Are children born with a universal language syntax encoded, as it were, in their DNA — so that learning to speak and write is just a matter of fitting the particulars of their language into this template? Or, is language acquisition a more complex and subtle process of learning and thinking? These have been the polarities of a fierce linguistic controversy set off a half century ago by the publication of Noam Chomsky's "Syntactic Structures." That debate still rages on today.
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Biological Inheritance of Syntax
Linguist Noam Chomsky challenged old ideas about language acquisition in his first book, "Syntactic Structures," published in 1957. He rejects the notion that all language must be learned afresh by each child. Instead, Chomsky says, normal children everywhere are born with a kind of hard-wired syntax that enables them to grasp the basic workings of language. The child then chooses the particular grammar and language of the environment from the available options in the brain.
Thus, the capacity for language is a biological inheritance and specific languages are then activated largely through the child's interaction with the native environment. It's as if the child's brain is a CD player already set to "play" language; when the CD for a certain language is inserted, that is the language the child learns.
Chomsky advanced his "government-binding" theory in a 1981 book, in which he says a child's native knowledge of syntax consists of a group of linguistic principles that define the form of any language. These principles are connected with parameters, or "switches," triggered by the child's language environment.
Chomsky emphasizes the importance of the child's genetic inheritance of the syntax imprint. For Chomsky, the "growth" of language is analogous to the growth of internal organs and arms and legs -- determined by internal mechanisms, but nourished by the environment -- whether verbal or nutritional.
Chomsky sees language development in the child as a separate aspect of knowledge, apart from the rest of cognition, or mental functioning.
Linguistics as Psychology
Chomsky says knowing a language is synonymous with the capacity to produce an infinite number of sentences never previously spoken, and to understand sentences never before heard. This ability is what Chomsky calls the "creative aspect" of language.
Understanding the mechanics of language elucidates patterns of human thought, and places linguistics within the realm of psychology. Evidence that children are born with an understanding of syntax is the ease and facility with which they learn language, according to Chomsky.
Chomsky's Theory Challenged
Chomsky's concept clashes directly with that of behaviorist B. F. Skinner, who espoused the idea that language is a direct result of conditioning, and with psychologist Jean Piaget, viewed language acquisition as a part of overall cognitive development in children.
His theory that children use an innate "language acquisition device" to select a grammar from a limited range of options has come under fire. Chomsky's idea of a "generative grammar" presupposes the brain operates in a binary fashion, like a computer. Critics say this conflicts with evolutionary anthropology that views language acquisition as a gradual adaptation of the brain and vocal chords -- not a spectrum of binary choices.
Cognition vs. Heredity
In the 50 years since Chomsky's theory was first proposed, debate about the origins of language has shifted away from an emphasis on innate capabilities and toward a greater awareness of the role of learning. Language acquisition is now perceived as a process more complex than binary choices, in that this process requires more cognition, or thinking.