Children are born in possession of an innate ability to comprehend language structures, according to influential linguist Noam Chomsky. In his theory of Universal Grammar, Chomsky postulates that all human languages are built upon a common structural basis. Thus, Chomsky argues that language acquisition occurs as a consequence of a child's capacity to recognize the underlying structure at the root of any language.
Chomsky's theory of language development in children is built upon the principle "that our language is the result of the unfolding of a genetically determined program." Chomsky asserts that children initially possess, then subsequently develop, an innate understanding of grammar, regardless of where they are raised. The term Chomsky affixes to this innate grammatical system, which underpins all human language systems, is "Universal Grammar."
Children learn language most effectively during a critical period, which spans roughly from birth into puberty. Building upon the ideas of the linguist Eric Lenneberg, Chomsky emphasizes that children pass through a stage of linguistic alertness, during which their understanding of language is more pliable than during later periods of their lives. "There's a particular period of maturation in which, with external stimulation of the appropriate kind, the capacity will pretty suddenly develop and mature," Chomsky explains. If children are frequently exposed to numerous languages during this formative period, they are usually able to express multilingual capabilities.
According to Chomsky, language acquisition is a process that requires children to deduce implicit rules that permeate a language. In order to account for the ability of growing children to navigate this process, Chomsky postulated the existence within the brains of children of a "language acquisition device." This hypothetical device permits children to learn rules that govern a language regardless of limited exposure to primary linguistic data. Chomsky later modified his theory, in favor of a theory built on principles and parameters. Principles, such as subject-object rules, govern all languages, while specific parameters observed within each language are relatively unique.
Language, according to Chomsky, is designed to convey an infinite range of message, ideas and emotions. Thus, language is a constantly evolving construct, subject to revision by those who employ it in speech or writing. Children, in particular, often use language in novel ways due to the fact that they are unfamiliar with proper ways to use words and phrases.
Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar is not universally admired. Critics allege that Chomsky is guilty of over-generalization. Many of Chomsky's most vociferous opponents deride his assertions as unsubstantiated by empirical research. Others fault his theory on the grounds that it neglects to account for environmental considerations, such as "motherese," a form of baby talk that influences a child's acquisition of grammar rules.
During his career, Chomsky has ceded to criticisms of his theory in certain instances by modifying and enlarging the scope of the theory. James Dale Williams, author of "The Teacher's Grammar Book," writes that Chomsky responded to criticism in a particular instance. In defense of the notion that children can make strides learning language syntax, even if the sentences they are exposed to are bereft of meaning, Chomsky published "Aspects to the Theory of Syntax," in which he abandoned the notion of kernel sentences and identified the underlying constituents of sentences as deep structure.
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- "The Teacher's Grammar Book;" James Dale Williams; 2005
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