negative evidence consists of corrections of the child's mistakes by adults: 'You mustn't
say "you was", Jimmy, you must say "you were" '. Indirect negative evidence is provided by the
non-occurrence of something in the language the child hears; the fact he never hears SubjectObject-Verb order is negative evidence that English is a Subject-Verb-Object language.
First language acquisition relies chiefly on positive evidence; the child apparently receives little
direct negative evidence in the form of correction of syntax (Brown and Hanlon, 1970). The few
corrections that occur are largely about dialectal or socially stigmatized forms or socially
prescribed politeness formulas, a small fraction of English. The importance of indirect negative
evidence is difficult to assess, since it is clearly impossible to specify everything that the child
doesn't hear. Its value, however, depends upon the child already having certain expectations
about language that are not fulfilled, in other words it presupposes a Universal Grammar in the
child's mind. The whole of Universal Grammar does not manifest itself in the child's speech at the
same time. Language principles that apply to long or complex sentences are needed only when
the child has the capacity actually to produce them; the parameters for SVO order, for example,
cannot apply when the child says only one word at a time. Although language is a separate mental
organ, its development is influenced by other organs. While the claim that cognitive level and
short-term memory capacity limit the type of structure that may be employed has always been
part of the theory, the version current in the 1960s was sometimes interpreted as claiming that
the child's first sentences are closer to Universal Grammar; McNeill, in a typical remark, said,
though with qualifications, 'Early speech is supposedly free of transformations and therefore
should be a direct manifestation of children's capacities.' (McNeill, 1970). In the theory, however,
the language principles that are present manifest themselves in accordance with the child's
capacity to process information, and other maturational factors; the child cannot reveal all he
knows about language, because of his other limitations. A distinction may be drawn between
development—the real-time learning of language by children—and acquisition—language
learning unaffected by maturation, sometimes called the instantaneous acquisition model
(Chomsky, 1965 & Pinker, 1981). Sequence of development reveals more about other cognitive
systems than about language acquisition: 'suppose it is a fact that children generally acquire the
use of simple one-clause structures before compound sentences; there is no reason to assume
that this fact must follow from some particular principle of the theory of grammar, as opposed,
let us say, to some property of perceptual maturation or the developing short-term memory
system' (Hornstein & Lightfoot, 1981). So far as acquisition is concerned, the inter-developing
grammars of the child are irrelevant. It is an open question in terms of development whether the
child starts with all the principles of Universal Grammar available, or whether they gradually
unfold as part of maturation: evidence to distinguish principles that are present but cannot be
revealed from those that are absent is hard to conceive.
The relevance of the theory to L2 learning depends not so much on the uncertain analogy
to LI learning as on the original conundrum of the poverty of the stimulus: how can a speaker of
a second language know things he could not have learnt from the language he has encountered?
In other words, if the L2 speaker knows that Is the program that on television is good?' (same as
Cook’s example) is ungrammatical, and if the knowledge is not demonstrably derived from
experience, it must originate within his own mind. While no research has investigated L2 learners'
judgments of such sentences, the other example used above, 'easy/eager to please', has been
looked at by Tucker (1975) and Cook (1973), who found that L2 learners are indeed able to
distinguish the two structures after they have been learning English for a certain period of time.
In this instance the knowledge is not likely to be drawn from experience, since on the one hand
'easy/eager to please' has not figured in teaching syllabuses, structural exercises, or pedagogical
grammars, and on the other it is improbable that native speakers have demonstrated it to the L2
learner. The answer to the conundrum is once again that the L2 learner's knowledge derives from
some property of the mind. However, while the conclusion is the same as in first language
acquisition, it may have a different explanation, in as much as the minds of L2 learners or the
situations have different properties.
The most obviously different property is that the L2 learner possesses a grammar of a first
language incorporating the principles of Universal Grammar and specifying a particular set of
values for its parameters. Two possibilities for L2 learning need to be considered: the learner
might have access to Universal Grammar either directly or indirectly through the first language.
In a way this rephrases the debate about the relationship of first and second language learning—
whether L2 learners start from scratch, or depend upon their first language; while the dust has
never settled on this dispute, one position is that L2 learning is like LI learning when situational
and cognitive factors are ruled out (Cook 1977).
The apparent discrepancies are caused either by accidental or necessary differences in the
situations, or by non-linguistic differences in the learners' minds, rather than by anything in the
language process itself. So far as the principles of Universal Grammar are concerned, the question
amounts to asking whether L2 grammars are constrained in the same way as LI grammars.
