EML504 Language & language development
Module 1 Understanding approaches to TESOL
Overview | Introduction | Skinner | Chomsky | Sociolinguistics | Interactionism | Language and culture | Social learning theory | Module 2

Theories of language  
Chomsky's theory - Psycholinguistics

Twice now you have read a small quotation from Chomsky's reflections on children's aptitude for learning language. He argued that children, well before they go to school, learn language from what he believed to be exposure to language which was often fragmentary and incomplete  (Chomsky in Cashdan et al (eds) 1972:132).  He observed that the children seemed to have an innate ability to learn language, and that what they did was deduce linguistics rules, which they would over generalise on their way to mastery of the language. We have all heard the examples which caught Chomsky's attention, such as 'mouses', 'mices', 'runned' 'digged'; but while we may have just thought these utterances were a rather sweet feature of early childhood language Chomsky postulated they revealed something about the nature of the human mind's structure. His explanatory metaphor, or model, for these patterns in children's language development was the "Language Acquisition Device" (LAD) (McNeill 1972: 146).


The Language Acquisition Device (LAD)

Chomsky's theory was influenced by the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt. Chomsky wrote:

His [von Humboldt's] theory of speech perception supposes a generative system of rules that underlies speech production as well as its interpretation. The system is generative in that it makes infinite use of finite means. He regards a language as a structure of forms and concepts based on arrangement, and organization. But these finite materials can be combined to make a never-ending product (Chomsky in Cashdan et al (eds) 1972:129).
Chomsky also drew on neurophysiological studies of other species, such as studies of the eye structures of cats and the auditory systems of frogs which identified specific "cortical centers" related to cat's eye and frog's ear functions. Chomsky wrote:
These and other studies [of, for example, studies of human infants responses to faces] make it reasonable to inquire into the possibility that complex intellectual structures are determined narrowly by innate mental organization (Chomsky in Cashdan et al (eds) 1972:130).
Chomsky was fascinated by the speed at which most children "acquire" language.  He saw the child's process as "a kind of theory construction". Chomsky argued that the child's language acquisition could only be possible  if humans possess an "innate mental organization" devoted specifically to language. His conclusions are based on:
Linguistic Universals

The "innate mental organization" which Chomsky was to call the "deep grammar" of the language is the basis for all languages. That is, the "innate mental organization" is a universal human inheritance, just the "surface grammar", the syntactic and phonetic structures will be different.

He argued that:

A language involves a set of semantic-phonetic percepts, of sound-meaning correlations, the correlations being determined by the kind of intervening syntactic structures just illustrated [whether, for example, the language is English or Japanese] (Chomsky in Cashdan et al (eds) 1972:131).
Of course, if Chomsky's theory of an innate Language Acquisition /device (LAD) is right, then obviously  it applies to all humans, to all languages, and we must be able to identify linguistic universals (Chomsky in Cashdan et al (eds) 1972:134). The existence, or not,  of "linguistic universals" is an issue in psycholinguistic theory.

There are a number of problems with the idea of language universals (Hockett 1966), nevertheless there are a number of grammatical and phonetic universals which Hockett identifies, a sample of which are listed below:

These "universals of language" would seem to support Chomsky's contention about the innate language structures of the mind. However, there are other explanations of the phenomenon which will be considered later. For example, Whorf (1983 in Hodge (ed.)) argued that linguists find language universals because the language they study "are all Indo-European dialects cut to the same basic plan, being historically transmitted from what was long ago one speech community". Whorf turned to the indigenous North American languages and went so far as to argue that the "noun"- "verb" categories do not always exist. However, there have been more recent studies of languages such as Hopi and Nootka which dispute aspects of Whorf's grammars (Hockett 1963; Pinker 1995). Whorf's arguments were to do with his theory of the relationships between language and culture and the unique features of thought which the each language engendered.



In any case "the innate mental organization" which Chomsky argued made possible the extraordinary language learning achievements of young children are "the system of rules that underlies the normal use of language" (Chomsky in Cashdan et al (eds) 1972:134). As he developed his theory of these underpinning linguistic rules, Chomsky used native speakers' judgements about the grammatical, or non-grammatical nature, of utterances. He tested the existence of grammatical awareness by gathering responses to a small number of grammatical and ungrammatical sentences. The most famous grammatical-ungrammatical pair is:

1.    Colorless green ideas sleep furiously (G)
2.    Furiously sleep ideas green colorless (U) (Hill 1961 in Wilson (Ed) 1967: 281).

