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Language Acquisition Accounts By Chomsky And Tomasello English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 4209 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Language acquisition is established as a practice by which the language capability develops in human beings. There is also a distinction between First Language Acquisition, also called L1 Acquisition, which concerns the development of language in children, with Second Language Acquisition, also called L2 Acquisition, which focuses on language development in adults. Linguists have so far noticed that languages are complex phenomena, in a state of constant flux and full of ambiguity. Linguists generally agree that language acquisition is an astonishing phenomenon only in ownership of human beings among all other creatures. Knowledge processes as well as linguistic forms originate, develop or emerge in the learner’s mind. The linguistic forms consist of rules of grammar and the process often involves making errors in developmental stages but no error can stop this miracle and human infants develop a language that ultimately make sense. Although language learning can happen with formal instruction, especially as a second or additional language, language acquisition is often a subconscious process and the individual learner is not aware of. Language acquisition is the term used for the first language people learn in life but can be used as a cover term for both first and second language. We all know that perception of any gradual process as it is happening is difficult. When the linguistic knowledge is acquired, the acquirer does not realise that he or she possesses any new knowledge. Self awareness in adults may be stronger but children can undergo acquisition of their native language without such awareness, yet with an amazing ability. Acquisition is only possible with meaningful interaction in the target language during which the acquirer is focused on meaning on top of all forms but there is not sufficient interaction in children’s world to justify their great later productions. A question which has puzzled language acquisition researchers is precisely this, whether this capability originates from an initial capacity or only emerges like other human cognitive processes. There are other questions as well, though not central, which conceptualise language acquisition. For instance, language acquisition could also be the product of genuine interactions between people where the learner is actively engaging with others. It is applicable to the way children learn their native tongue, a procedure that brings about language skills in spoken form without presupposing any theoretical knowledge. This learning develops a degree of self esteem in the learner which is an important psychological factor explaining excellent learning outcomes. The explanations for this phenomenon do not stop there, but among all accounts, the accounts proposed by Tomasello and Chomsky, are the focus of the present article in which they happen to be in sharp contrast with each other in many aspects. Before embarking on the criticism, a clear view of the background of theories in language acquisition is necessary which then paves the way to immerse into a critical evaluation. A point to note is that this paper takes acquisition as a natural process as opposed to learning in the classroom.

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Background to Chomsky’s Account of Language Acquisition

The explanation for the language acquisition at the time when Chomsky was in early years of his career was around forming habits. This did not satisfy him but nobody knew that observations like what follows would make Chomsky to start a revolution in linguistics. It is logical to assume that having a partial input in the language does not guarantee an effortless productive ability and fluent communication skills. Children pick up formulas and exceptions but their language will only make sense when they have developed a concrete control of language. In language use where the primary goal is interaction among people, each user selects their own route of conveying a message which is not necessarily shared with the other person’s experience of language acquisition. All this said, it is puzzling that the course of communication runs smoothly, without any problem that cannot be rectified.

We are now in the second century of serious debate to answer the puzzle above. Chomsky (1957, 1975) decisively and sharply divided from theories of Skinner (1957, 1989) that explain language as habit formation. At the beginning, the emphasis between nature and nurture as the most explanatory factor for acquisition polarised linguists and Chomsky’s (1957) response to Skinner began an era of serious thinking and debates on the issue. Chomsky’s innovation in explaining language capacity as a biological endowment highlights capacities specific to human language acquisition, often referred to as Universal Grammar. For fifty years Chomsky and other linguists have argued strongly for the hypothesis that children have innate linguistic abilities that facilitate and constrain language learning.

Chomsky is undoubtedly regarded as a pioneer linguist who influenced linguistics and raised its profile. He originally proposed the idea that children have innate tendency for language acquisition and forwarded it in later works (Chomsky 1957, 1965, 1975, 1995). He also proposed that children are born with a language acquisition device (LAD) built in the brain. He later developed the idea of Universal Grammar (UG), a set of fixed principles and flexible parameters that explain what is common to all human languages. UG is Chomsky’s solution to that puzzle which allows children to infer the complex structure of their native language from limited experience of it.

