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Noam Chomsky & Psychology

Instructor: Emily Cummins
Noam Chomsky: best known for his theories of language, which defined his early career, he is also a well known political activist who writes extensively about contemporary social issues. Here, we'll focus on the contributions he's made to psychology.

Who is Noam Chomsky?

A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1955, Noam Chomsky is a well-known philosopher who has made major contributions to a number of disciplines, including philosophy, political theory, and anthropology. You may also have read some of his books or seen him speaking publicly or being interviewed from time to time in his role as a political activist. Let's look now at the contributions he has made to the field of psychology.

Noted linguist Noam Chomsky.
Noam Chomsky; language; psychology

Psychology and Linguistics

Noam Chomsky's contributions to psychology rest primarily in the work he did in linguistics. Broadly, linguistics is the study of language - how we develop and learn language, how we communicate, and how language acquisition is related to things as diverse as brain structure and our social environment.

Noam Chomsky argued that linguistics should be a branch of cognitive psychology, or the study of mental processes like critical thinking, problem solving and, of course, language. He also thought that the study of language acquisition had important contributions to make to the study of cognition.

Language is Innate

Chomsky's theory of language centers around the idea that language is innate, meaning that we have a pre-existing mechanism in our brains that allows for language processing to happen and that this mechanism is triggered by our environment. He called this concept universal grammar.

Disagreement With the Behaviorists

Chomsky's theory differed quite a bit from other psychologists writing about language and cognition, primarily the behaviorists who thought that language was a behavior learned through our environment. The well known psychologist B.F. Skinner was one of those who put forth this idea. According to this model, learning to speak a language is like learning any other behavior. Children are conditioned by the outside environment at a young age to learn how to speak. Parents and other people are responsible for reinforcing this learning.

Chomsky disagreed with the theories of behaviorists like B.F. Skinner.
BF Skinner

But Chomsky argued that this explanation could not account for the ways in which children learn language very rapidly when they are young. In particular, Chomsky noted that children are often able to respond to, produce or understand words or sentences that they have never heard before. This contradicts the idea that it is continuous reinforcement that leads to language acquisition.

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