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Is Grammar Innate?
by Mark Lowe
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This article aims to solve an EFL puzzle through philosophical analysis. The puzzle is Chomsky’s theory of innate grammar: is it true or not? The answer to this puzzle has important consequences for language teaching it tells us whether we should teach language cognitively through understanding, or whether we should teach it intuitively through helping students to pick up language as young children do. To help solve this puzzle, I draw on the ideas of four philosophers: Ayer, Popper, Wittgenstein and Searle.

Let us start with a recap of Chomsky’s theory:

‘The fact that all normal children can readily acquire the language of the community in which they grow up, without special instructors and on the basis of very imperfect and degenerate stimuli, and further that children can learn certain sorts of language such as are exemplified by natural human languages, but cannot learn other sorts of logically possible languages, provides overwhelming evidence that each normal child contains in some unknown way in his or her brain an innate language acquisition device (LAD), and this LAD consists at least in part of a set of deep unconscious grammar rules’. (Searle: The Rediscovery of the Mind, Chapter 10)

This theory has very significant implications for language teachers. If grammar is innate, it develops naturally, like the limbs on a body or the petals on a flower. There is therefore no need to teach grammar. Our task as teachers is simply to provide the right conditions and the right diet, and the grammar will grow of its own accord, like teeth. The innate grammar theory provides theoretical support for teaching methods based on acquisition rather than learning. It provides a rationale for the so-called Natural Approach and for other humanistic methods. It has long been widely accepted in our profession as true: it has long been part of the received wisdom of language teaching and applied linguistics.

But in the last few years, many people have begun to have reservations about the theory. Some reservations are on practical grounds (eg the methods derived from the theory do not seem to work very well, and many excellent teachers find other methods more effective). Other reservations are on theoretical grounds (eg the theory is confused – the evidence does not seem to hold water, etc). Bad jokes have gone the rounds. ‘You can’t find Chomsky’s books in the library? Try the fiction section.’ As a teacher and director of studies, I want to be sure that the methods I use, and the methods I encourage my teachers to use, are coherent and based on sound theory. I look to philosophy to clarify the issues and to distinguish valid from invalid reasoning. I look to philosophy to help determine whether grammar is innate or not.

Philosophers have raised several objections to innate mental phenomena. The debate is as old as Plato and Aristotle. Locke and Hume argued strongly against: Kant argued interestingly in favour, with his mental categories. In our time, three powerful objections have been expressed. The first stems from positivist philosophy: what is true must be verifiable, or it must in principle be falsifiable (in Popper’s variant of positivism). The second derives from Wittgenstein’s language philosophy: what is true must be free of distortions caused by language muddles, and consistent with our understanding of the nature of language and the mind. The third comes from the philosophy of John Searle: a theory of language must not only be free of linguistic distortions, but must also be consistent with what we know about the working of the brain. Let us consider these objections in turn.

In Language, Truth and Logic, A.J.Ayer distilled the Vienna Circle’s positivist doctrine on scientific method: a scientific theory is valid if and only if it can be verified by empirical evidence. In his The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Karl Popper proposed a generally accepted variant of this doctrine: a hypothesis is valid if and only if it can in principle be falsified by empirical evidence. On both counts the innate grammar theory is invalid, because there is no evidence that can either verify or falsify it – because there is no test that could prove the existence of non-existence of innate grammar rules in the brain. Since the theory does not follow the criteria for a scientific hypothesis, it is therefore not a valid theory. Positivists maintain that it is a metaphysical chimera.

In addition, and as John Searle (among others) argues, there is abundant evidence to support alternative theories of language development. For instance, in his classic study of child language development Learning How to Mean, Halliday does not need to posit innate grammar to explain what happens when a child develops language. His young son Nigel starts with one-word utterances- (Mum, cock-a-doodle-do, jam), moves on to two-word utterances (more jam,go walk) and then produces three-word utterances (Let’s go walk, and I want Bartok – Nigel’s enchantingly Hallidayan way of demanding to hear music). Halliday explains the stages of Nigel’s language development by the functional need to communicate, by imitation of and extrapolation from models he hears, by his parents’ encouragement, and by what is known of the workings of the human brain. The innate grammar hypothesis is not cited: it would be redundant. In his Introduction to Functional Grammar, Halliday offers a detailed theory of language based on the same principles. Again, no innate grammar is required to explain language or language development in this study. Language develops not in accordance with alleged abstract rules of grammar hard-wired into the brain, but through pragmatic responses to practical needs. Language development follows the same principles as evolution: no separate edifice of theory is needed to explain it.

The innate grammar hypothesis also begs the question. In other words, it rephrases a mystery (how do children acquire languages?) as a solution (children learn languages by means of a black box called the LAD). We do not know how the black box works: we have no understanding of what goes on inside it. Genuine scientific theories explain the unknown in terms of the known. Either what is large is explained in terms of what is small (for instance, matter in terms of atoms and molecules, or brain activity in terms of synapses and connections), or a mystery is explained in terms of a generally accepted theory, such as gravity or evolution. The innate grammar hypothesis does neither. The ‘solution’ is as mysterious as the puzzle it seeks to explain, and is therefore not a genuine solution.

Let us summarise so far. Positivist philosophers hold that the innate grammar hypothesis cannot be proved by evidence, that the available evidence can better be explained by alternative theories, and that the theory begs the question. It is therefore unproven.

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