Background to Tomasello’s Account of Language Acquisition

More recently, in light of new evidence from research which has different assumptions, the researchers like Snow (1977) and Tomasello (2005) have hypothesized that language learning results only from general cognitive abilities and interaction between learners and their surrounding communities. A basic example to begin with is the way these two authors view acquiring word order in language. What may rule out the need for generative grammars is learning word order as a lexical task rather than a syntactic task. Knowledge of a basic word order is one of the major tasks during early language acquisition in young learners. They demonstrate this skill from their earliest multiword utterances (Brown, 1973; Guasti, 2002). This apparently structural property of acquiring mother tongue is what Tomasello considers a lexical property. In fact, two major views about acquisition of word order are the generative and constructivist – lexicalist models. The former view is associated with Chomsky and the latter is developed by Tomasello (2000) who holds that word order is learnt from frequently encountered examples in the input. According to this view, young learners are sensitive to repeated incidence of utterances in the language they hear and drawing on their understanding, they produce constructions derived from this. For instance, from frequent occurrences of Can you see…?, Can you go…?, Can you eat…?, the infant might construct the frame Can you X…?, where X can be substituted with certain verbs in this case. Thus, young learners in this respect have no general and abstract representations of syntactic structure, including word order. Instead, their knowledge is related to a set of speci¬c lexical items. Thus, this view implies that learning word order continue together with or after acquiring an initial lexicon, but not certainly before that.

Development of Chomskyan models through time

This section is warranted as Chomsky, who is very active in making theories, modified his views over the course of his six decades of writing. Although Chomsky has been steadfast in his original ideas to explain the logical problem of language acquisition, he has developed, refreshed and changed his methodology and models to achieve that. Important Chomskyan models are Transformational Grammar closely associated with arguments in Syntactic Structures (1957), and the Standard theory in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965), Government and Binding Theory with Lectures on Government and Binding (1981), as well as Minimalism with the Minimalist Program (1995). Lack of space and difference of focus in this article is enough reason to suffice to just have a glimpse at them. A synopsis of the theoretical implications of Syntactic Structures can be described in this manner: a set of phrase structure rules produces a few underlying phrase markers, which in turn produces the input for a set of transformations to apply to. Shapes of phrase markers change and morphological and phonemic rules complete the picture like spirit for the structural body. Phrase structure rules turn the sentence into constituents and transform new strings (Chomsky 1957). Moreover, the application order for these transformations is explained in a way to let access later rules access the output of earlier rules.

The model that came to be known as the Standard Theory was originated in Chomsky’s work known as Aspects of the Theory of Syntax in 1965. Generative grammar was defined as “a system of rules that assigns structural descriptions to sentences” (Chomsky 1965:8). There are two essential elements in this theory: deep structure and surface structure (Chomsky 1965). Chomskyan grammar contains a syntactic, a semantic, and a phonological component. Chomsky himself links these components in this way: “The syntactic component consists of a base and a transformational component. The base generates deep structures. A deep structure enters the semantic component and receives a semantic interpretation; it is mapped by transformational rules into a surface structure” (1965:141). He also claims that “the deep structure of a sentence fully determines its meaning” (Chomsky 1975:22), which primarily means that sentences with similar meaning, should share the same deep structure. It also implies no meaning change as a result of transformations. Contradictory evidence in his further research prompts Chomsky to modify his model and hone his generativist view while he still sees language acquisition relying on a set of abstract hardwired structural representations which universally hold for all languages. He then formulates Principles and Parameters theory. Principles are common property of all languages, so they need not to be acquired. An example is structure dependency principle which means that all languages are structure dependent and no language can work without structure (Chomsky, 1995). Counting the principles is not the focus of this article but the question is that innate principles may say something about commonalities between languages but they are not enough to explain the variations between languages. For that matter, Chomsky (1995) proposes parameters, two prong choices, and languages only vary as to adoption of these two options. Language acquisition is then simplified to setting the parameters to the value of the target language, using input available clues. Chomsky (1981) claims that two possible values of parameters are not genetically fixed, therefore, language acquisition is a process of parameter setting, and human languages only differ in how they set up the values of these parameters. An example of an innate parameter is the position of head within a phrase, to be in front or at the end of it. The learner’s task is to determine whether the head precedes the complement, as in English, or follows it, as in Korean. There are no intermediate choices halfway between these two, since the parameter is considered binary. Universal Grammar also instructs that in any possible human language that has head-first parameter in the phrases there cannot be phrases where the head must come at the end. If there is only one exception among languages, the universality is under question. This holds at least for Mohawk, a language with no fixed order of head. However, there is a justification for that, too! There is another parameter at work which is set one way in English and Korean and another way in Mohawk. In sum, Universal Grammar is both controversial and central to Chomsky’s thinking in which he argues for the existence of the core principles of language, i.e., in all human languages. Universal Grammar also stipulates particular ways in which human languages are free to vary. These points of variation are called parameters. Together, the principles and parameters of Universal Grammar establish specific conditions on a possible human language and children are seen to navigate inside these boundaries in the course of language development.

