Knowledge of language: its innateness and universality

Ms Tomoko Watanabe (PhD student, English and Applied Linguistics, Clare Hall)

Saturday, 24 October, 1998; 7:00-9:00pm

Seminar room, Darwin College

What does it mean to know a language? What enables us to speak and comprehend "with ease" in our native language? How is the ability acquired? Are human babies pre-programmed to learn a language? If so, what does such a learning device look like? These questions have been debated on vigorously among linguistic theorists since the 1950's, with an increasing number of psychologists, cognitive and brain scientists joining the debate.
In this talk, I will introduce to you the most ambitious and influential theory that attempts to answer these questions, i.e. that of Noam Chomsky. He defines "knowledge of a language" as an internalized grammatical analysis system, and he claims that the acquisition of such a system is guided by Universal Grammar (or Language Acquisition Device), which a human baby is born with. I will first present the theory and major arguments for it. Then, I will point out a few problems that I find in the theory.