Sunday, August 20, 2006

Noam Chomsky's Black Box

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

What is language, and where does it come from? The answer to this question has great bearing on how we teach language.

Before the coming of Communicative Language Teaching, most thinkers believed that behaviourism – a powerful approach to psychology – explained language. In effect, according to this view, language is a set of habits we develop through mimicry of our parents and those around us.

We learn language because it brings us a reward of some kind. The basic model these thinkers – led by B.F. Skinner, a renowned Harvard psychologist – used to explain psychological phenomena is a simple one. If an organism responds in a certain way to a stimulus and gets positive reinforcement, its behaviour will be repeated. If it gets no reinforcement or negative reinforcement, its behaviour will stop. Thus, any kind of vocal output can become part of language, given sufficient reinforcement.

This model of language learning had a powerful impact on the teaching method known as audiolingualism. This method was based on the belief that language learning is basically a process of mechanical habit formation. It placed a strong focus on drills, on teaching through speech at the expense of the other skills, on inductive teaching (repeating a structure many times, then deciding for yourself how the grammar works) and on learning vocabulary within a linguistic and cultural context. This approach is still widely used in East Asia.

In effect, behaviourism denied the concept of human nature. It taught that people can be made to become almost anything, given the right sequence of stimuli and responses. On the matter of language, the logical conclusion was that there were no limitations to what language could be. Any linguistic habit that people somehow developed could become part of language. In academic circles these notions were widely accepted until Noam Chomsky turned them upside down.

The Language Instinct: In a famous phrase, Chomsky said he wanted to "look deeper" into some basic questions about human language. His early theoretical books and papers gave his answer to an extremely profound question: Is language infinitely changeable (the basis of audio-lingualism), or are all languages in some way a part of being human? In the following passage, one of Chomsky’s best-known admirers summarizes the thinker’s basic conclusions:

Language is a human instinct. All societies have complex language, and everywhere the languages use the same kinds of grammatical machinery like nouns, verbs, auxiliaries, and agreement. All normal children develop language without conscious effort or formal lessons, and by the age of three they speak in fluent grammatical sentences, outperforming the most sophisticated computers. Brain damage or congenital conditions can make a person a linguistic savant while severely retarded, or unable to speak normally despite high intelligence. All this has led many scientists, beginning with the linguist Noam Chomsky in the late 1950s, to conclude that there are specialized circuits in the human brain, and perhaps specialized genes, that create the gift of articulate speech.

Chomsky’s ideas explained the facts in a way that no other theory can. Acquiring language is not a normal mental problem. Everyone sees small children pick up language effortlessly. But few of us ever give a thought to what an amazing phenomenon this is. No one would expect a three-year-old to master calculus. Yet we are not in the least surprised when a three-year-old learns grammar, which is a much more difficult task. Children learn the rules of their native grammar (whatever it might be) by hearing a limited set of sample sentences. According to Chomsky's followers, the limited information they receive is mathematically insufficient for them to determine grammatical principles, yet somehow they are still able to do so. This is what is sometimes called “The paradox of language acquisition”. As Chomsky explained,
In a given linguistic community, children with very different grammar arrive at comparable grammars, indeed almost identical ones, as far as we know. That is what requires explanation. Each child has a different experience, each child is confronted by different data – but in the end the experience is essentially the same. As a consequence, we have to suppose that all children share the same internal constraints which characterize narrowly the grammar they are going to construct.


Chomsky proposed that each of us has a Language Acquisition Device (LAD) – what he sometimes called a “little black box” – that starts functioning when we are still infants. By the time we are five or six, that device has enabled us to vacuum from our immediate environment a native language based on universal grammar. Put another way, all languages are fundamentally the same, irrespective of the cultures we live in. They are the function of a large number of words (arbitrary symbols whose meaning is set by convention) and a limited number of grammatical rules that are somehow structured into our brains and minds.

Those who learn during the “critical period” – roughly, during early childhood – acquire language without effort. However, our little black boxes begin to function in different ways after we reach six years of age. We remain able to acquire language fairly easily until we reach puberty, after which our ability to acquire language seems to be reduced again.

Older learners must therefore learn languages in quite different ways from the effortless acquisition of young children. The ways in which language acquisition changes form are of vital importance to language teachers.

A helpful book in this area of study is How Languages Are Learned by academics Patsy M. Lightbown and Nina Spada. The two educational psychologists offer useful insights into the differences in learning styles. They say, “We have all heard people say that they cannot learn something until they have seen it. Such learners would fall into the group called ‘visual learners.’ Other people, who may be called ‘aural’ learners, seem to need only to hear something once or twice before they know it. For others, who are referred to as ‘kinaesthetic’ learners, there is a need to add a physical action to the learning process.”

These ideas are common in teaching circles. However, Lightbown and Spada go on to discuss two learning styles that are highly cultural in nature. “In contrast to these perceptually based learning styles, [there is] a cognitive learning style distinction between field independent and field dependent learners. This refers to whether an individual tends to separate details from the general background or to see things more holistically.” In general, westerners, who tend to see things as black or white, are field independent. By contrast, East Asians are field dependent inasmuch as they see things as part of a large mingling of relationships.

In their challenging text, Lightbown and Spada describe three theories about how we acquire our first language. The most important of those theories, innatism and behaviourism are covered at the beginning of this essay. A third approach is called interactionism.

The interactionist position is that “language develops as a result of the complex interplay between the uniquely human characteristics of the child and the environment in which the child develops.” A kind of umbrella that covers several different kinds of language theories, contemporary interactionism assumes the validity of Chomsky’s idea that innate structures in the mind are responsible for language learning, but has a variety of questions about the contributions of environmental factors to language learning.

In a summary of these questions, the authors propose that behaviourism may help explain our acquisition of vocabulary and other parts of grammar. For its part, innatism seems “most plausible in explaining the acquisition of complex grammar.” And “interactionist explanations may be useful for understanding how children relate form and meaning in language, how they interact in conversations, and how they learn to use language appropriately.”
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