A Critical Account of Chomsky’s Nativist Paradigm

To Chomsky, a key commitment of linguistics is to explain how individuals bridge the gap between what people can be ultimately capable of and what they manage to glean from experience or linguistic input. To him, the innate hypothesis of language acquisition is the most coherent and plausible explanation. However, the anti-nativist researchers such as Pullum and Scholz (2002) reject the need to presuppose humans with an innately endowed ability to acquire languages. One reason is that when children have generalisations that projects beyond their own experience, the same general induction problem solving might be at work that is responsible for all learning (Cowie 1999). Nativist’s account of core grammar is replaced by their concept of ‘core phenomena’. But the fundamental claim of Nativists is still appealing, the explanation for the Plato’s Problem (i.e. how children learn the complex language from such a limited input). Through Universal Grammar, which entails that children are biologically fitted with language capacity (e.g., Chomsky 1965, 1975, 1986), they view language acquisition as a by-product of a domain-specific computational mechanism. The universal principles enable children to rapidly and effortlessly acquire any human language without formal instruction. Therefore, according to Nativists, children’s linguistic knowledge is vastly underdetermined by their experience. Based on a series of such arguments, nativists have concluded that children are innately endowed with certain linguistic knowledge that explains language acquisition. But there is a strong counter argument today, that of Tomasello, which claims that humans have certain non-language-specific cognitive and interpersonal capacities that can lead them to become complete participants in the social use of language.

A Critical Account of Tomasello’s Socio Pragmatic Paradigm

Tomasello’s account of language acquisition embodies ideas that all human languages contain a wide range of constructions that cannot be accounted for by universal or innate linguistic principles. This is known as experience-dependent or socio-pragmatic account. According to this account, the same methods that children use to learn are also used to learn the core of phenomena of human languages. The rationale behind this conception is that the main phenomena of human languages are much more regular and frequent than the idiosyncratic patterns. If this is the case, then the core should be even easier to learn (Goldberg 2006), with more frequently attested constructions being mastered earlier, as Tomasello (2003) suggests, than less frequently attested constructions. Evidence on that is not conclusive while Chomsky’s straightforward explanation challenges Tomasello (2003) gradual multi stage approximations of child’s language to adults in the same linguistic community. Tomasello’s account also vaguely suggests that child language is expected to match that of adults, because child’s language is a less articulated version of the adult language but will gradually gain momentum towards the target language. However, with all the variations, this is very difficult to say. Tomasello’s (2003) account bases the linguistic generalizations on information structure, nevertheless, the experience-dependent account encounters substantial variability among the constructions that appear in different human languages. Their account should also avoid the conclusions of Nativists about the innate specification of universal linguistic principles, so children only reproduce linguistic data that they have experienced in the input. Conservative learning is a proposal that attempts to render innate linguistic principles unnecessary for language learning, so it claims that language development consists of developing constructions based on exposure to strings of words that learners encounter in their experience. Social learning is at the pedestal as: ”the most fundamental process of language acquisition is the ability to do things the way that other people do them” (Tomasello, 2006: 286). Learning to talk with others is a point that Tomasello holds as an interesting contrast to Chomsky’s (1965) notion of creativity (i.e., the ability to comprehend and produce novel sentences).

