The Arguments For Chomsky’s Hypothesis

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Story of Human Language — When Language Began

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Language is an integral part of our culture, something that humans cannot live without. It is not, therefore, surprising, that language is an ever-evolving discipline. Linguist Noam Chomsky produced a path-breaking hypothesis that postulates that it is not just human culture that dictates the need for language: it’s programmed within us. Over the years, several arguments have defended his postulations.

Stylistic definition of the word 'linguistic'.
Noam Chomsky, although generally regarded as a political writer, has also done revolutionary work in the field of linguistics. (Image: aga7ta/Shutterstock)

Chomsky is best known as a leftist political writer and pundit but has done impressive work in linguistics that had no relation to politics whatsoever. His hypothesis is that somehow, speech and language are genetically specified within humans. This gives birth to a notion of Universal Grammar, the usage of words, and speech in our lives. Due to this hypothesis, all linguistic study today has exposure to some of the other form of Chomskyan ideologies. 

Chomsky reasons that there are various arguments that validate the idea that humans are born with a certain blueprint for language. These arguments go against the notion that language is simply a cultural phenomenon that is merely picked up as a result of human interactions.

Learn more about The Evolution of Language.

The Speed of Acquisition Argument

One of the most commonly cited arguments that favor Chomsky’s hypothesis is that of the Speed of Acquisition. According to this argument, every mentally healthy child can learn to speak the language that they’re exposed to within the first few years of life. The ability to learn a language also varies extensively for different languages and different parts of the world, and naturally, gets hugely depleted as one grows older. 

Even if a child has a predisposition that makes learning a language that much harder, it is simply a hindrance, and the child does end up learning at the end of the day. 

All Humans Learn to Speak

The fact that supports Chomsky’s hypothesis is that at the most fundamental level, all humans learn to talk, in some way or the other. Even when humans have certain disabilities, it is extremely rare for the ability to speak to be consistently impaired. In fact, in many cases, mental impairments are accompanied by a certain savant likeability in speech or imagination. 

In other cases, people believed to have less than ordinary intellect have been found to maintain their level of speech completely fine. 

Critical Age Hypothesis

Yet another argument to support Chomsky is something called the critical-age hypothesis and is an idea that is, in fact, quite related to the Speed of Acquisition hypothesis. Critical – Age hypothesis postulates that one’s ability to learn a language tends to decline as one gets older. 

Now, not only does the critical age hypothesis lend weight to the speed of acquisition argument, but it also stands independently with a few stark observations. 

First, it is an easy observation that children who immigrate to an English speaking nation at a young age, learn the language without an accent, even if the language they had been speaking earlier has no linguistic similarities to English. This also makes it very common for immigrant children to speak much better English in comparison to their parents. 

On the other hand, teenagers and young adults do learn, but always have a little bit of an accent, and adults almost always have thick accents. 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.

Learn more about The World’s First Language.

The Poverty of Stimulus Argument

Another argument, an extremely contested one at that, which Chomsky uses to validate his claim, is the Poverty of the Stimulus argument.

This argument says that humans tend to learn the language for the most part, without being taught, despite the fact that actual language is a complicated affair. This inherent messiness of language comes to the forefront in impromptu spoken communication, while it stays hidden and shrouded in elegance when putting on a page.

Linguists estimate that in general, we speak in chunks of about seven words, stringed together by conjoiners and fillers. The clumsiness of spoken language is, in fact, very evident when recorded and heard. 

Learn more about How Language Changes.

Specific Language Deficits

Another validation to Chomsky’s ideas comes directly from neurobiology and is seen in the form of specific language deficits. Damage to what can be construed as the ‘language organ’ of one’s brain doesn’t simply translate to the person not talking in a proper manner. instead, there are highly specific effects, depending on which part of the brain is affected. 

For instance, Broca’s area, which is believed to control grammar, affects the syntax of the victim, should it be damaged in some form. The victim would understand words, but wouldn’t be able to use them in what is ordinarily construed as the correct syntax. 

Diagrammatic depiction of different areas of the brain.
The fact that damage to different parts of the speech center of the brain cause different impairments is a strong argument for Chomsky’s Hypothesis.
(Image: okili77/Shutterstock)

On the other hand, people whose Wernicke’s Area gets inflicted with damage seem to face issues with semantics. So, while they continue to possess the ability to stick to syntax, their sense of meaning and comprehension is lost, resulting in sentences that sound okay, but do not make any sense. 

These facts go against the notion of language being a simple element of culture, or a matter of imitation. Further, the idea that language is just a part of thought or learning processes is also dispelled by the fact that different damaged areas in the brain cause different anomalies. 

Specific Language Impairments and the FOXP2 Gene

The idea that language is innately rooted in our genes has also been backed by research into specific language impairments, where one continues to make certain errors in linguistics, regardless of their teaching or learning. Evidence has also been found of multi-generational families existing with specific language impairments.

This idea has been facilitated by research that points towards a specific gene, called FOXP2, which seems very closely connected to the ability to speak.

What’s even more fascinating is the fact that humans are not the only animals with such a gene. Animals such as apes have also been discovered to possess a gene which is quite similar to FOXP2, albeit with a few small yet significant differences, which are perhaps the difference between animalistic blabber and intelligible language. 

The hypothesis provided by Chomsky has been a phenomenal development in the world of not just linguistics, but several other branches of social sciences. Several books have been written that agree with him, derive upon his work, or try to add on to it. 

All that does not, however, mean that Chomsky stands unopposed. There have also been several books that refute his theory, providing a multitude of ideas for doing so. 

The fact, however, remains that Chomsky’s ideas, controversial as they may be, provide a very good understanding of the social science of language, at least theoretically; they provide a solid base on which a lot of ‘neo – Chomskyan ideas’ now stand, or have the potential to stand. 

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

Commonly Asked Questions about Arguments for Chomsky’s Hypothesis

Q: What is the speed of Acquisition?

A common argument in favor of Chomsky’s Hypothesis, Speed of acquisition is the ability of a person to learn a language they are exposed to.

Q: What does the FOXP2 gene do?

The FOXP2 gene is believed to be associated with the ability to speak. the presence of this gene is a strong argument for Chomsky’s Hypothesis.

Q: How do Specific Language Deficits favor Chomsky’s Hypothesis?

Specific Language Deficits argue in favor of Chomsky’s hypothesis by showing that different injuries to the brain result in different language deficits, indicating that there is a biological component involved in learning a language.

Keep Reading
The Life of Language: When Does a Word Die?
Wily Words: How Languages Mix on the Level of Words
What’s Wrong With This Sentence? — A Linguists View On Grammar Usage