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Language acquisition is no puberty.

Chomsky introduced the distinction between competence and performance.

Chomsky’s model primarily centered around the existence of innate knowledge of specifically native speakers. This innate knowledge of complex grammar rules enables a native speaker to generate all possible grammatical sentences; and performance is the way in which she uses the language in reality.

According to Chomsky, performance is the transformation of competence into every day speech. A distinction was used to describe what a native speaker knows and what she exhibits of her innate knowledge.

Chomsky’s a priori presumptions:

  • Heredity gives competence and predisposes a native speaker to know language rules much before she starts to learn the language.

  • Native speakers naturally encode native language. It’s in their genes.

  • Speakers would know the application of grammar without been taught.

  • The knowledge of so called universal grammar is innate.

  • Speech organs develop differently with different languages. So, it implies that we are genetically programed for a particular language and different regions are programed to speak in a particular way.

There are different ways English is spoken worldwide. So, are we all separately adapted to a particular way before birth? Chomsky often quotes that if a child has grown up in Tokyo would be speaking perfect Japanese because is genetically identical to kids that grow up in Tokyo.


What genetics has to do when we are born already. Growing up in a different environment or to adapt encompasses cognitive learning and development. It has nothing to do with genetic science.

Chomsky’s claims are based on assumptions. It’s true that we have genetically adapted ourselves; but not for a particular language. We have adapted to communicate, to speak. Heredity does not play any role in the learning of a particular language, is limited to the development of speech organs and speech processing areas in our mind.

Development of mind and speech organs has got nothing to do with the learning of a specific language. To speak a particular language is not a natural process, to produce sounds is; and even the production of sounds is performance based (learn as we go). A child beginning to speak would try to imitate sounds heard. If she is not able to produce the right sound initially, she would learn to do it eventually with practice.

Chomsky attempts to separate language acquisition from psychology. There is much more to language than just generative grammar. Grammar is very small area of a much bigger phenomenon. However, psychologists and neurologists argue on any evidence of innate linguistic knowledge at early age. If children were born with innate knowledge of grammar, then why do they take 1-2 years to begin to speak? Two years is good enough time for anyone who knows grammar to learn a language.

Chomsky’s structural postulates can be completely ruled out as a child does not even know what constitute the structure at early stage of learning. Children have ideas, feelings, needs, etc., and they only need a medium to convey. At early age they do not know of so called universal grammar; they slowly manage to learn words and the meaning attached.

Try to ask 6 months old to give you her favorite toy without making any gestures. There is every possibility that she might not give it to you. There is every chance that she may misconstrue you as saying ‘play as long as you wish’. For the first 6-7 months a kid wouldn’t have much control over sound production; smile when happy and cry if upset, not more than that. Slowly she learns to alter the cries depending upon the intensity of need and start to use voice to show happiness. She wants to imitate but can’t as she doesn’t have much control over her peripheral organs and also can’t differentiate much between what she hears. She realizes the importance of communication right in time. Beginning with a few content words, she slowly attaches as much information as she can and tries to remember those words.

The idea of learning phases is also fallacious. If you ask Chomsky, he would take no time to relate it to puberty or binocular vision. Learning mainly depends on factors like need, interests, etc. There is no age to learning, individual performance may vary though. Halliday’s functional linguistics could be considered to be on the lines of purpose/need approach. A child would screech on seeing an object. She may not know what to do with it, mere curiosity to observe induces her to cry for it, giving us indications. And that’s the only reason for the higher learning abilities of children. She is attracted to so many things, almost everything, whereas an adult looses interest in those things with time.

Language acquisition depends on the exposure and the very purpose of knowing a language. There are many adults settled in regions speaking different languages. Out of which a major percentage claim to know the spoken or written second language, claim to understand the spoken language in particular. However, when they speak, the so called universal grammar is absent. This could look like a supportive statement to Chomsky’s theory but the obverse indicates at a more meaningful description of the learning needs of those second language speakers. Their second language prowess is restricted to target words, mostly content words.

There is a school of thought who believe that adult learner’s biological timetable stymies her second language acquisition. Whereas linguists like Catherine Snow and Marian Hoefnagel-Hohle contradicts such claims, except on pronunciation abilities.

If adult learners are considered to have better developed abilities to achieve analytical understanding of a new language, then why can’t they learn pronunciation as well? Adult learners can learn pronunciation as well, if we exactly know how to teach. I don’t see anything except psychological variables like anxiety, motivation and self-confidence that can inhibit the second language acquisition, if we have the right training methodology like readmyscript.

#articuloryphonetics #phonetics #readmyscript

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