Re: Chomsky vs. Skinner on Language

From: Chatwin Judy (
Date: Tue Feb 27 1996 - 09:40:22 GMT

> Not quite. He said that what they DO do has been (largely) shaped by
> reward much the way a rat is shaped to press a lever for food.
Does this mean that reward is more influential than punishment?

> (This does not rule out doing something for no particular reason, or
> because you were born that way. It's just that most behaviour is the
> result of a prior history of rewards.
Is this as a result ofour own experiences and/or the experiences of
others - if these experiences are conflicting then which one takes
priority? (This may not only refer to language.)

> Skinner would have said that, whatever those rules might be, the child
> must have learned them by having been rewarded for saying things
> grammatically and not rewarded (say, ignored) for saying things
> ungrammatically. Then gradually, like the rat learning to press the
> lever, the child learns to produce only the grammatical strings of words
> and not the ungrammatical ones, according to Skinner.

But surely there are some occasions when meaning/desires can be
communicated without correct grammar - there is enough information
transmitted to 'get the message across' even though there may be some
grammatical errors.

> True, but this was Chomsky's CONCLUSION form the evidence, not just an
> assumption he made. It turns out that grammar HAS to be innate, because
> the trial and error evidence the child gets -- i.e., everything he says
> and hears till age 4 -- is insufficient for the child (or anyone) to
> derive the rules from it by trial and error.

Is there concrete evidence which says that a child never makes
grammatical errors - surely it could be argued that they don't
continue to put together certain constructions because, although the
meaning may be successfully communicated, those constructions are not
repeated and heard by the child?
The example was that you can say "Who did he
> hit that went out?" but you can't say "Who did he think that went out?"
> gives you the flavour of the kind of abstract rule we all "know," yet
> we could never have learned from trial and error (because no one ever
> says or hears "who did he think that went out" -- except in a
> linguistics seminar on Universal Grammar!)
What would happen if a construction such as this one was regularly
used - would it be accepted? As I understand it, if Chomsky's
argument holds firm then this would/could never be part of English
grammar. How can it be argued across different languages when
constructions differ (please be aware that I do not have ny great
knowledge of other languages, but would welcome comments on how this
applies universally)?

> (By the way "Who did he hit that went out?" is also ungrammatical in the
> old, non-Chomsky way. It should be "Whom did he hit that went out?" But
> that's not the kind of grammatical rule at issue here, because that rule
> CAN be (and is) learned by trial and error and instruction and
> example.)
Am I right in thinking that there are some types of grammatical rules
that fall into the title of 'Universal Grammar' and some that do not,
please could someone clarify this for me?

> It is the stimulus that is impoverished, not the grammar.

I am still not very clear on the meaning of the 'Poverty of the
Stimulus' - please could someone explain it for me.

> The strange case is the one where the rule itself cannot be learned from
> examples (because the examples are too impoverished, they are missing the
> "negative evidence" from getting the rule wrong, and having it
> corrected).

I think this helps clarify some of my understanding regarding the
Poverty of the Stimulus.

> Remember it wasn't a definition but a criterion (sort of a test for
> whether something is or is not a language): There seem to be no
> "primitive" languages. Language seems to be all-or-none: If you can say
> something in it, you can say anything in it.

Does this connect to the 2,000 root words that you mentioned?
If you think otherwise, tell me
> something that cannot be expressed in words...
I would love to see an answer to this one!!!!!!
Thanks, Susie, for giving me a base to work from - it seems
pointless repeating what you have already said and reading this
helped confirm a few things and make me think about others.

Looking at my notes from last week I see that I see that I have
bottom-up processing and top-down processing mentioned but please
could somebody relate it to the understanding of the learning of
language. (I remain convinced that my memory fades with age!)
I also have written down that if Skinner's theory is to be believed,
then what about abilities such as pattern recognition?
I have read Stevan's E-mail to us regarding the vanishing
intersections and although I thought I understood it, I do not think
I do - again can anybody explain it to this 'kid-sister' and use your
imagination regarding the age!!
Thanks, see you Monday Judy

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