Chomsky’s Modularity Hypothesis – Is There an Innate Language Module?

Seminar Paper 2012 15 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Chomsky’s Innateness
2.1 Modularity of Mind
2.2 The Innateness Hypothesis
2.3 Universal Grammar

3. Arguments Pro and Contra the Innateness Hypothesis
3.1 Pro
3.1.1 Noam Chomsky
3.1.2 Steven Pinker
3.2 Contra
3.2.1 Hilary Putnam
3.2.2 Danny Steinberg and Natalia Sciarini
3.2.3 Michael Tomasello

4. Other Models of Language Acquisition
4.1 Behaviorism
4.2 Cognistivism
4.3 Social Interactionist Theory

5. Summary and Conclusion

6. Literature

1. Introduction

This term paper deals with Noam Chomsky’s Modularity or rather Innateness Hypothesis, particularly with the question if there might be an innate language module in people’s minds. To discuss and maybe answer this question, I will first give a short summary of the Modularity Hypothesis as found in works of Chomsky and also of Jerry Fodor. After that, I will summarize Chomsky’s theory of innateness, in connection with his belief that there exists a “Universal Grammar”, which is responsible for people’s ability to acquire language.

The main part of this paper will offer a discussion of Chomsky’s theories with regard to opinions of other linguists. To do so, I will refer to Steven Pinker, Danny D. Steinberg and Natalia V. Sciarini, Michael Tomasello and also Hilary Putnam, who, with his essay “The Innateness Hypothesis and Explanatory Models in Linguistics”, gives a fairly interesting and also enlightening discussion of Chomsky’s Innateness Hypothesis.

After presenting arguments both for and against the Innateness Hypothesis, I will in the next chapter briefly present other models which might account for language acquisition, namely behaviorist and cognitivist models as well as the social interactionist theory.

Finally, I will finish this term paper with a summary and ensuing conclusion, including an attempt to answer the main question if language acquisition is based on an innate language module in people’s heads or not.

2. Chomsky’s Innateness

2.1 Modularity of Mind

The idea that a human brain is organized into different modules, each one with a different function, is the very basis of Noam Chomsky’s theory that there is an innate language module. The claim of modularity is also taken up by Jerry Fodor, who, in his essay “Modularity of Mind: An Essay on Faculty Psychology” published in 1983, argues that the mind is made up of an array of input systems and “that the input systems constitute a family of modules: domain-specific computational systems characterized by informational encapsulation, high-speed, restricted access, neural specificity, and the rest.” (Fodor 1983, p. 101). The basis of Fodor’s modularity hypothesis is Noam Chomsky’s theory of the innate language module in people’s minds. However, Chomsky has dissociated himself from Fodor’s view of things, mainly because Fodor claims the central system of the brain is inscrutable, while Chomsky himself holds certain ideas about how the central system could be modularized (Smith 1999, p. 23). The most obvious proof that the brain is indeed organized into different modules appears to be that people suffering brain damage in certain parts of their brain might, for example, forget how to speak even while their general cognitive functions and intelligence stay intact and they are still able to do things like playing chess or anything like that.

2.2 The Innateness Hypothesis

Does a human being have any innate preconditions for acquiring language? This is a topic well discussed among linguists for many years. The maybe most famous answer to this question is Noam Chomsky’s. Chomsky has for many years promoted the belief that there are such innate preconditions. To say it in Chomsky’s words:

“It seems to me that the relative suddenness, uniformity, and universality of language learning, the bewildering complexity of the resulting skills, and the subtlety and finesse with which they are exercised, all point to the conclusion that a primary and essential factor is the contribution of an organism with highly intricate and specific initial structure.”

