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September 12, 2016 3:44 am

Linguists Abandon Noam Chomsky’s ‘Universal Grammar’ Theory

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Noam Chomsky. Photo: Duncan Rawlinson.

Noam Chomsky via Wiki Commons. Photo: Duncan Rawlinson.

Scientific American – The idea that we have brains hardwired with a mental template for learning grammar — famously espoused by Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — has dominated linguistics for almost half a century. Recently, though, cognitive scientists and linguists have abandoned Chomsky’s “universal grammar” theory in droves because of new research examining many different languages — and the way young children learn to understand and speak the tongues of their communities. That work fails to support Chomsky’s assertions.

The research suggests a radically different view, in which learning of a child’s first language does not rely on an innate grammar module. Instead the new research shows that young children use various types of thinking that may not be specific to language at all — such as the ability to classify the world into categories (people or objects, for instance) and to understand the relations among things. These capabilities, coupled with a unique hu­­man ability to grasp what others intend to communicate, allow language to happen. The new findings indicate that if researchers truly want to understand how children, and others, learn languages, they need to look outside of Chomsky’s theory for guidance.

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  • CPA

    That’s a pathetic analogy. Chomsky is still seen as one of the most important figures in linguistics and in American philosophy. Even if his theories get disproven, his ideas forwarded linguistics. Lysenko was a Soviet stooge. Your politics are showing–as it’s pretty easy to understand where his theory could be wrong (as any Anthropology major would question it at first, too) but has yet to be disproven completely. This same article keeps getting republished. Hack. Hack. We still do not understand language acquisition completely, but we are on our way there because of Chomsky’s genius. Get over your anonymous self.

  • CPA

    If you don’t know about Chomsky, then you don’t know much about being educated properly. One will be glad to know that he is somebody to listen to and you are not. Wishing a man’s death is pathetic.

  • davidt

    It was an idiotic and rather hubris nonsensical unevolved computational model realized years in various primate studies which Chomsky went ballistic on. This isn’t new at all it just goes to show science is narrative in context to observation. Not reality. Academic’s are Neanderthals with phds.

  • What’s the exact argument here. He is a remarkably influential thinker, writer, activist and scholar. His work is still required reading in most serious graduate studies departments as well as relevant. Obviously, his field, as in all fields, and findings will evolve and shift, while he has a secure place in any credible list of sources.

  • I know nothing about the chomsky’s work in linguistics.

    one can, however, be gratified that his presence in contemporary life is being extinguished…at least, the process of extinction has begun…one can only hope that his contemptible attacks upon the US and Israel and his malign and toxic influence will soon disappear, entirely.

  • Dani Renan

    I came across one of his articles (while working in the philosophy library) on deep seated grammar, read it, and thought what utter rubbish. If he spoke another language he would know that it simply is not true. And if he knew anything about genetics, he’d know that it is surely not genetically based. I really couldn’t understand how it was even published. Latter I found out, to my horror, that he was multi-lingual (including Hebrew), and that he was not only published but a fakir of the highest order, and no one in linguistics went against him if they wanted an academic career.

    Then I found out about his politics and that he was extremely anti-Israel. Why? He came to the Hebrew University to do his doctorate. They listened to his ideas and rejected them. He wasn’t used to that, he had always been the smartest guy in the room, so he left.

    So it isn’t that his students were able to disprove his theories, they should have never been accepted to begin with. But he held such sway, that no one challenged him for years. I spotted the problems immediately, and knew nothing about linguistics.

    Basically Chomsky was to Linguistics what Leshenko was to Genetics.

  • Michael Russell

    The truth Chomsky never really accepted was that his theory of ‘deep structure’, certainly the direction it seemed to be heading in, in ‘Language and Mind’, amounted to not much more, when you got ‘deep enough’, than that language somehow mirrored the processes of human thought, with some kind of subject-object and classification structure at the heart of much of what it did (from which language as an outward manifestation of thought grew), since what we might call the mind’s interior-exterior relationship with the world, and its classification processes, are a great deal of what thought ‘does’. The fact that ergative languages, for instance, classify subject-object relationships differently grammatically to those we are mostly familiarwith, doesn’t question that at such a ‘deep’ point in the process of language. But in the end the fact that language in some way mirrors how we think is so broad and so general and so obvious an observation as to be merely trite. The heart of Chomsky’s own triteness, in trying to keep a deep language structure close to the surface, is demonstrated early on, in the always absurd ‘discovery’ that you could write nonsense that was grammatical (‘colorless green ideas, etc.’) – in what way was that ever a discovery? Though some might say that Chomsky has made a very successful career out of very grammatical nonsense ever since… surely not!

    • ajnn

      Thinking the theory through, it amounts to ‘assuming the conclusion’.

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