Chomsky’s Innateness Hypothesis

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Language is what we use to communicate with each other on a daily basis. Given this, it is natural that language is a part of our culture and evolves as our cultures do. However, Noam Chomsky, a renowned author and linguist, created waves when he postulated that language is not simply an evolution of our culture: it is, in fact, something we are born with. This is called the Chomsky Hypothesis, or Innateness Hypothesis. 

Representative definition of 'language'.
There has always been a huge debate surrounding the nature of language, a concept of tantamount importance to us. (Image: aga7ta/Shutterstock)

Noam Chomsky and his Hypothesis

Noam Chomsky is widely known as a political ideologist and author, who mostly focuses on liberalistic subjects. However, what surprises most people is that Chomsky has also done groundbreaking work in the area of linguistics and communication, in ways that have held nothing in common with politics. 
Chomsky’s Hypothesis says that contrary to popular belief, language is not simply a cultural element of our lives; there is a biological factor attached to it. 
In fact, it is, in a manner, programmed within us genetically.

The idea presented within this hypothesis is that of ‘Universal Grammar’, a specific sense presents congenitally in humans, which controls our ideas of grammar, syntax, and semantics. 

The hypothesis, by virtue of its content, has been much debated on, presenting a kind of ‘nature vs. nurture’ conundrum in the world of linguistics and social sciences. 

As a result, there have been many theories and many arguments that have tried to either support or refute the hypothesis. 

Learn more about The Evolution of Grammar.

Arguments in Favor of Chomsky’s Hypothesis

A lot of research has been done on the topic piqued by Chomsky’s Hypothesis, and a lot of it seems to corroborate with Chomsky. As a result, a number of original, and add – on, arguments have been provided that favor the hypothesis. 

A fundamental argument to favor this hypothesis comes in the form of the fact that all humans learn to speak

To begin with, the speed of acquisition argument brings forth the fact that a mentally healthy child is always able to learn to speak within a few years of being exposed to a language. The speed of learning, in fact, tends to drop drastically with age. Any conditions that hinder this ability are also overcome to a large extent, if not completely, as time passes.

This concept, the critical – age hypothesis is evident when observed in immigrants. Younger children are able to learn the language of the land they immigrated to without any problems; they do not develop an accent. On the other hand, older children will always have a slight accent, whereas adults generally have a heavy accent and speech riddled with mistakes. This correlation of learning abilities to age draws a parallel to a natural phenomenon –  maturational stages, and yet again, substantiates the idea of a biological involvement in the process of learning a language.

Then, there is the poverty of stimulus argument, which states that humans are able to learn how to speak without being taught academically, despite the inherent complications of language, which is why the human tongue is rife with errors, choppiness, and a general sense of messiness. As has been shown by research, colloquial speech is simply a string of coherence linked to another with conjoiners and fillers, and so on.

Diagram of different parts of the brain which affect speech.
The neurobiological study has shown that different parts of the brain, such as Broca’s Area and Wernicke’s Area, control different aspects of speech.
(Image: Designua/Shutterstock)

To further validate Chomsky’s claims, neurobiological research has shown that damage to different parts of the brain’s speech control causes different impairments to speech. For instance, damage to Broca’s area causes impairment to syntax, while damage to Wernicke’s area causes impaired semantics. This dispels the notion of language simply being an extension of culture.

Lastly, the discovery of the ‘FOXP2’ gene, believed to contain aspects that give us the ability to speak, all but confirms the presence of a biological component to language. 

Arguments Against Chomsky’s Hypothesis

The idea that language is ingrained, or programmed genetically, within us, does not appeal to everyone, though it is quite acceptable. There have been several arguments made in attempts to refute Chomsky’s hypothesis. 

The basic idea that goes against Chomsky’s hypothesis is that language is simply an element of culture, something that is imbued via human contact.

It has been observed empirically that children who are kept isolated from the language for their formative years are unable to learn how to speak, ever. Now, while this validates the critical – age hypothesis to a certain extent, it also goes on to question the innateness of language.

Further, the very notion of the poverty of stimulus argument has some design flaws, which make it an extremely controversial argument. The entire argument rests on the premise of complication and messiness in language, but new research findings have shown that even though there is a degree of ‘choppiness’ to speech, that is not always the case, leading to the conclusion that the degree of maladroitness we portray in speech is simply an escalation of Chomskyans’ commitments. 

Learn more about The Fallacy of Blackboard Grammar.

There is also the question of what role intelligence plays in language ability. While it is very evident that there is a positive correlation between intelligence and linguistic capability, to what extent is the lack of one dependent on that of the other? Empirically, there is a strong connection here as well, which puts in place an intelligence gradient to language, that had been ignored by researchers for a long time. 

This is a transcript from the video series Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

There are a number of activities that humans can do, which other mammals are simply unable to perform. But the fact of the matter is that these can merely be attributed to a higher cognitive function, which, as well, is developed partly with ongoing sociocultural interactions. These functions are not said to be programmed within us.

Learn more about Does Culture Drive Language Change?

 The question that either side of the debate begs, therefore, is whether speech and language are a specifically embedded function in humans, or can they simply be classified as a result of our higher cognitive function? 

Commonly Asked Questions about Chomsky’s Innateness Hypothesis

Q: What is Chomsky ‘s Hypothesis?

Chomsky’s Hypothesis also called the Innateness Hypothesis, postulates that children are innately born with a sense of language and grammar.

Q: What is the relation between Chomsky’s Hypothesis and universal grammar?

Chomsky’s Hypothesis brings the notion of Universal Grammar, a sense of grammar and syntax that is specific to the language and is present congenitally in humans.

Q: Is language innate or learned?

There are many points of debate surrounding the presence of linguistics in our lives, but Chomsky’s Hypothesis believes that language is innate to humans.

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