Universal Grammar Theory: Definition & Examples

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Instructor: Andrew Diamond

Andrew has worked as an instructional designer and adjunct instructor. He has a doctorate in higher education and a master's degree in educational psychology.

Learn about Chomsky's theory of universal grammar, how it influences language development, and why babies might understand more than we think. Examples are provided, and a short quiz follows.

Universal Grammar Theory Explained

Have you ever tried to have a conversation with a baby? It's all 'goo' this and 'gah' that - not a particularly scintillating conversation. You might think that babies don't understand anything that's being said to them, which is, in a sense, true. Babies don't comprehend the words that are being said to them, but they do possess an innate ability to understand the sound of the human voice and to discriminate between parts of language. Experiments done on babies as young as a few days old have shown they recognize phonemes, which are the smallest units of speech that differentiate one word from another. A baby can tell the difference between the words 'mom' and 'mop,' for instance, without actually knowing what the two words mean.

The idea that explains this is known as Universal Grammar Theory and states that all children are born with an innate ability to acquire, develop, and understand language. If we look at grammar as the laws of language, we could say that all humans are born with an understanding of these laws. While different languages may have different kinds of grammar, humans have a natural predilection to learn and use them.

The realization that very young children innately understand aspects of language has shattered the long-held belief that the mind starts as a blank slate. Behavioral psychologists had assumed that grammar and language were learned solely by listening to it being spoken. Now, the common belief is that language has an inherent genetic component. The human brain is hardwired to develop grammatical language, even without being exposed to it as a baby.

The man credited with this revolution is MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky. Chomsky developed the theory in the 1950s and 60s before there was scientific equipment, such as the MRI, to show brain activity. Chomsky believed grammar must be a universal constant in humans because of something he dubbed the poverty of stimulus. This aspect of universal grammar argues that it is not possible that children are exposed to enough of their native language to learn it in a purely behavioral context. Keep in mind that this doesn't mean exposure to one's native language isn't necessary, just that it can't account for the entirety of learning a language.

Universal Grammar Theory in Action

Universal Grammar Theory is a complex idea that can be understood easily with a few examples. Look at this sentence:

Tom store the to runs.

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