The idea that the human brain is hardwired for language is a long-standing theory proposed by Noam Chomsky, which has dominated linguistics for nearly half a century. Recently, research in cognitive science and linguistics have called this idea into question and has lead many to abandon Chomsky’s “universal grammar” theory. This is due to the fact that recent research examining different languages and how young children learn to understand and speak these languages fails to support Chomsky’s theory of universal language.
In the second half of the 20th century, the idea of Chomsky’s universal theory gained momentum, as it was becoming clear that our unique evolutionary history was responsible for a number of aspects of the unique human psychology. Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar was put forward as an innate component of the human mind. With this, the theory provided a promise to reveal the biological underpinnings of the already existing 6,000-plus human languages. The idea that this theory could reveal hidden unity underneath surface diversity gave the theory immediate appeal.
Recent research suggests a radically different view, in which learning of a child’s first language does not rely on an innate grammar module. Instead the new research shows that young children use various types of thinking that may not be specific to language at all — such as the ability to classify the world into categories (people or objects, for instance) and to understand the relations among things. These capabilities, coupled with a unique human ability to grasp what others intend to communicate, allow language to happen. The new findings indicate that if researchers truly want to understand how children, and others, learn languages, they need to look outside of Chomsky’s theory for guidance.
The new approach known as usage-based linguistics, has been put forward to better explain the nature of language. The theory takes a number of forms, and proposes that grammatical structure is not an innate capability. Instead it proposes that grammar is the product of history and human psychology. Essentially the theory proposes that language uses parts of the brain that may not have specifically evolved for the purpose of language, making it fundamentally different from Chomsky’s universal language theory.
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.
Although the shift from one theory to the other is not complete, to many scientists this new theory is a breath of fresh air in the field of linguistics. New avenues for investigation into the history and diversity in the world’s languages as well as how young children acquire competence in one or more of them can now be better understood. These findings are important as the study of language plays a central role in a range of disciplines apart from linguistics, such as poetry and artificial intelligence. Finally, language is used by humans in a way that animals are not capable of using; therefore understanding language allows us to comprehend and understand more about human nature itself.