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Lecture 1 : Introduction


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This lecture, like the others in this series, was given to students of English at the Université of Versailles St. Quentin, for a course in the Didactics of English, which I taught from 1993 to 2002.

It offers a simplified introductory account. The embedded links, most of which point to material off this site, are for readers who are looking for greater depth and complexity.



The author engaged in an early experiment in language acquisition

Didactics- 1 Introduction

Timothy Mason

Learning Language


In this first lecture I look at two ways of accounting for how a child acquires its mother tongue. The first, drawn from the work of the linguist Noam Chomsky, sees language as a specific skill, its acquisition governed by an inborn programme, and requiring no direct intervention from parents or teachers. The second, advanced by Jerome Bruner and rooted in Lev Vygotsky's theories of development, sees the behaviour of the child's entourage as crucial.



If I wanted to start the course off with a silly pun, I could say 'Learning a language is child's play'. But perhaps it is more accurate to say 'Creating a language is child's play'. Let us look at an example of how a language may be created :

A Pidgin is a communicative code that allows people of different mother-tongues to talk to each other without having to go through the trouble of learning each other's languages. It is characterized by

  • - reduced syntax and vocabulary
  • - no fixed order of words, with considerable variation from one speaker to another
  • - used purely as a language of communication
It is not 'lived in' as fully developed languages are ; no-one speaks a pidgin as their mother tongue. Although one can express quite complex concepts through a pidgin, such codes do not attain the level of expressivity of a full language

But a pidgin can become a language - under the right circumstances, it will evolve into a Creole. How does this happen?

Derek Bickerton, who has reconstructed the process of creolisation in Hawaii, says that it takes one generation(1).

When children begin to use a pidgin, they automatically enrich the vocabulary and the syntax - it becomes a full language. The community of young children in Hawaii took the pidgin used by their parents - workers from China, Japan, Korea, Portugal, the Philippines and Puerto Rico - and created a language. (Bickerton's work has been criticized).

According to the followers of the American linguist, Noam Chomsky(2), this can stand as an emblem for what the process of acquiring a language consists in - at least for a mother tongue. The child does not learn the language, but creates it anew.

Does this have anything to tell us about learning a foreign language? It has often been noticed that, whereas just about everyone learns a first language with great ease, very few people manage to learn a second language so well that they can pass for a native. Moreover, while there is very little variation in final competence in L1, people vary widely in the extent to which they acquire an L2. One of the first questions that we should ask, then, is whether there is any relationship between the acquisition of an L1 and the acquisition of an L2?

In order to answer this question, we first need to look more closely at what is known about L1 acquisition. This is what I intend to do over the next couple of weeks.

  1. First, I will outline a theory of acquisition suggested by the work of the American linguist Noam Chomsky.
  2. Then I will consider some of the objections that have been made to the Chomskian theory.
  3. We will then turn to the empirical material, to see whether it favours Chomsky or his critics.

Chomsky and language learning.

Noam Chomsky is perhaps the best known and the most influential linguist of the second half of the Twentieth Century. He has made a number of strong claims about language : in particular, he suggests that language is an innate faculty - that is to say that we are born with a set of rules about language in our heads which he refers to as the 'Universal Grammar'. The universal grammar is the basis upon which all human languages build. If a Martian linguist were to visit Earth, he would deduce from the evidence that there was only one language, with a number of local variants. Chomsky gives a number of reasons why this should be so. Among the most important of these reasons is the ease with which children acquire their mother tongue. He claims that it would be little short of a miracle if children learnt their language in the same way that they learn mathematics or how to ride a bicycle. This, he says, is because :

  1. Children are exposed to very little correctly formed language. When people speak, they constantly interrupt themselves, change their minds, make slips of the tongue and so on. Yet children manage to learn their language all the same. This claim is usually referred to as the Argument from Poverty of the Stimulus.

  2. Children do not simply copy the language that they hear around them. They deduce rules from it, which they can then use to produce sentences that they have never heard before. They do not learn a repertoire of phrases and sayings, as the behaviourists believe, but a grammar that generates an infinity of new sentences.

Children are born, then, with the Universal Grammar wired into their brains. This grammar offers a certain limited number of possibilities - for example, over the word order of a typical sentence.

Some languages have a basic SVO structure

The teacher gave a lecture.

75% of the world's languages use either this (English, French, Vietnamese) or SOV (Japanese, Tibetan, Korean) - others prefer VSO (10 - 15% - Welsh) or VOS (Malagasy)(3) * Some languages, such as Latin, appear to have free word order, but even here, SOV is very common. OSV is very rare - but you will find an example in the speech of Yoda, in Star Wars(4).

Strong with the force you are.

When the child begins to listen to his parents, he will unconsciously recognise which kind of a language he is dealing with - and he will set his grammar to the correct one - this is known as 'setting the parameters'.

It is as if the child were offered at birth a certain number of hypotheses, which he or she then matches with what is happening around him. He knows intuitively that there are some words that behave like verbs, and others like nouns, and that there is a limited set of possibilities as to their ordering within the phrase. This is not information that he is taught directly by the adults that surround him, but information that is given. It is as if the traveller were provided at the beginning of his journey with a compass and an astrolabe.

