The Influence of Noam Chomsky in Child Language Acquisition

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The influence of Noam Chomsky in child language acquisition

Noam Chomsky dominated the world of linguistics like a colossus for decades after the late fifties. My main aim of this essay is to discuss his influence in the area of child language acquisition and inspect to see if his influence is waxing or waning. After that I will examine the reasons behind the increase or decrease of his influence. I will be relating back every so often to nativism and the great ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate since Chomsky’s reputation significantly depends on it. Avram Noam Chomsky was born in 1928 and is, as reported by the online Encyclopaedia , “an Institute Professor Emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and also is the creator of the Chomsky hierarchy, a classification of formal languages.” Apart from his linguistic work, Chomsky is also famous for his political views. Although, the field of children's language development includes a whole range of perspectives , the issue that has outweighed the rest is that of whether language ability is ‘innate’ or not.This matter which has been long debated concentrates on finding out whether children were born ‘preprogrammed’ to acquire language or is it merely a matter of cultural product .One of the most influential figures around this debate was Noam Chomsky, who believed in the innate capacity of children for learning language. As Harris (1990:76) explains, “Chomsky suggested that infants are born with innate knowledge of the properties of language.” Further elaborating on Chomskys’s belief, Sampson (1997:23) says “Chomsky claims that this process of first language acquisition must be determined in most respects by a genetic programme, so that the development of language in an individuals mind is akin to the growth of a bodily organ rather than being a matter of responding to environmental stimulation.” Noam Chomsky suggested that children are born with a genetic mechanism for the acquisition of language, which he called a "Language Acquisition Device" (LAD). He claimed that they are born with the major principles of language in place, but with many parameters to set. Further supporting this claim Chomsky (1972:113) said “Having some knowledge of the characteristics of the acquired grammars and the limitations on the available data, we can formulate quite reasonable and fairly strong empirical hypotheses regarding the internal structure of the LAD that constructs the postulated grammars from the given data.” Nevertheless, this theory of an innate Language Acquisition Device has not been generally accepted but in fact has been opposed on two grounds. Firstly, in the famous ongoing debate between nature and nurture many people have criticised Chomsky for disregarding environmental aspects. Secondly, there is a difference of opinion as to whether language acquisition is part of the child’s wider cognitive development or as Chomsky believes, is an independent inborn ability. Disagreements such as these display the immense impact Chomsky’s theory has had on the field of linguistics. One of the central concepts which Chomsky introduced was the idea of Universal Grammar. Chomsky greatly influenced Linguistic thinking by his theory that a universal grammar inspires all languages and that all languages have the same basic underlying structure. Collis et al (1994:11) further clarify “Chomsky argued that universals of linguistic form are innate: the child had inborn knowledge of the general form of a transformational grammar.” He believed in Universal Grammar because children remarkably seem to be able to learn rapidly whatever language they are exposed to despite certain rules of grammar being beyond their learning capacity and in a couple of years they seem to master the system they are immersed in .Harris (1990:76) supporting this view says: “After a period of some four to five years’ exposure to the language of those around them, children seem to have mastered...
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