(Chomsky 1962)

One of the main observations which led Chomsky to believe in an innate language device is the one that humans have a lot of knowledge despite fairly limited evidence. The other way around it is sometimes the same – humans might have surprisingly little knowledge despite a lot of evidence (Chomsky 1986, p.12). In both cases this leads to the question why this is the case. To the first question, the one how anyone can know fairly much although he had little contact to the outside world, for instance, Chomsky adds another problem: the so-called “poverty of the stimulus”. This problem is mainly what led Chomsky to his innateness hypothesis. To make up for the lack of stimulus, a human being must, according to Chomsky, have another mechanism of learning, specifically of acquiring language, than simply by stimulus from the outside. So Chomsky made the claim that a “child is born with an innate capacity for language development; that the human being is in some way pre-constructed towards the development of language; so when the child is exposed to language, certain language-structuring principles automatically commence to operate.” (Crystal 1987, p. 31). This claim leads to another important part of Chomsky’s Innateness Hypothesis, the one of a “Universal Grammar”, which will be explained in the following chapter.

2.3 Universal Grammar

Maybe the most important aspect of Chomsky’s Innateness Hypothesis is the concept of a “Universal Grammar” each person is supposed to have in their mind from birth on. This Universal Grammar makes up the device in people’s minds which is needed to acquire language, called the “Language Acquisition Device” (LAD). Even though Universal Grammar is supposed to be identical in each person’s brain, Chomsky does not claim that all languages actually have the same grammar (what is quite obviously not the case). Rather, Chomsky claims that Universal Grammar provides a basic set of fixed grammatical rules which are common to all languages and based on which all other languages are acquired and interpreted.

A quite general definition of Universal Grammar is given by Noam Chomsky himself:

“What we expect to find, then, is a highly structured theory of UG based on a number of fundamental principles that sharply restrict the class of attainable grammars and narrowly constrain their form, but with parameters that have to be fixed by experience.”

(Chomsky, 1981)

Main argument for the existence of Universal Grammar is so-called “poverty of the stimulus”-argument mentioned in the previous chapter. Basically, this argument claims that the language input children receive from their environment is too little to account for their successful acquisition of a language.

The theory of a Universal Grammar leads directly to what Chomsky originally referred to as “Transformational Grammar” and which is now called “Generative Grammar”. The term Generative Grammar is used to describe a system of grammar in people’s heads, which ultimately enables them to understand an indefinite number of sentences. According to Chomsky, this system can be analyzed into three major components: syntactic, phonological and semantic components (Chomsky 1965, p.15-16). The idea of Generative Grammar further implies two distinct factors needed for language acquisition and use, namely competence and performance. Competence would here refer to the general knowledge someone has of a language, while performance means the actual use of this language. These two factors are actually independent from each other, meaning that someone’s competence can be still perfectly intact, but some injury has rendered that person unable to talk (Smith 1999, p.25-26). The general distinction of competence and performance is derived from Ferdinand de Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole.

The following figure sums up Chomsky’s general idea of how language is acquired:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(taken from Crystal 1987)

3. Arguments Pro and Contra the Innateness Hypothesis

3.1 Pro

3.1.1 Noam Chomsky

Chomsky himself gives three main arguments for the existence of Universal Grammar to support his Innateness Hypothesis:

1. Degenerate, meager, and minute language input (“poverty of the stimulus”-argument).
2. Ease and speed of child language.
3. The irrelevance of intelligence in language learning. (all three quoted from Steinberg/Sciarini 2006, p.209)

The first argument points out that children are able to learn a language without reinforcement or any specific instruction. Some may even learn to talk without talking themselves, simply by listening to people talking around them, to then suddenly show the ability at a relatively late age (Putnam 1967, p. 15). Also, Chomsky points out that children acquire correct grammar, even though the input they get from people around them might be grammatically incorrect.



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RWTH Aachen University – Institut für Anglistik der RWTH Aachen
chomsky’s modularity hypothesis there innate language module innateness noam chomsky steven pinker michael tomasello language acqusition




Title: Chomsky’s Modularity Hypothesis – Is There an Innate Language Module?