Consider the fact that any neurologically normal child born in any part of the world can learn any language natively. Many learn two or three languages simultaneously. In fact, studies have shown that infants are born with the ability to distinguish between all of the different sounds of any language. For example, infants of any linguistic background can recognize the difference between /s/ and /z/, or /l/ and /r/ (which some adults are unable to do) before they can tell the difference between a male and female voice, or become sensitive to loudness. This information has led many linguists to believe that the human brain is equipped from birth with a set of linguistic rules, or universal principles that are never explicitly taught to a child, but guide her as she begins learning her language. Can you remember your mother teaching you how to form an alveolar dental voiceless stop? Or how to form yes/no questions? Of course not! Your parents wouldn’t even know how to define these terms. Consider the fact that toddlers begin using nouns and verbs in grammatical sentences before they even know what they are. This concept that humans are born with an innate ability to perform language is referred to as the Innateness Hypothesis.
As children acquire language, they do not memorize lists of words and sentences, nor do they simply repeat what they’ve heard. They create new sentences every day. Even though the human mind is finite, the possibilities of what we can say are not. Some sentences in English are repeated millions of times in a single day such as, “What time is it?” However it is not likely that anyone has duplicated the utterance of a 2 year old who once said, “Look Mommy, my mouth is eating yogurt with me!” As a child is learning to form questions, he may not formulate his inquiry as an adult would, but he will follow the grammatical rules of question formation that no one has yet taught him, nor ever will need to!
Poverty of the Stimulus
Another piece of evidence that humans are born equipped with an innate grammar is the fact that children do not perform language in correlation to what input they may receive. This theory is referred to as poverty of the stimulus, proposed by Noam Chomsky. It claims that a child’s natural linguistic environment does not supply him with all or even most of what he needs in acquiring his native language. In other words, a child is not exposed to many of the grammatical structures that she will use as he begins to talk. This has led linguists to believe that children are predisposed with certain innate grammatical structures that supply them with the scaffolding needed for language acquisition.
To put things simply, the flawless synthesis of linguistic elements such as stringing sounds together to form syllables, building word meaning from those syllables and putting those words into a grammatical structure that is meaningful within its context, as well as navigating meta-linguistic components, i.e., tone, politeness, in the earliest stages of language acquisition is a feat that cannot be taught and learned by the age of three.
Laurence, Stephen; Margolis, Eric (2001). “The Poverty of the Stimulus Argument”. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 52 (2): 217–276.
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