This set of language learning tools, provided at birth, is referred to by Chomsky as the Language Acquisition Device. (Notice that he uses the term "acquisition" rather than learning).

Chomsky's critics

Those linguists who do not agree with Chomsky point to several problems, of which I shall mention just four.

  1. Chomsky differentiates between competence and performance. Performance is what people actually say, which is often ungrammatical, whereas competence is what they instinctively know about the syntax of their language - and this is more or less equated with the Universal Grammar. Chomsky concentrates upon this aspect of language - he thus ignores the things that people actually say. The problem here is that he relies upon people's intuitions as to what is right or wrong - but it is not at all clear that people will all make the same judgements, or that their judgements actually reflect the way people really do use the language.
  2. Chomsky distinguishes between the 'core' or central grammar of a language, which is essentially founded on the UG, and peripheral grammar. Thus, in English, the fact that 'We were' is considered correct, and 'We was ' incorrect is a historical accident, rather than an integral part of the core grammar - as late as the 18th Century, recognised writers, such as Dean Swift, could write 'We was ...' without feeling that they had committed a terrible error. Similarly, the outlawing of the double negation in English is peripheral, due to social and historical circumstances rather than anything specific to the language itself. To Chomsky, the real object of linguistic science is the core grammar. But how do we determine what belongs to the core, and what belongs to the periphery? To some observers, all grammar is conventional, and there is no particular reason to make the Chomskian distinction.
  3. Chomsky also appears to reduce language to its grammar. He seems to regard meaning as secondary - a sentence such as 'Colourless green ideas sleep furiously' may be considered as part of the English language, for it is grammatically correct, and therefore worthy of study by Transformational Grammarians. A sentence such as 'My mother, he no like bananas', on the other hand, is of no interest to the Chomskian linguist. Nor would he be particularly interested in most of the utterances heard in the course of a normal lecture.
  4. Because he disregards meaning, and the social situation in which language is normally produced, he disregards in particular the situation in which the child learns his first language.

Bruner's LASS

Let us look closely at this fourth objection. The psychologist, Jerome Bruner(5), holds that while there very well may be, as Chomsky suggests, a Language Acquisition Device, or LAD, there must also be a Language Acquisition Support System, or LASS. He is referring to the family and entourage of the child.

If we watch closely the way a child interacts with the adults around her, we will see that they constantly provide opportunities for her to acquire her mother - tongue. Mother or father provide ritualised scenarios - the ceremony of having a bath, eating a meal, getting dressed, or playing a game - in which the phases of interaction are rapidly recognised and predicted by the infant.

It is within such clear and emotionally charged contexts that the child first becomes aware of the way in which language is used. The utterances of the mother or father are themselves ritualised, and accompany the activity in predictable, and comprehensible ways. Gradually, the child moves from a passive position to an active one, taking over the movements of the caretaker, and, eventually, the language as well.

Bruner cites the example of a well-known childhood game, in which the mother, or other caretaker, disappears and then reappears. Through this ritual, which at first may be accompanied by simple noises, or 'Bye-bye .... Hello', and later by lengthier commentaries, the child is both learning about separation and return and being offered a context within which language, charged with emotive content, may be acquired. It is this reciprocal, and affective nature of language that Chomsky appears to leave out of his hypotheses.

Bruner's conception of the way children learn language is taken a little further by John Macnamara (6), who holds that children, rather than having an in-built language device, have an innate capacity to read meaning into social situations. It is this capacity that makes them capable of understanding language, and therefore learning it with ease, rather than an LAD.


Chomsky, then, sees the child as essentially autonomous in the creation of language. She is programmed to learn, and will learn so long as minimal social and economic conditions are realised. In Bruner's version, the program is indeed in place, but the social conditions become more important. The child is still an active participant, is still essentially creative in her approach to language acquisition, but the role of the parents and other caretakers is also seen as primordial. Finally, Macnamara sees language learning as being subordinate to and dependent upon the capacity to understand and participate in social activities.

Next week we shall look at empirical evidence, and see to what extent the two theories stand the test of observation.

(If you have questions or comments, please write to tmason@club-internet)

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1. Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, pp. 33-5.

2. " In the case of language, one must explain how an individual, presented with quite limited data, develops an extremely rich system of knowledge. The child, placed in a linguistic community, is presented with a set of sentences that is limited and often imperfect, fragmented and so on. In spite of this, in a very short time he succeeds in " constructing ", in internalising the grammar of his language, developing knowledge that is very complex, that cannot be derived by induction or abstraction from what is given in experience. We conclude that the internalised knowledge must be limited very narrowly by some biological property. " from "Language and Responsibility ", Noam Chomsky, Harvester, 1979, p. 63

3. David Crystal, " The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language, Guild Publishing, 1987, p. 98.

4. ibid.

5. Jerome Bruner, " Child's Talk ", Norton, 1983.

6. J. Macnamara, (Cognitive basis of language learning in infants - Psychological Review, 1972, 79, 1-13)


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