Schmidt showed that a group of L2 learners of English produced only natural surface orders such
as 'John sang a song and played the guitar' or 'John plays the. guitar and Mary the piano', rather
than unnatural orders such as 'Sang a song and John plays guitar' or 'John the violin and Mary plays
the piano', thus obeying the principle that only the second identical noun or verb may be omitted
from the sentence (Schmidt 1980). Ritchie found that adult learners of English correctly judged
sentences such as "That a boat had sunk that John had built was obvious' grammatical, and
sentences such as 'That a boat had sunk was obvious that John had built' ungrammatical (Ritchie
1978), demonstrating that they still had access to a principle of Universal Grammar called the Right
Roof Constraint (reformulated slightly differently in the present theory) that elements that are
moved in the sentence must not cross certain types of boundary.
The notion of parameter-fixing can formulate the relationship between first and second
language learning in a more precise way. To take a specific example, if Universal Grammar is
directly accessible to the L2 learner, it should not affect a Spanish learner of English that the two
languages have fixed the pro-drop parameter differently; lie simply needs the proper triggers to
fix it anew. However, if it is not directly accessible, he can approach English only through the value
of the parameter for Spanish. The question of whether L2 learning recapitulates LI learning can
be narrowed down to considering whether L2 learners' grammars reflect the principles of
Universal Grammar, and whether parameters are still free to be fixed in a second language from
triggering evidence.
An overall conclusion for L2 learning research is that development is not necessarily
reliable evidence for acquisition in a second language: the L2 sequence of development may
reflect the re-establishing of 'channel capacity' for using the language, rather than language
acquisition per se. Statements about sheer order of acquisition need support from accounts of
the interrelationship between development, channel capacity, and other cognitive processes,
before they can be considered valid for L2 acquisition or compared to LI acquisition. Hence the
discovery of a common acquisition sequence for L2 learners, which has been hailed as 'surely one
of the most exciting and significant outcomes of the last decade of second language acquisition
research' (Burt and Dulay 1980: 325), must be seen as a first step in the description of
development (and incidentally based largely on the presence or absence of a few surface
syntactic features, rather than on underlying linguistic principles); it can say little about acquisition
until the order has been shown to be the product of language acquisition itself, rather than
channel capacity. The fact that L2 learners use simple one-clause sentences before complex
sentences, or plural V before possessive V, or interpret 'eager/easy to please' initially as the same
structure tells us more about L2 development than about L2 acquisition, without further
A related question is the concept of markedness in L2 learning, reviewed in Rutherford
(1982). Within the current theory, unmarked aspects of grammar are those that are directly
related to Universal Grammar and form the 'core'; marked aspects are less directly related to
Universal Grammar and form 'peripheral' grammar; thus markedness reflects the degree to which
something is related to Universal Grammar, and consequently the degree to which it is learnable
by the child from inbuilt principles. One use of markedness within L2 research has been in
connection with the Accessibility Hierarchy (Keenan 1972), which postulates a continuum going
from rules that are most accessible and hence most widespread in human languages and most
easily learnt, to those that are least accessible, found more rarely- in the world's languages, and
learnt with more difficulty. The most often cited example is relative clauses; clauses based on a
Subject relationship, e.g. "The man who came in is English', are more accessible than those based
on, say, an Object-of-Comparison relationship, e.g. "The boy that I am fitter than is leaving".
Eckmann (1977) argues that a comparison of the target and mother languages predicts
that learners should find the most difficulty with those aspects of the L2 that are more marked in
terms of accessibility than the L1. Cook (1975) found certain similarities to the Accessibility
Hierarchy in L1 and L2 learners of English, as did Gass (1979), although some differences emerged.
The acquisition of relative clauses has also been studied within the framework of the present
theory by Liceras (1981) in terms of the markedness of 'filters', and by Flynn (1983) in terms of the
'right branching principle'.
