Re: Universal Grammar

From: HARNAD Stevan (
Date: Tue Jun 04 1996 - 21:51:16 BST

> Date: Fri, 24 May 1996 15:32:59 +0100 (BST)
> From: "Hedges, Joanne" <>
> Universal Grammar (U.G) was proposed by Chomsky, to explain how
> children acquire language, which is a complex task, at such a early age
> and with such speed and effciency.

He actually devised the theory to explain adult human grammatical
capacity, but it turned out that the explanation for that was too
complicated for any child to have learned it from what the child has
heard and said by the time it is able to speak.

> To learn a language, any language as
> the term "universal" suggests, this theory is used to explain language
> acquisition in general, it's not language specific,

UG is not primarily an explanation of language acquition but of
grammatical capacity.

> it would take a
> lifetime to learn all the rules and different possible ways words can
> be used, so making language an inefficient way of communicating,
> therefore evolutionary would not have stood the test of time.

No, it would take a lifetime to learn UG (it's taking professional
grammarians that long to figure it out). But it's not at all clear why
UG, rather than something simpler, and perhaps even learnable, evolved
in the first place.

> However, language is perhaps one of the things that make us human, and
> is indeed a universal phenomena amongst humans, in its many forms. So,
> how does a child, by the age of four, have grammatical rules in place,
> which it could not have been possible to learnt through Skinnerian type
> conditioning, in that time?

You keep speaking of language when you should only e speaking of

> This is where U.G. comes in, it is proposed that U.G. is an innate,
> unconscious ability present at birth, a knowledge of grammar. This is
> not suggesting that a child does not make grammatical errors, as we all
> know, children do, but it seems that they only make irregular type
> errors, such as "he holded" instead of "he held", so somehow they have
> the ability to accept these rules and apply them. It can be argued, by
> people such as Skinner, that these rules are simply learnt through
> conditioning, but how can this be so? As the child never hears anyone
> make these mistakes, so do not learn them that way, this is the poverty
> of the stimulus theory i.e. there is not enough, or indeed any, of this
> kind of stimulus to learn from. With U.G. set in place at birth, the
> child is able to take on whichever language it is exposed to, as all
> languages have common elements and are inter- translatable.

Not bad, but for an A it would have to be clearer and more
understandable to a kid-sib. It would also need to be related to
issues concerning evolution and symbol systems.

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