According to Chomsky it is possible to deduce the innate linguistic structures of the mind through developing a system of finite rules from which an infinite number of grammatical sentences might be generated. He was searching for rules of transformation. He wrote:

I will consider a language to be a set (finite or infinite) of sentences, each finite in length and constructed out of a (sic) finite sets of elements. All natural languages in their spoken or written form are languages in this sense, since each natural language has a finite number of phonemes...and each sentence is representable  as a finite sequence of these phonemes...though there are infinitely many sentences....The fundamental aim in the linguistic analysis of a language L is to separate the grammatical sequences which are the sentences of  L from the ungrammatical ones. One way to test the adequacy of a grammar proposed for L is to determine whether or not the sentences that it generates are actually grammatical, i.e.,  acceptable to a native speaker (Chomsky 1957 in Wilson (Ed) 1967: 276).  (Emphasis added.)
Generative-Transformational Grammar

Another way of thinking about Chomsky's search is a search for the rules that link what he called "deep structures", or "deep grammar", with which he postulated we are born, and the "surface structures", or "surface grammar" which we use. Chomsky came to the conclusion that there are four simple, declarative, sentences which are the kernel sentences of the grammar. By applying a set of very specific transformational rules to these sentences an infinite number of grammatical sentences might be generated. These transformational rules Chomsky identifies as the grammar of the language.

Thomas explains the "cognitive processes" in the transformations of the kernel sentences:

we must consider his definition of grammar: a grammar is a device for generating the sentences of a language....   
A kernel sentence is "simple, active, declarative" and Chomsky feels that "all other sentences" are derived from kernel sentences by means of "transformations". Roughly, a "transformation" is a rule that either introduces new elements into kernel sentences (e.g., adjectives, negatives), or rearranges the elements of a kernel sentence (e.g., to produce an interrogative sentence), or both (e.g., to produce a passive sentence)...Chomsky's "kernel sentence" bears a strong resemblance to the simple "subject-verb-complement" sentence of traditional grammar. He states that a kernel sentence is composed of a "noun phrase plus a verb phrase." A "noun phrase (symbol: NP) consists simply of an article (T) plus a noun (N), and the presence of the article is optional. A "verb Phrase" (VP) consists of an auxiliary (Aux) plus a main verb (V) plus a noun phrase (and this last "Noun Phrase" is of course similar to the traditional "complement") These transformations...are invariable.   

...to derive a passive sentence, we first need a kernel "string" containing the following elements: a noun phrase (NP), an auxiliary (Aux) a verb (V), and second noun phrase (NP). These might be represented as follows:   

[NP1] + [Aux]+[V]+[NP2]   

To transform this string into a "passive string," the four basic elements are invariably added as follows:   

[NP] + {Aux]  + be + en +[ V] + by +[NP1]   

(The "en" which is added is the so-called "past participle morpheme") (Thomas 1962 in Wilson (Ed) 1967: 197-198).


That is, as Wilson argues:

transformational-generative grammar assumes that within an English sentence, however complex, we can observe a deep structure represented by one or more of a finite list of kernel sentences, all of which are simple and declarative (Wilson in Wilson (Ed) 1967: 275). 
Competence and performance

From the point of view of language teaching pedagogy an major influence of Chomsky's theory derived from its stress on our innate ability to learn language. Lechte writes:

[Chomsky] brought about a reconsideration of language learning by arguing that language competence is not acquired inductively through a behaviourist stimulus-response conditioning, but is the consequence of an innate cognitive capacity possessed by humans  (Lechte 1994 in Bucsescu 1996 Naom Chomsky. (Accessed 19 February 2001) http://pratt.edu/~arch543p/help/Chomsky.html)
This innate ability to generate and recognise grammatical, or "well formed"  sentences Chomsky identified as our linguistic competence. This position was in contrast with Behaviourist learning theories and was to have far reaching effects on language curriculum and syllabus directions. The concept related to competence is performance. Performance, or actual language usage, is the corpus of  material upon which Chomsky based his theory.

That is, language for Chomsky is a cognitive capacity (competence) and usage (performance) is the evidence of that capacity. Chomsky's theory of an innate language learning device (LAD) has had far-reaching, problematic, influences on language teaching practices, however it should be noted that Chomsky did not specify any kind of educational theory. His theory was a philosophical exploration of the relationship between language and the mind, not as a source of thought but as a neurological organisation for cognitive transformations of linguistic structures.