It is unclear precisely how the Accessibility Hierarchy is to be handled within the present
theory; it could be interpreted as a continuum from unmarked core grammar to marked
peripheral grammar. The evidence of Eckmann (1977) and Gass (1979) none the less suggests that
the L2 learner operates with a concept of markedness based on closeness to the principles of
Universal Grammar. White has developed this notion in terms of the relative markedness of
different settings of a parameter (White 1983). Her example is the comparative restrictiveness of
movement rules in English compared to French (technically S is a bounding category in English,
but not French); the English setting for the parameter is less marked. Consequently French
learners of English are likely to have particular problems with movement in English, since they are
moving from a language with a more marked setting to one with a less marked. It should be
pointed out, however, that markedness is used in other senses to the one found here, to refer to
grammatical complexity, for example, as in some of the sources cited by Rutherford (1982), or to
preferences for particular meanings of words, as in Kellerman (1979). Also the present theory
does not assume that markedness is directly reflected in order of development, even if this
additional assumption is made by many first and second language researchers. Though there is
some plausibility in feeling that 'natural' unmarked forms should be learnt before those that are
'unnatural' and marked, features of channel capacity, etc., distort the sequence. However crucial
to acquisition, the actual sequence of development disguises markedness in many ways.
The theory has clear implications for the notion of 'interlanguage' in L2 learning research
(Selinker 1972)—the assumption that the L2 learner has a grammar of his own that is systematic
in its own terms and that is distinct from both the first and the second languages. We have seen
earlier that one interpretation of the theory is that not only the final grammar of competence is
governed by Universal Grammar, but also all the interim grammars that the child goes through en
route to adult competence (White 1982). Consequently, interlanguage as a human language must
fit in with Universal Grammar. The studies by Schmidt (1980) and Ritchie (1978) show that
interlanguages reflect principles of surface order and of movement, and hence demonstrate their
subjection to Universal Grammar.
Interlanguages should be considered no more deviant than ordinary grammars; they too
are based on the properties of the human mind. Error Analysis based on the interlanguage
hypothesis has therefore two new factors to take into account: one that interlanguages
incorporate universal principles, the other that errors may be the result of channel capacity rather
than of acquisition per se. One conceptual problem, however, is that L2 learning is seldom
complete, in that few learners ever approximate to native competence; all their grammars are
interlanguages. Hence the instantaneous acquisition model is difficult to apply, because there is
no settled final competence, no 'steady state' grammar.
The concept of L2 learning as hypothesis testing is fundamentally affected by the theory.
It has often been suggested that L2 learning is a process in which the learner creates interim
guesses about the language which he tries out to see whether they are right or wrong and
reformulates them if necessary (Cook 1969); Ellis claims 'The principal tenet of IL theory, that the
learner constructs for himself a series of hypotheses about the grammar of the language and
consciously or unconsciously tests these out in formal or informal learning contexts, has
withstood the test of both speculation and considerable empirical research' (Ellis 1982). The
arguments against hypothesis testing that were raised earlier are equally true of L2 learning. In
the natural environment, or a classroom that simulates a natural environment, the learner
encounters only positive evidence, and does not get enough negative evidence to confirm or
disconfirm his hypotheses.
'Natural' L2 learning cannot therefore consist of hypothesis testing in the sense in which
hypotheses are checked against external feedback; the same argument holds. On the other hand,
the learner in a classroom or other artificial setting may receive direct negative evidence or have
access to explanatory data; he might therefore receive enough non-primary evidence for
hypothesis testing to be feasible. But this leads to an odd paradox: hypothesis testing by feedback
has usually been claimed to be the 'natural' informal way of learning a second language, the
provision of correction and explanation an 'unnatural' formal way. Hence L2 learning research has
to be cautious in its support of hypothesis testing. It is acceptable only in the sense that the
learner checks positive evidence against the limited set of hypotheses provided by his Universal
The role of Contrastive Analysis is also very different in the theory. Rather than being
compared directly, two languages may be compared indirectly through the ways in which they
embody the same linguistic principle while fixing parameters differently. Thus English is related
to German through the slightly different ways in which it fixes sentence order. Structural
comparison is a matter not of actual rules, but of the way in which the rules exploit the same
underlying resources. The concept of core and periphery implies that this type of comparison
must be supplemented by an account of how the two grammars deviate from core grammar for
whatever reason. Thus, while English and French can be found to be similar in terms of the core
parameter of sentence order, the account of their relationship also needs to take in the more
peripheral rule that auxiliaries precede the Subject in certain types of question. At the core, the
theory provides a common measuring stick for two grammars; as we move to the periphery, the
stick becomes less appropriate and more attention has to be paid to other factors than Universal
Grammar. A further relevant point is the distinction between development and acquisition;
classical CA compared the two final steady-state grammars, i.e. was about acquisition. As Zobl has
suggested, it may be fruitful to relate CA instead to development; 'it is paramount that the role of
prior LI knowledge be conceptualised as a variable which may introduce variation into a
developmental sequence' (Zobl 1982).
