The Language Instinct (1994) provides an in-depth look into the origins and intricacies of language, offering both a crash course in linguistics and linguistic anthropology along the way. By examining our knack for language, the book makes the case that the propensity for language learning is actually hardwired into our brains.
Think for a moment about how easy it is to turn the thoughts in your head into meaningful sentences. Where did this skill come from? While many people believe we learn grammar in the classroom, our knowledge of it precedes the moment we are born!
Indeed, very young children have an innate understanding of grammatical structure that they couldn’t possibly have learned. The idea that grammatical rules are hardwired into the brain was first put forward by the famous linguist Noam Chomsky in his theory of Universal Grammar.
According to Chomsky, children don’t learn how to speak from their parents or anyone else, but rather by using their innate grammar skill. As a consequence, Chomsky reasoned, all languages have the same basic underlying structure.
One of Chomsky’s main arguments for this is the poverty of the stimulus, which demonstrates that children understand verb and noun structures they couldn’t have learned.
For example, to turn the phrase “a unicorn is in the garden” into a question, you must simply move the “is” to the front of the sentence. However, for the phrase “a unicorn that is eating a flower is in the garden,” you have to rearrange more than just the first “is” to turn the phrase into a question. To make a grammatically sound sentence, you have to move the second “is.”
Chomsky correctly claimed that children would never make the mistake of misapplying the first strategy for creating a question to the second, more complex sentence. In subsequent experiments, no children moved the wrong “is,” even with sentences they could have never heard before.
Furthermore, deaf children use correct grammar in their signs without ever studying it.
Psychologists studied a deaf boy named Simon, whose two deaf parents only learned sign language in adulthood, and thus made various grammatical mistakes.
Simon, on the other hand, didn’t make the same mistakes, despite only ever being exposed to his parents’ style of signing. The only way to account for this is that Simon had an innate knowledge of grammar that precluded him from making his parents’ mistakes.