The structure of language
Tree diagrams: A description of a process that proceeds from one level at which a number of relationships are
simultaneously present to other levels at which these relationships are serially ordered.
Chomsky= important figure of the history of linguistics.
Language: Open-ended verbal communication that consists of all possible sentences.
Speech: Those sentences that are actually spoken; only a small subset of language.
Means that there must be a set or rules. Sharp distinction between grammar and semantics.
Grammatical utterance ≠ meaningful utterance. “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously”.
Processes that make a sentence grammatical are different from processes that make a sentence meaningful.
Finite state grammars ≠ grammar that could generate all the sentences in a language, they only operate at one level.
Phrase structure rules: rules describing the way in which symbols can be rewritten as other symbols. Rewriting goes on
until it generates actual words. Top-down process. allow a number of different sentences to be derived.
Grammatical transformations: Rules operating on entire strings of symbols, converting them to new strings. E.g. Passive
Competence and performance
Competence: internalized system of rules that relates sound to meaning and constitutes basic linguistic competence.
Performance: actual use of language
Determined by memory and understanding.
Observations of linguistic performance will not always give a completely accurate picture of performance.
Deep and surface structure
Linguistic competence has an innate internal structure.
Deep structure: underlying deep structure from which meaning is derived
Surface structure: The sequence of words that makes up a sentence.
allows us to understand the phenomenon of ambiguous sentences. e.g. Fruit flies like a banana.
Existence of ambiguity illustrates why we need to make a distinction between deep & surface structure: the same
surface structure can be derived from different deep structures.
The innateness hypothesis
The poverty of the stimulus argument
Innateness hypothesis: The hypothesis that children innately possess a language acquisition device that comes equipped
with principles of universal grammar.
Poverty of the stimulus argument: The hypothesis that the linguistic environment to which a child is exposed is too
deficient to enable the child to acquire language on that basis alone.
Language acquisition device: The hypothesis that children possess a language acquisition device that contains general
principles that apply to any natural language (universal language).
LAD enables children to quickly make sense of the language to which they are exposed.
Brown and Hanlon (1970): support for the innateness hypothesis, found no evidence for Pinker’s hypothesis.
Pinker (1988): implied that children must learn a language by receiving informative feedback on their utterances.
Ungrammatical utterances go uncorrected and adults respond in the same way for both grammatical and
Children do not receive info that tells them when they are making ungrammatical sentences. Not easy to see
how the child can learn to eliminate ungrammatical utterances.
Minimalism: The belief that linguistic competence has only those characteristics that are absolutely necessary.
operates according to parsimony; aims for the simplest possible theory of linguistic competence. Parameter setting: The hypothesis that language acquisition involves a universal grammar that contains a variety of
switches, which can be set to one of a number of possible parameters.
Parameter: universal aspect of language that can take on one of a small set of possible values.
implies that children are not given instruction to learn a specific language.
The switches get set to the specific values of the language to which children are exposed.
Concealing function: The hypothesis that language is a kind of code. The parameters that are set for one language
conceal its meanings from the speakers of another language.
Is the stimulus for language really impoverished?
poverty of the stimulus argument rests on the hypothesis that the child needs to acquire language is unavailable, then
language can’t be acquired by means of data-driven learning.
Pullum & Scholz (2002): documented the existence of many constructions that had been assumed infrequent or
absent from the language to which infants are exposed. E.g. irregular plural constructions.
Difficult/impossible to disprove the poverty of the stimulus argument.
Appears that children receive AND make use of corrective feedback on ungrammatical constructions.
The complexity of the language to which the child is exposed is related to the complexity of the speech that the
Adult reformulations of child errors
Parental reformulations: Adult reformulations of children’s speech constitute negative evidence because these
formulations inform children when their utterances are erroneous. At the same time, they also provide positive
instances of speech.
Chouimard & Clark (2000): sampled utterances of 5 children and the parental responses
Reformulations occurred 50-70 % of the time and children take up these reformulations about 50% of the time
Reformulations provide an occasion for the child to learn how to speak correctly.
The impact of teachers’ speech
Syntactic development: The development of the ability to organize words into grammatical sentences.
Huttenlocher et al (2002): Complexity of k-1 children develops more between October and April
Sampled speech of different teachers and examined it (proportion of multi-clause sentences)
Children were tested with comprehension tasks (beginning and end of school year)
Result: the more complex the teacher’s speech, the greater the syntactic growth in the class.
Child comes to be able to represent more complex ways of thinking about things.
Evaluation of chomskian theories
Innate processes are now believed to play a lesser role in language acquisition.
The linguistic environment of the child is much richer than had been believed.
Communication and comprehension
Context is important to determine what interpretations the listeners will extract from the message.
Given new contract: a process whereby the speaker agrees to connect new information to what the listener already
Code model: derives from information-processing theories (encoding, message, decoding). Assumes that the speaker
and listener share ++ mutual knowledge
Inferential model: derives from the work of Grice (intentions, inferences). E.g. Were you raised in a barn?
Conversational maxims: 1. quantity: say no more than is necessary
2. quality: try to be truthful