How Do We Learn Our First Language?
Are people natural language learners, with the ability to use grammar hardwired into our brains? Or do children learn language from their environment, using different types of thinking and categorizing, experimenting and using words to develop grammar on their own? These theories are starting to change from a universal grammar approach to a usage based theory.
Noam Chomsky has asserted for decades that babies have the ability for creating language from birth, a “universal grammar” that allows young children to pick up the grammatical rules for language. While this grammar is separate from prescriptive or descriptive grammar, it is the idea that all people have basic language ability – it is hard-wired into their brains. All children should be able to see differences between nouns and verbs, and function from lexical words. Universal grammar also suggests that there are similarities between all languages, and through careful studying, linguists would be able to find them.
This week, a new book by Tom Wolfe challenged these assertions,
“My contention is that language is not the result of evolution but essentially a verbal trick that was invented by human beings. It’s a memory aid – a mnemonic – that enables human beings to store away a piece of information and compare it to a new piece of information and draw conclusions.” No other species has a similar ability, making it the secret of our dominance as a species”
Usage Based Learning
Wolfe is not alone, as other cognitive scientists and linguists are starting to look outside of the theory of Universal Grammar. Our understanding of how people learn languages affects many different disciplines from artificial intelligence to poetry to linguistics. A new usage based approach to language learning supposes that children,
“…are not born with a universal, dedicated tool for learning grammar. Instead they inherit the mental equivalent of a Swiss Army knife: a set of general-purpose tools — such as categorization, the reading of communicative intentions and analogy making, with which children build grammatical categories and rules from the language they hear around them.”
The meaning in language emerges through an interaction between the potential meaning of the words themselves and the meaning of the grammatical construction into which they are plugged. This is why we can make sense out of Aered marped Sheih (pulling the subject, verb and object from a nonsensical sentence).
A quick visual primer is below:
While Tom Wolfe’s new book The Kingdom of Speech which challenged Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar (and Darwin’s theory of evolution) spiked controversy these past few weeks, on-going developments in linguistic theory are continuing to change how we study language acquisition.
For those part-time linguists like me, here is some further reading on this exciting development: