Noam Chomsky's Theories on Language

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  • 0:02 Language & Acquisition
  • 0:42 Who Is Noam Chomsky?
  • 1:35 Chomsky's Views
  • 4:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Chris Clause

Chris is an educator with a background in psychology and counseling. He also holds a PhD in public affairs, and has worked as a counselor and teacher for community college students for more than 10 years.

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

In this lesson, you will learn about the key theories of language development put forth by Noam Chomsky. Following this lesson, you will have the opportunity to test your knowledge with a short quiz.

Language and its Acquisition

Few would argue the significance of language in the evolution of the human species. Language serves many critical functions within the human experience, from keeping us safe to social engagement. While communication certainly exists in other species, the depth and complexity of the human language is second to none.

Although linguists and psychologists tend to agree about the importance of language, there is some disagreement about how language acquisition occurs. Are we born with a clean slate when it comes to language, or do we enter the world with a set of language skills ready to be put to use?

Who is Noam Chomsky?

American-born linguist Noam Chomsky believes that we are born with a predisposition to learn language. The essence of his theories of language acquisition state that human beings are pre-wired to learn language and in fact are born with the basic rules for language intact. Many of the unique details of any specific language structure are heavily influenced by the environment, but according to Chomsky, the human brain is ready made to quickly acquire language at specific stages in the developmental process.

Prior to Chomsky, it was widely agreed that language acquisition was mostly a learned process. For instance, many believed that language skills were developed solely through watching and learning our parents and other people in our environment. Chomsky's notion that the brain is pre-wired for language was quite a contrast to the accepted beliefs of the time.

Chomsky's Views on Language Acquisition

Chomsky proposed some ideas that were new ways of thinking about language: the theory of universal grammar, the idea that language is innate and the notion that language acquisition occurs during critical development stages.

The Theory of Universal Grammar

Chomsky believed that it was more than a coincidence that the majority of human languages follow similar rules and patterns when it comes to grammar. He believed that, while differences exist between languages, the fact that they all share core common grammatical traits was not just a chance occurrence. So, how could languages from across the globe share core grammatical features?

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Additional Activities

Prompts About Chomsky's Theories on Language:

Essay Prompt 1:

In approximately three to four paragraphs, write an essay that describes who Noam Chomsky was and the basis of his theory of language acquisition. Be sure to explain how Chomsky's theory differed from previous perspectives on language acquisition.

Example: Chomsky contended that the human brain is specially wired for language acquisition. This differed from other linguists, who contended that humans learn language by watching other humans.

Essay Prompt 2:

Write an essay of approximately three to four paragraphs that explains Chomsky's theory of universal grammar and his theory of innate language. Make sure your essay delineates how these two theories relate to each other.

Example: The theory of universal grammar notes that languages around the world share similar grammatical features and rules.

Graphic Organizer Prompt:

Create a poster, chart, or some other type of graphic organizer that details the critical stages of language development and that depicts the kinds of factors that can interfere with language acquisition.

Example: Child neglect is one environmental factor that can slow the acquisition of language.

List Prompt:

Make a list of at least five purposes that human language serves.

Hint: At the beginning, the lesson notes that language can be used to warn others of danger. You may use that example, but try to come up with as many on your own as you can.

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