An excerpt from the new book “Power Systems” explore's Chomsky's contributions to the raging academic debate on linguistics and how children learn to speak.
David Barsamian and Noam Chomsky in AlterNet:
DB: It’s been more than five decades since you first wrote about universal grammar, the idea of an inborn capacity in every human brain that allows a child to learn language. What are some of the more recent developments in the field?
NC: Well, that gets technical, but there’s very exciting work going on refining the proposed principles of universal grammar. The concept is widely misunderstood in the media and in public discussions. Universal grammar is something different: it is not a set of universal observations about language. In fact, there are interesting generalizations about language that are worth studying, but universal grammar is the study of the genetic basis for language, the genetic basis of the language faculty. There can’t be any serious doubt that something like that exists. Otherwise an infant couldn’t reflexively acquire language from whatever complex data is around. So that’s not controversial. The only question is what the genetic basis of the language faculty is.
Here there are some things that we can be pretty confident about. For one thing, it doesn’t appear that there’s any detectable variation among humans. They all seem to have the same capacity. There are individual differences, as there are with everything, but no real group differences—except maybe way at the margins. So that means, for example, if an infant from a Papua New Guinea tribe that hasn’t had contact with other humans for thirty thousand years comes to Boulder, Colorado, it will speak like any kid in Colorado, because all children have the same language capacity. And the converse is true. This is distinctly human. There is nothing remotely like it among other organisms. What explains this?