Is Noam Chomsky’s Theory of Language Wrong? Steven Pinker Weighs in on Debate

John Horgan in Scientific American:

ScreenHunter_2411 Nov. 30 19.46Noam Chomsky’s political views attract so much attention that it’s easy to forget he’s a scientist, one of the most influential who ever lived. Beginning in the 1950s, Chomsky contended that all humans possess an innate capacity for language, activated in infancy by minimal environmental stimuli. He has elaborated and revised his theory of language acquisition ever since.

Chomsky’s ideas have profoundly affected linguistics and mind-science in general. Critics attacked his theories from the get-go and are still attacking, paradoxically demonstrating his enduring dominance. Some attacks are silly. For example, in his new book A Kingdom of Speech Tom Wolfe asserts that both Darwin and “Noam Charisma” were wrong. (See journalist Charles Mann’s evisceration of Wolfe.)

Other critiques are serious. In “Language in a New Key,” in the November Scientific American, Paul Ibbotson and Michael Tomasello contend that “much of Noam Chomsky’s revolution in linguistics, including its account of the way we learn languages, is being overturned.” The online headline says “Evidence Rebuts Chomsky's Theory of Language Learning.” Ibbotson and Tomasello propose that children acquire language via “general cognitive abilities and the reading of other people’s intentions.”

Seeking enlightenment, I asked psychologist Steven Pinker what he thinks about the recent criticism of Chomsky.

More here.

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