In the 1950s, Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories fundamentally changed the ways in which humans looked at language development and use. Chomsky identified an innateness to language development that previous linguists had overlooked. These innate components, Chomsky said, affect how humans develop from preverbal babies into advanced language-using adults.

Language Development Starts at Birth

Chomsky proposed that all humans and some primates have innate predispositions to develop the ability to use language. He referred to this predisposition as a Language Acquisition Device, or LAD. According to Chomsky, then, the first stage of language development occurs immediately upon birth, when infants are preverbal, but possess an innate LAD that will set them up to developing a language.

Emerging Language Through Universal Grammar

Chomsky also suggested that a significant component of humans’ LAD was something he termed a Universal Grammar, or UG, a sort of innate framework of rules on which language develops. As toddlers, humans start to pick up on the language use of those around them, organizing it according to the rules of UG. For example young toddlers tend to quickly respond to questions with “yes” or “no,” regardless of what was asked. This feature of UG suggests questions be answered when they are asked.

Developing Language Through Universal Grammar

The continued development of toddlers’ language use also occurs according to the rules of their innate UG. More specifically, toddlers seem to naturally let their most pressing desires guide their language use; when a parent holds up a bottle of milk, for example, toddlers might say “want.” Their UG guides their language use, suggesting that the thing they want is not the parent, the parent’s hand or the bottle, but rather the milk inside the bottle.

Advancing Language Through Generative Grammar

As humans grow older, Chomsky suggests, their language use advances according to both their UG and something he terms generative grammar. Unlike UG, generative grammar suggests a variability to language use that is context-driven, rather than innate and universal. For example, the question “The king is here?” means different things depending on which word the speaker emphasizes.