Quote of the Day 8-2-12, "Universal Grammar"

“The existence of an innate universal grammar, no matter what its degree of complexity and no matter how its parameters are set, does not mean that language is not learned. The postulation of an innate universal grammar is not in itself a theory of language acquisition.” ~ José Bermúdez, The Paradox of Self-consciousness, p. 23

If only this key point was internalized by both sides of the linguistic nativism debate, much of the “controversy” would disappear overnight.

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2 responses to “Quote of the Day 8-2-12, "Universal Grammar"

  1. Justin

    If by language Bermudez means the target language of a child during acquisition, say, Japanese, then the point is both unoriginal and uninteresting. Nobody has ever supposed that Japanese is innate; if it were, I could speak it. So of course language (in this sense) is learned.

    But if by language he means the faculty of language, then the claim is false. The existence of an innate UG (a tautology) does mean that the faculty of language is not learned, because they are one and the same thing. UG/the faculty of language in linguistic theory is the set of initial conditions that make learning a language like Japanese possible. In this sense, it clearly is a theory of language acquisition.

    It is possible that it is clear in context which sense of language Bermudez means, but as it stands, the passage is very confused.

    • Gary Williams

      Hi Justin,

      I do not believe Bermudez is confused, so I will give you the rest of the passage:

      “Although motivated by the thought that without such an innate grammar the acquisition of language would be impossible (the famous ‘poverty of the stimulus’ argument), it leaves open the crucial question of how the innately given parameters are set. What governs the transition from the initial state of the language faculty to the steady state of adult linguistic competence? There are, broadly speaking, three candidate theories here. According to the ‘no growth’ theory, language acquisition does not involve a process of learning, and the parameters are set purely by exposure to linguistic data. The partial and extended nature of the process of language acquisition is explained in terms of the development of nonlinguistic cognitive capacities, such as memory or attention, that expand the range of linguistic data to which children can be exposed. According to the ‘maturation’ theory, on the other hand, different components of universal grammar mature at different times, and this explains the appearance of linguistic learning.

      Neither of these theories will help with capacity circularity, however, for familiar reasons. Both the no-growth and maturation theories deal solely with the acquisition of syntax, and the problems of capacity circularity arise at the level of semantics. This leads into a third theory of language acquisition. Stephen Pinker’s recognition of the need for he terms the ‘semantic bootstrapping hypothesis’ (according to which the child uses rough-and-ready semantic generalizations to map innate syntactic structures onto natural language) is a clear recognition that the postulation of innate syntactic structures cannnot suffice to show how language acquisition meets the Acquisition Constraint, and he attempts to develop an alternative. The motivations that lead to his alternative clearly indicate that advocates of innate syntactic structures still have to answer general questions like these: How are innate syntactic principles to be applied to the natural language that the child encounters? How is the transition made from innate (tacit) knowledge of general syntactic principles to the ability to manipulate and combine words that have both syntactic and semantic properties?”

      Keep in mind that the relevance of this passage is in terms of children developing the capacity for “I”-thoughts. Bermudez points out that it is circular to explain such self-referential capacities in terms of linguistic mastery of the first-person pronoun because you must show how such mastery develops in children. And it would be nonexplanatory to postulate and innate UG in order to explain such mastery because the relevant competence is not at the level of syntax, but at the level of semantics (for complex reasons having to do with the possibility of errors of misattribution).

      The relevant point to your criticism is that postulating an innate “faculty of language” is not sufficient for explaining language acquisition in the broadest sense possible of “language” i.e. the semantic competence of adults. While you might see this as “uninteresting or unoriginal”, I think it is an important point because it illustrates how the postulation of UG is nonexplanatory, or at least, wildly incomplete as a theory. This is a point made a long time ago by none other than Lev Vygotsky, who said of Stern’s “genetic” explanation of language learning that “This method of ‘explaining a thing by the very thing that needs explaining is the basic flaw of all intellectualist theories.”

      In other words, if we want to examine the question of “How is it that adults know a language so well?, it would be nonexplanatory to postulate the very thing that needs explaining as the reason why they are so competent. This is why UG does not and cannot actually explain how language is learned. In this developmental sense, UG is not a theory of language acquisition since it cannot explain, on its own, how adult competence in semantics is achieved because it fails to fully account for the ontogenesis of language. This is what Bermudez calls capacity circularity.

      Furthermore, there are many reasons to be skeptical about the very existence of UG given the criticisms of people like Everett and Tomasello.

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