Noam Chomsky on Language and Language Acquisition

Given an entire field has been devoted just to Noam Chomsky’s views on language and language acquisition, it may seem dubious for us to try to tackle the issue in one article. However given it’s importance and, to some degree, the theories complexity, one more voice in the argument couldn’t hurt.

Simply put: prior to Chomsky, there was no field that we now call cognitive science. Instead, behaviorist and philosopher B.F. Skinner’s work reigned supreme.  Skinner’s Operant Conditioning was all the rage  at the time (mid-1950s) which, roughly speaking, preached the acquisition of behaviors through response to stimuli. Through Operant Conditioning, we can (or could have if the theory had been correct) explain a wide arrange of behaviors throughout the animal kingdom. Then Chomsky ruined all of it.

In our opinion, Chomsky best explains his views on the acquisition of human language himself in one sentence: we all hear sentences every day that have never been uttered in human history, how do we understand them so fast? 

In other words, let’s say our understanding of language was merely the memorization of words and when we heard a sentence, we quickly recall the meaning to the words and then that’s how we know what the sentence means. However if this were true, then when one attempts to compute the time it would take for the mind to understand sentences it should take much longer than it does. Also why do languages around the world, that were developed independently, seem to share some foundational structures? And why do people so easily acquire language through mere exposure at a young age, but the ability to read is so difficult for so many humans?

From this, Chomsky reasons, there must be structures in the mind specifically evolved for language. Formalized in 1957, when Chomsky would publish this theory in a brief 101 page book he titled “Syntactic Structures.” In conjunction with a devastating 1959 critique of Skinner’s arguments, Chomsky would quickly rise to the title of a Paradigm Shifter akin to Albert Einstein. It’s hard to understate just how colossally disruptive Chomsky’s work was to the existing establishment, those in Skinner’s camp. MIT Colleague and “friend” (quotations were needed) of Chomsky, Steven Pinker once said “for awhile, the entire field either worked on Chomsky’s theories  or worked to disprove Chomsky theories.”

Eight years after his critique of Skinner, Chomsky re-visited the piece and updated his views which can be read for free here.  In the piece, Chomsky essentially says that Skinner was the best of the Behaviorists and that’s why he went after him. Believing the latter’s work was very useful, albeit as perhaps a museum of errors. “ I do not see how his proposals,” Chomsky said of Skinner, “can be improved upon, aside from occasional details and oversights, within the framework of the general assumptions that he accepts. I do not, in other words, see any way in which his proposals can be substantially improved within the general framework of behaviorist or neobehaviorist, or, more generally, empiricist ideas that has dominated much of modern linguistics, psychology, and philosophy. The conclusion that I hoped to establish in the review, by discussing these speculations in their most explicit and detailed form, was that the general point of view was largely mythology, and that its widespread acceptance is not the result of empirical support, persuasive reasoning, or the absence of a plausible alternative.”

 When Chomsky Goes Too Far?

As with his views on sports, there are times which we believe that Chomsky may well go too far with his views and importance of language. For example Chomsky, more or less, believes that lights of consciousness come on in an attempt to acquire language, itself (the acquisition of language) an attempt to communicate ideas. Though, for us, this seems to be a step too far as, for one thing, consciousness almost certainly predates language and such a causal mechanism for how syntactic structures would give rise to phenomenal experience is missing.

Even with that said, one cannot disregard the tremendous impact that Chomsky has had on social science specifically, but philosophy of science, analytic philosophy, multiple sub-fields of  psychology and, of course, linguistics.

 

As always, we will continue to accept errors and, if we can confirm that any errors have been made or we discover we have missed relevant details, we will update this page and update our errors page that documents all additions or corrections to pages after they are published. Finally it is important to note, especially for this article, that we try to emphasize the most recent opinions rather than older opinions as more recent opinions will be closer to their actual opinions. Should we become aware of position changes by anyone on the Scholar Fact Check, we will make the change and note it on the relevant page. 

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