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Further Discussion

To explore further in disciplines related to linguistic studies, I will refer to two concepts. Firstly Gibson’s (1966, 1979) ecological approach to psychology and secondly the social psychology of Asch’s (1956) studies on disagreeing with a unanimous majority. The result that emerges maintains the centrality of values to language, which neither authors have sufficiently addressed. In this view, social solidarity with those who speak and listen to us in caring ways is a crucial dimension of why and how we speak at all. Agreement with others is less an act of conformity than it is an act of coordinating multiple values and multiple relationships in creative ways. An ecological approach that realises values is an insightful addition to what both Chomsky and Tomasello’s accounts. Tomasello et al. (2005) advise that what distinguishes the social and linguistic interactions of humans and chimpanzees is sharing. Apes sense the intentionality of others, but offer no evidence of their willingness to share intentions with other apes or with humans. It is interesting to note that Kanzi, perhaps the most accomplished of the language-trained apes, ”does not negotiate over meaning or support the other collaboratively in the communication process” (Tomasello et al., 2005, p. 686, citing Green¬eld and Savage-Rumbaugh, 1991). They suggest that both apes and autistic children appear to lack ”the motivation or capacity to share things psychologically with others” (p. 687). From an ecological point of view, a more rudimental issue may be that there is a lack of caring for the other and their well-being, which may entail some greater sense of values (i.e., what is good for the other). The creativity of conversation is not so much the matter of generating new syntactic combinations than perhaps is to acting in cooperation to create new possibilities for action that are loyal to the old responsibilities. In his perspective, language is a talent and not just for children, so we should find both adults and children always trying to say what they cannot yet put together properly. Language is a means by which humans try to create the conditions that will make it possible for them to act better than they already are. Human narratives are also full of desire for change, not just constancy. The quality of language to invite and encourage, as well as its power to encourage humans to share and care, would lead to the hypothesis that language is a perceptual system in Gibson’s (1966) sense of the word. Language is an essential means of probing. Language uses gestures that are heard, seen, or felt by others and the self to explore the social environment as a means of ascertaining its directions and intentions. Also through language, we are able to explore and experience vicariously the varying perspectives of others on the physical layout and its intentional possibilities. Language, as a perceptual system, supports us in exploring (just as walking around and looking, or poking, sniffing, and handling act) where we are located and where best to go next. A reason brought for neglect of the concept of language as a mode of perception might be that language appears to have no specified sensory anatomy. Interestingly enough, the main reason for Gibson’s (1966) claim of perceptual systems is to challenge the conventional assumption that perception is only attached to speci¬c anatomical structures. As it is found in biology that visual system may include legs, similarly a linguistic perceptual system may make use of hands and eyes, as well as ears and vocal tracts, and not just those of one person alone but in people in cooperation with each other. Tomasello et al., (2005) looks at language acquisition from an ecological perspective and holds that language is neither merely public, nor just private. When somebody first makes a contribution, other join in and regard it as gifts for communication which only takes place if the recipient of your contribution engages in the necessary complementary effort required in conversing and socialising.

A final point regarding views of Chomsky and Tomasello is that rather than complete opposites, their difference might be also due to fundamental assumptions that they make about language acquisition. Tomasello looks at the issue with different lenses from Chomsky. Instead of looking at structural aspect as the main component of language, he emphasises the lexical aspects its role to drive acquisition. As mentioned in background, Tomasello do not use the same syntactic lens of Chomsky to look at the language.


Chomsky’s alternative thinking brings about a radical shift in linguistics 50 years ago but his accounts are still in vogue, though updated and sometimes completely revised. Chomsky holds the opposite ground to the recent alternative approaches like Tomasello would accuse nativists for their overestimation of the complexity of what children learn, and underestimation of the data they have at hand, as well as an excessive doubt about human ability to extract information based on the input. Tomasello (2000) defends the conservative learning model of language acquisition, for instance in verbs. He does not attribute the gradual improvement in children language to a set of factors such as lack of understanding, corrective feedback, entrenchment (being drowned out by the frequency of a different expression), and pre-emption (e.g., adult recasts using an alternative expression). These socio-pragmatic aspects assume the counterpart role played by innate constraints in the nativist account (Cowie 1999; but cf. Crain and Pietroski 2001, 2002).

In Tomasello’s current thought, individuals of any species would require several general capacities of reading intentions, relevance assumptions, role reversal imitation, and pattern-finding, if they are to develop a language. These capacities are not thought of as specifically and autonomously linguistic but rather as social and cognitive in nature. Thus, their presence or absence in pre-linguistic human infants and nonhuman apes can be tested by employing the experimental methods of developmental psychology and cognitive science. Based on such tests, Tomasello concludes that while human children possess all of the capacities that are deemed necessary for language acquisition, there is limited or negative evidence for chimpanzees’ capacities to act helpfully, assume helpfulness in others, form joint goals, and construct and conform to group expectations. This notion raises a level of doubt towards Tomasello’s claims, referring to the growing body of evidence against his specific research findings involving both apes and humans. It also suggests that his general account of the necessary capacities for language development is both unconfirmed and unverifiable, and that therefore the issue of human linguistic exceptionality still remains an open question.

Furthermore, language acquisition is not just first language or uninstructed acquisition. Any language acquisition theory, including Chomsky’s should take into account that the capacity of language learning is not limited to what children can learn without instruction. Schooling enhances language acquisition in children as they learn to write well from good teachers. They can learn the importance of grammar on top of speaking fluency which is not possible to be hard-wired in their brains. Other disciplines, like sociology, psychology, etc. have language acquisition at the top of their agenda. Adding insights from these perspectives potentially presents a very different picture in light of which we need to re-assess both accounts. Cross-disciplinary research insights will inform further research.


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