Psycholinguistics - influences on language pedagogy

Negative influences

Ruqaiya Hasan (1999 in Christie (ed) 1999:13) classifies "Chomskian linguistics" as an "endotropic" theory, a theory isolated from others "where language as a mental organ is simply a variety of biological phenomenon having no connection with anything else". Hasan's description is, perhaps, harsh; Chomsky certainly identified a function of "creativity" in the transformational rules which humans use to generate unknown, unheard, grammatical utterances, but his theory remains cognitivist. His data was extremely limited; he did not even spend time studying how parents really interact with their babies and young children, simply because it was not his interest: he was bound by his interest in the "mind" as some kind of organ separate from the person's embodiment as a social being. From Plato onwards in Western thought there has been a discourse which represents the body and the mind as dichotomous. People have written about their body as though they were somewhere else; as though they were a real presence elsewhere. It is very recently that philosophers have grappled with this oddness, and have explained the way language constructs our embodied subjectivities firmly within culturally and socially specific situations (Gatens 1986; Threadgold ed. 1990; Grosz 1994).

But at the time Chomsky's theory had profound influences on language teaching. Perhaps the most dramatic influence can be seen in the removal of explicit grammatical knowledge from language teaching curricula: if children have an innate creative ability to learn the grammatical rules of a language without any explicit teaching of grammatical categories, then such knowledge was thought unnecessary. In NSW that meant twenty years (1974-1994) without the teaching of any kind of metalanguage.

The period of Chomskian influence, is associated with the implementation of a "progressive pedagogy" (Christie 1992; Martin 1993; Rothery 1996; Martin 2000). This is a pedagogy which focuses on the individual, who will learn through immersion in classroom activities, supported by the teacher as guide and facilitator. The child is seen as the possessor of a mental capacity for language acquisition/development, including choices of "expressive" activities. This was the limitation of the "progressive", "process" and "whole language" pedagogies. In spite of the fact that the models acknowledge the importance of "meaning" and "communication" their underlying "nativist" view of learning, which can be traced partly to Chomsky's views of "innate mental organizations",  limit direct teaching of language issues. Furthermore, emphasis on the individual's capacity for language learning hides the potential significance of different social and cultural backgrounds in language learning outcomes.

Rose (2000) identifies the problems of "progressive pedagogies" in indigenous language teaching in Northern Australia with Chomsky's concept of "competence". He describes a "competence" pedagogic model as about "actualizing innate competencies" through "invisible" pedagogic practices. Rose opposes this kind of pedagogy to the one he favours which he classifies as a "performance" pedagogy. This pedagogy emphasises "acquiring skills for text production", it is "visible" and its modes are "vocational/professional". This latter view accords with those of Martin Nakata (Chapter 5 in your text, Cope and Kalantzis 2000).

Chomsky's theory, with its rejection of structuralist linguistics and Behaviourist pedagogies with their narrow emphasis on habit formation and carefully sequenced drill exercises, also encouraged almost phobic judgements of any activity that seemed like a memorisation task. These tasks were generally judged to be rote learning. And yet, as Biggs (1994) suggests of Chinese students, what looks like rote learning might rather be seen as rehearsal for prompt retrieval. There is no way we can learn a second, or other, language without some memorisation facility. While the material of the memorisation needs to be embedded in meaningful language situations the memorisation activities are a shortcut for the multitudinous linguistic experiences from which L1 speakers develop their lexicosyntactic knowledge. As you may know, or shall see in your readings there are many differences between L1 and L2/3... learning.

Positive influences

On the other hand there are some positive applications of psycholinguistics on language teaching pedagogies. One of these applications is to do with drawing the distinction for students between the processes of "learning" and "acquiring" a language (Krashen 1988; Gee 1992). This distinction can be a positive explanation for students who feel frustrated or ashamed of inevitable errors. It can be supportive for students to see "learning" a language as a conscious learning of patterns of the language, across which unconscious "acquisition" processes inevitably take place as their "innate mental organization" extrapolates and applies the grammatical rules of the language, bringing periods marked by specific, and virtually universal, error patterns. In support of this position some research has indicated a number of morphological rules appear to be learnt in a specific order (Nunan 1995: 147). It is possible that the order of acquisition is to do with innate cognitive processing to do with memory constraints and the complexity of the transformation involved, as has been argued is the case in L1 development (Brown and Bellugi 1972: 142-144; Brown 1973: 295-325). Although some of the "findings" may also be to do with the kinds of instruments used in the research (Nunan 1995: 147) "subsequent research has provided substantial evidence that certain grammatical items appear in predetermined sequences" (Nunan 1995: 147).

Such information may support students by showing them that systemic errors are signs of development; the information may also be applied to help them focus upon their particular developmental errors, as a kind of consciousness raising (CR) (Nunan: 1995: 149-151) process.

Furthermore, if transformations are significant, then designing some quick games which require transformational processing can provide useful cognitive activities which also energise classrooms at transition points.


Reading Activity

Please read the following chapter:

It has been selected to: Chapter overview
The chapter:
Functional Systemic Linguistics (SFL) is a powerful tool for supporting