Re: Chomsky vs. Skinner on Language

From: Liz Lee (
Date: Tue Feb 27 1996 - 09:43:21 GMT

We began by looking at differences in the approach to language
acquisition, but it became clear that the question was a more general
one, that is, what is the difference between Behaviorism and Cognitive
science? The point of using language acquisition as a starting base was
because Chomsky's theory of LA meant the behaviorists view could not
possibly hold, and if this was the case, then Behaviorism itself had to
be questioned as the main way of explaining human behaviour. Chomsky
pointed out that there are certain grammatical structures that are
never used in any language by anyone, the example I gave in class -
incorrect past participles - was too simplistic and may be acceptable
as correct usage (in some circles!!), Chomsky's examples were
fundamental, children learning language never make the sorts of
mistakes suggested by him e.g. "Who did he think that went out?"
putting "that" into the sentence is a mistake that is never made. This
led Chomksy to theorise about the possibility of an innate structure or
"Language Acquisition Device", the idea of anything innate is anathema
as far as Behaviorism is concerned, they hold that the child comes into
the world as a blank slate, and learns by conditioning from those
around him, with learning being motivated by rewards and punishments.
So to agree with Chomsky's innate ability would be going against every
Behaviorists' beliefs. If Behaviorism doesn't have the answer in the
area of language, which is a hugely important part of what we are and
how we behave, then the whole basis of Behaviorism appears shaky. The
reason Behaviorism doesn't have these answeres is that it does not
consider 1. that there are innate structures involved in behaviour 2.
that there is no reason to theorise or explain what is going on inside
the brain when we learn or carry out any other type of behaviour.

The field of Cognitive Science has grown in response to the question -
What is it that allows us not to use the grammatical errors described
by Chomsky? In fact what is going on inside our heads every time we
make a decision, answer a question or remember the past? Until we can
explain how we are able to do what we do and all this without even
"thinking" about it, there are more questions than answeres.

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