The Poverty of the Stimulus

From: Glasscock, Emma (
Date: Fri May 24 1996 - 14:18:33 BST


There are contrasting views as to how language acquisition occurs and
two influential researchers in this field are Chomsky and Skinner.
Skinners theory suggests that young children simply imitate the
language of those around them and the words which they say correctly
they are rewarded for where as no reward is gained if they say a
nonsense word. According to Skinner, and other behaviourist
theorists, a childs whole language is shaped by what they here around
them and what they say. However, there are many objections to this
theory. Chomsky states that children acquire the use of language far
too quickly for it simply to be learnt. He feels that children hear
too little and say too little for them to work out, for themselves,
what is right and wrong simply by reward and punishment. This lack of
environmental influence is known as the poverty of the stimulus.
Skinners theory relies on the fact that chilren hear only semanticly
and grammaticly correct sentences but this is not the case. Another
example of the poverty of the stimulus is that even when children use
incorrect language, it is still reinforced by parents, and yet most
individuals acquire the proper rules of language. Chomsky feels that
Skinners theory of language acquisition is inadequate due to the
poverty of the stimulus. Instead, Chomsky beleives that we are all
born with an inate predisposition for language as well as universal
grammar, both of which aid the learning of language.

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