To sum up, the hypothetical picture of L2 learning that emerges is that the learner
contributes a set of language principles and unfixed parameters; the evidence he encounters
enables him to fix the parameters into a new grammar. While his first language affects his
acquisition, it cannot help him acquire those parts of grammar that vary from one language to
another. He also encounters evidence that does not fit Universal Grammar, for which he has to
adopt more marked solutions. His environment, though different from the LI child's in some
respects and subject to greater variation, does not provide him with any way out of the problem
of the poverty of the stimulus. Because of his greater maturity, he does not have the same
restrictions as the native child; in terms of cognitive level, but not of channel capacity, his
development shows acquisition more closely than first language acquisition. How could this
position be shown to be correct? One simple test is to see if the L2 learner knows rules he could
not have learnt from the environment and that could not have been mediated through the first
language, such as 'eager/easy to please'. Another is to show that interlanguages always reflect
Universal Grammar, as Ritchie and Schmidt suggest. A third is to see whether L2 development
shows characteristic differences from LI development so far as the absence of maturation is
concerned, as argued in Gass and Ard (1980). But far more detailed and wide-ranging research is
needed to show that there is real substance to this picture. Even if it is rejected, L2 learning
research still has to defend its use of the concepts of hypothesis testing, sequence of
development, and interlanguage, which are no longer compatible with the theory of Universal
Grammar, either by severing its links with first language acquisition theory or by rethinking its
ideas accordingly.
At the moment a long and treacherous route connects the theory with language teaching.
On the negative side it removes some of the justifications for language teaching techniques
claimed to be derived from earlier versions of the theory. It has often been suggested that
students should be actively encouraged to try out their interim hypotheses in teaching situations
so that they can use feedback to determine whether they are right (Cook 1969). Communication
games, for example, have been justified on the grounds that they put the learner in a
communicative situation where he gets instant feedback. Allwright (1977) argues that 'The
success or failure of successive attempts to communicate in such tasks provides automatically
"cues" and simple knowledge of results from which the learners can infer the characteristics of
the target language.' Such teaching techniques are not supported by the interpretation of
hypothesis testing put forward here, even if they are desirable for other reasons. The new version
also is not sympathetic towards the primacy of communication in language learning, one of the
tenets of communicative methodology. In many ways the current theory seems closer to the
humanistic trend in language teaching, with its emphasis on the value of the foreign language to
the student's multi-faceted personal growth as described in Stevick (1980). The role attributed to
the environment is also very different from that assumed in recent language teaching which has
emphasized the importance of the language the students hear, whether in terms of the syllabus,
the types of activity carried out in the classroom, or the provision of meaningful input; in the
theory the environment only provides triggers.
Language teaching too might try exploring the possibility of providing triggering evidence.
A while ago Newmark and Reibel argued that the learner should be allowed to apply the language
principles in his mind without interference from the teacher. Chomsky himself wrote that 'we
should probably try to create a rich linguistic environment for the intuitive heuristics that the
normal human being automatically possesses'. The discovery of some, if not all, of the principles
and parameters of Universal Grammar means modifying the Newmark and Reibel argument,
since, if we are no longer ignorant, we could provide appropriate triggers for them to function;
the learner's task might be expedited by meeting the right evidence at the right moment.
As the sequence of L2 development depends partly upon channel capacity, the evidence
must show how the parameters are fixed and how they may be encountered at the time when
such factors as STM capacity are able to cope. Keith Nelson has described an approach for
accelerating first language acquisition based on 'rare event' learning (Nelson 1982); first he
assesses whether a child is 'ready' to learn a particular structure, then he provides examples of it
over a short period; triggering experience when the time is ripe teaches the child the structure.
Similarly the prototype theory of categorization suggests that there are 'best' examples of
categories; a robin is a 'better' example of a bird than an ostrich (Rosch 1977). An L2 learner might
then be presented with best-example sentences for which he is 'ready', to hasten the operation
of Universal Grammar. Perhaps, for instance, the L2 learner of English needs to hear enough
sentences early on to fix in his mind the fact that English is an SVO language. Paradoxically a
theory firmly based on the inherent powers of the mind can come full circle to the effects of the
environment on learning; the existence of a particular parameter of variation triggered by the
environment suggests that the timing and nature of the trigger affect its acquisition, other things
being equal.
Generally, the relationship between the theory of Universal Grammar and L2 learning has
well been highlighted. Feyerabend (1975) has suggested that science should simultaneously
explore several alternatives, rather than confining itself to a single dominant model at a time:
'pluralism of theories and of metaphysical views is not only important for methodology, it is also
an essential part of a humanitarian outlook'. It has not been argued here that Chomsky's theory
of Universal Grammar is uniquely important for L2 learning, but that it is an alternative that
applied linguists should evaluate for themselves rather than reject out of hand. A recent
characteristic of applied linguistics has been its disassociation from contemporary theoretical
linguistics; a bare handful of articles have attempted to relate the Chomskyan position to applied
linguistics. It would be dangerous if this attitude precluded the applied linguist from suspending
his disbelief long enough to investigate what is happening in linguistics, even if after a closer look
he decides it is not for him.
Chomsky continues to believe that language is “pre-organized” in some way or other
within the neuronal structure of the human brain, and that the environment only shapes the
contours of this network into a particular language. His approach thus remains radically opposed
to that of Skinner or Piaget, for whom language is constructed solely through simple interaction
with the environment. This latter, behaviorist model, in which the acquisition of language is
nothing but a by-product of general cognitive development based on sensorimotor interaction
with the world, would appear to have been abandoned as the result of Chomsky’s theories.
Since Chomsky first advanced these theories, however, evolutionary biologists have
undermined them with the proposition that it may be only the brain’s general abilities that are
“pre-organized”. These biologists believe that to try to understand language, we must approach
it not from the standpoint of syntax, but rather from that of evolution and the biological
structures that have resulted from it. According to Philip Lieberman, for example, language is not
an instinct encoded in the cortical networks of a “language organ,” but rather a learned skill based
on a “functional language system” distributed across numerous cortical and subcortical
Lieberman, though, does recognize that human language is by far the most sophisticated
form of animal communication, he does not believe that it is a qualitatively different form, as
Chomsky claims. Lieberman sees no need to posit a quantum leap in evolution or a specific area
of the brain that would have been the seat of this innovation. On the contrary, he says that
language can be described as a neurological system composed of several separate functional
For Lieberman and other authors, such as Terrence Deacon, it is the neural circuits of this
system, and not some “language organ,” that constitute a genetically predetermined set that
limits the possible characteristics of a language. In other words, these authors believe that our
ancestors invented modes of communication that were compatible with the brain’s natural
abilities. And the constraints inherent in these natural abilities would then have manifested
themselves in the universal structures of language.
Another approach that offers an alternative to Chomsky’s universal grammar is generative
semantics, developed by linguist George Lakoff of the University of California at Berkeley. In
contrast to Chomsky, for whom syntax is independent of such things as meaning, context,
knowledge, and memory, Lakoff shows that semantics, context, and other factors can come into
play in the rules that govern syntax. In addition, metaphor, which earlier authors saw as a simple
linguistic device, becomes for Lakoff a conceptual construct that is essential and central to the
development of thought.
Lastly, even among those authors who embrace Chomsky’s universal grammar, there are
various conflicting positions, in particular about how this universal grammar may have emerged.
Steven Pinker, for instance, takes an adaptationist position that departs considerably from the
exaptation thesis proposed by Chomsky.
The Universal Grammar theory as proposed by Noam Chomsky has been reflected to in
this essay. With all the technicalities and the propositions herein presented, it can rightly be
concluded that the said theory has contributed much in many quests for language learning
especially that of learning the second language. In any case, Universal Grammar has become one
of the world’s foundations in terms of language development. It has become the basis of scholars
or linguists in the pursuit of finding answers as to how L1, L2, or even L3 of a person plays a role
in his language development. Yes, there are many controversies surrounding the theory yet there
is a “truth” in this theory.
Ellis, R. (1982). 'The origins of interlanguage.' Applied Linguistics 3: 207-23.
Feyerabend, P. (1975). Against Method. London: Verso.
Flynn, S. (1983). 'Similarities and differences between first and second language acquisition: setting the
parameters of Universal Grammar' in D. R. Rogers & J. A. Sloboda (eds.). Acquisition of Symbolic
Skills. New York: Plenum.
Krashen, S. 1981. Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon.
McNeill, D. 1970. 'The capacity for the ontogenesis of grammar' in D. Slobin (ed.). The Ontogenesis of
Grammar. New York: Academic Press.
Nelson, K. 1982. 'Toward a rare-event cognitive comparison theory of syntax acquisition' in P. Dale and D.
Ingram (eds.). Child Language: An International Perspective. University Park Press.
VanPatten, B. (2007). Input Processing in Adult Second Language Acquisition. Theories in second language
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