I had seen links to Paul Ibbotson and Michael Tomasello’s Scientific American piece “Evidence Rebuts Chomsky’s Theory of Language Learning,” but having recently posted yet another anti-Chomsky piece I thought I should probably let this one go by, much as the topic attracts me. However, reader elessorn sent it to me with this cover note:
Nothing in it will be new to you or most people on Languagehat, but I can’t recall seeing many articles like it before — lucid, anti-Chomskian without the ranting (not that I don’t like a good rant!), and with an upbeat outlook. The last one especially. All too often academic fights seem to involve a lot more “death to theory X” than “look what we can do now without theory X in the way.” This was a refreshing exception. Either way, I bet you’ll like the last paragraph.
He was absolutely correct about all of that, and I heartily recommend it. To give you a sample, after a good history of the dispute and the evidence against the Chomsky position, we get:
All of this leads ineluctably to the view that the notion of universal grammar is plain wrong. Of course, scientists never give up on their favorite theory, even in the face of contradictory evidence, until a reasonable alternative appears. Such an alternative, called usage-based linguistics, has now arrived. The theory, which takes a number of forms, proposes that grammatical structure is not innate. Instead grammar is the product of history (the processes that shape how languages are passed from one generation to the next) and human psychology (the set of social and cognitive capacities that allow generations to learn a language in the first place). More important, this theory proposes that language recruits brain systems that may not have evolved specifically for that purpose and so is a different idea to Chomsky’s single-gene mutation for recursion.
In the new usage-based approach (which includes ideas from functional linguistics, cognitive linguistics and construction grammar), children are not born with a universal, dedicated tool for learning grammar. Instead they inherit the mental equivalent of a Swiss Army knife: a set of general-purpose tools—such as categorization, the reading of communicative intentions, and analogy making, with which children build grammatical categories and rules from the language they hear around them.
The new approach (which of course is discussed in greater detail) sounds sensible to me. And here’s that last paragraph:
Universal grammar appears to have reached a final impasse. In its place, research on usage-based linguistics can provide a path forward for empirical studies of learning, use and historical development of the world’s 6,000 languages.