Chomsky vs. Skinner on Language

From: S.J.Petrie (
Date: Wed Feb 21 1996 - 12:12:39 GMT


Hi, this is what I understood from your tutorial on language acquisition.....

Skinner claimed that behaviour was based on a reward and punishment
basis; that is that people only do things when there is something in it
for them. Language is also a behaviour so it can be based on the same
principles. Children learn a language by reinforcement from their
parents so eventually their use of it is pretty skilled by the age of
four. Language acquisition is shaped by its consequences. For example,
a child asks for things by trial and error until he or she is
successful in getting what he or she wanted in the first place.

However, evidence seems to suggest that knowledge of a language is
innate; everyone already comes born with it. This was proposed by
Chomsky. Somehow children are equiped with a knowledge of syntax or
grammar, universal to every language; ther are certain things that
every language has like a subject, object and a verb. He argued the
"Poverty of stimulus" view concerning only grammar. At a young age,
grammar is impoverished so the child begins to pick up more with
practice; grammar has evolved until it sounds better. There is no
particular rule with grammar. If someone tried to work it out from lots
of examples there wouldn't be one; there doesn't seem to be even one
constant rule. Everyone already has grammar rules implanted into their
brain so where does it come from? An example of it already being there
is when a child can say a new sentence out of the blue, not hearing it
from its parents. He or she doesn't just repeat sentences parrot
fashion but produces new unheard of expressions. That is what's so
strange; they already know how to string a sentence together.

Can you define language for me again, I didn't quite catch it? Is it
something like a language is a device which can say anything with

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