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Language, innateness of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-U014-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

Is there any innate knowledge? What is it to speak and understand a language? These are old questions, but it was the twentieth-century linguist, Noam Chomsky, who forged a connection between them, arguing that mastery of a language is, in part, a matter of knowing its grammar, and that much of our knowledge of grammar is inborn.

Rejecting the empiricism that had dominated Anglo-American philosophy, psychology and linguistics for the first half of this century, Chomsky argued that the task of learning a language is so difficult, and the linguistic evidence available to the learner so meagre, that language acquisition would be impossible unless some of the knowledge eventually attained were innate. He proposed that learners bring to their task knowledge of a ‘Universal Grammar’, describing structural features common to all natural languages, and that it is this knowledge that enables us to master our native tongues.

Chomsky’s position is nativist because it proposes that the inborn knowledge facilitating learning is domain-specific. On an empiricist view, our innate ability to learn from experience (for example, to form associations among ideas) applies equally in any task domain. On the nativist view, by contrast, we are equipped with special-purpose learning strategies, each suited to its own peculiar subject-matter.

Chomsky’s nativism spurred a flurry of interest as theorists leaped to explore its conceptual and empirical implications. As a consequence of his work, language acquisition is today a major focus of cognitive science research.

Citing this article:
Cowie, Fiona. Language, innateness of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-U014-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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