Re: The Poverty of the Stimulus

From: HARNAD Stevan (
Date: Tue Jun 04 1996 - 20:47:31 BST

> From: "Glasscock, Emma" <>
> Subject: The Poverty of the Stimulus
> 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.

This covers most of the points, but not in a way kid-sib could
understand; you also need to read Pinker on language acquisition
more carefully. Distinguish between the learning of syntax and the
learning of word meaning.

See also:

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