A theory of language acquisition without Universal Grammar

Universal Grammar is not the mere ability we all have to learn a language, but an innate language system that is universal to all languages. This theory is false because it equals our brains to computers, which is the same as creating a personified god to account for the mysteries of creation. Men have always resorted to simplification to better understand the world, and Universal Grammar is simply that: Thinking of the brain as a computer. But this is a circular reasoning fallacy, since we created computers, and therefore they can’t be taken as an example of how we are wired.

To my view, Chomsky has only regressed our knowledge of language acquisition by proposing a magical solution which most linguists were happy to accept. I could equal this linguistic revolution to the monotheistic god of Christianity which was imposed in Rome. The reasons why Christianity prevailed was because it was a novel religion which was similar to the political system: Empire. One emperor, one god. Monotheism is not an advance in spirituality but a regression, because by believing in one single god, we tend to personify it, and this just gets us farther from understanding the mysteries of life and creation.

If we boil down the issue of language acquisition, it can simply be resumed into one single issue: Why kids acquire languages more easily than adults? This is actually the fallacy which gave rise to eccentric theories such as Universal Grammar. To start with, this is just a generalization: Generally kids acquire quickly a language. There are some adults which can acquire languages as fast or even faster than kids. This issue can be simply answered by Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, which proposes a formal operational stage at the age of puberty. In this stage, the thinking process becomes more structured, which allows for abstract thinking: Because we can dissociate reality from fiction and therefore think in metaphors or abstractions. Now, if we compare the language skills of an adult and a kid, there’s no doubt that there’s an immense gap between them. While a kid’s language is focused on communication, an adult’s language can also be creative: It can be used as a dialectical tool to analyze emotions and ideas. A kid will rarely talk to himself or write literature, because a kid’s language is not meant for that. The goal of a kid is simply to communicate, which simplifies greatly the process of language acquisition. We could give a clear example of how simple acquiring communicative skills can be: English is thought to be an easy language because of it’s simple grammar. To learn to communicate in English is relatively easier than to do the same in other languages, but the English language is not less richer than other languages; I would argue that’s one of the richest and most complex languages in the world, if we were to learn English for literary purposes. Therefore someone who learns English only to communicate will have an easy task ahead of them, while someone who wishes to write in good English will struggle dearly. This dissociation of communication and creativity can be compared to the dissociation between spoken language and writing. Kids don’t learn a language by writing it but by simply speaking it.

Therefore, an adult who wants to learn as fast as a kid should simply learn as a kid does: For mere communicative purposes. To start with, written language should be completely avoided, because it immediately sets us in a reflexive mood: The dialectic purpose of language. Any written word is abstraction and therefore does not fulfill a communicative but a reflexive function. Even if we’re reading a dialogue, it’s not us who are speaking but we’re simply playing a role: This is like the difference between arguing with someone: Conveying real feelings, and playing a role in which we argue with someone: Trying to empathize with our characters. It’s simply not the same. This leads us to the greatest reason why kids generally acquire languages more easily than adults: They have an urgent need for it. A kid who doesn’t know how to say what they want or what they hate will be miserable, while an adult can always fall back on their mother tongue. An adult who possesses no language should be able to learn as quickly as a child, because their need is similar and there are no distractions in their brains. Language is the main distraction we have. If we already possess a language, we tend to rationalize every single linguistic sound we hear in another language, which hinders the acquisition of that language. The adults who have an easiness to acquire new languages have actually the skill to switch off their thinking process and let the new language become their means of communication. These are people who don’t translate in their heads but observe and repeat. A great amount of passivity is necessary to acquire any new language. This has been demonstrated by the theory of the silent period, which every kid has before emitting coherent phrases. Kids learn first to understand language and then to utter it. Adults who are good at acquiring new languages have the capacity to listen attentively to what they don’t understand, without getting bored. That’s why, generally, musicians are good at learning languages. Because they listen to languages as they’d listen to music, without rationalizing them. As in music, they find patterns in language, which are meaningful to them. These patterns soon become distinctive chunks which they learn by heart and are able to repeat. Then, paying attention to the context in which these chunks were emitted, they can gather their meaning and try them. Speaking is like improvising a song we’ve just heard. Speaking is playing music without music sheets.

That accounts for language learning. I see no reason why a computational theory should be added to it. I see no reason why language learning should be rationalized at all, and why we should believe there’s some structure in it. The grammatical division we make of languages is purely arbitrary. Many linguists have proven that there are no universal grammatical divisions such as nouns, verbs and adjectives but languages behave differently. Indo-European languages tend to have a more strict distinction between these there categories, but other language families don’t have it. Therefore Universal Grammar is nothing more than another of our Western-centered ideas, which fail to account for other cultures. Besides, language is a cultural phenomenon; that’s another well known fact. Language is a cultural product, the same as writing, agriculture, art, politics. It must therefore depend on culture. It makes sense that the structures of all languages resemble one another in Western culture, but taking a look at other cultures will give us a different view. Language acquisition is pre-rational and therefore has no structure. It’s pure intuition. We all know about the wonders of human imagination and creativity. We all know about kids’ interest in cartoons and images. It’s only adults who rely on words to interact. Kids are generally better at understanding non-verbal messages, because adults have numbed this natural skill with verbal communication. But this skill is not a structure; it’s simply an instinct, the same all animals have, to empathize. Universal Grammar has failed to see a basic instinct we have: Communication, and it has created a totally artificial means to account for language acquisition, while we could explain language very simply: It’s the utterance and further rationalization of feelings.

by Juan M.S.


I'm a writer born in Argentina, but currently living in Poland. I work as an English and French teacher, translator and copywriter.

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