Universal Grammar

In this video I provide a brief introduction to Noam Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar, which suggests that all human languages must share certain features. The human predisposition for language acquisition which allows us to acquire any human language depending on exposure suggests that all language follow the same types of rules even though they may differ in their specific grammatical rules.

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Video Transcript:

Hi, I’m Michael Corayer and this is Psych Exam Review. In this video I want to briefly introduce the idea of universal grammar. Universal grammar is a theory proposed by Noam Chomsky that suggests that all human languages share certain features. Now people often misinterpret this as meaning that all languages share grammar and that they share the same grammatical rules. Of course this is not the case. This is not what universal grammar refers to.

So in order to understand this idea of universal grammar we’re going to start with the idea that all children acquire language, right? So all children will acquire the language that they’re exposed to and it doesn’t matter what that specific language is. Children will learn it and they’ll learn it essentially naturally. It will emerge automatically and the rules of grammar will also emerge naturally. Children will come to understand how to express things in that language and they’ll learn the rules of grammar in that specific language.

So this is support for this idea of the language acquisition device and this is this idea from Chomsky that we must have some predisposition for learning language that other animals don’t have. If language naturally emerges in pretty much all people who are exposed to language then this means that our brains are prepared to learn language. We have a natural sort of predisposition for acquiring language. So the idea of a language acquisition device suggests that we are prepared to acquire language and again, this is not a specific structure in the brain or something, we talk about this language acquisition device as a sort of a general idea of well our brains are prepared in some way to acquire language. It’s not about a specific region of the brain that’s doing this.

Well, now we have this problem. We say we all acquire language if we’re exposed to it and we have some preparation, some predisposition, to acquire language, well how can we be prepared to acquire language if languages are all different? In other words, if I take an infant and I raise that infant in Japan then, you know, he’ll grow up speaking Japanese, if I raise him in Russia, he’ll grow up speaking Russian or if I raise him in Germany, he’ll grow up speaking German and it’s like, how can he be prepared?

How can we say that he has a biological predisposition to acquiring language and yet he doesn’t know what that language is going to be? How does this work? Well, the idea would be there must be some underlying features of language that are all the same and that we’re prepared to acquire any language because all languages have certain things in common. So the idea here is that we’re prepared to acquire certain types of grammatical rules but not the specific grammatical rules.

In other words, languages must share certain features, certain types of rules are common to all languages and our brains are prepared to acquire those types of rules but the specific rules will vary. In other words the idea that in a specific language maybe we learn that the adjective comes before the noun and in some other language it could be completely the opposite, right? The noun could come before the adjective and so the specific rules vary but the idea of adjectives is the same, the idea that we use some words to describe some other words, that we can change some mental representation of something by adding an adjective to it or that we can use verbs to express things or we have different tenses to talk about the time period in which things occurred.

These are things that all languages are going to have and these are the things that our brains are predisposed to picking up on. The specific ways that we express it, of course, are going to vary and we’re not born with some pre-programmed rules about grammar but rather that we’re sort of programmed to acquire any specific grammatical rules because all those rules will follow similar patterns, similar types of rules, in the existence of things like adjectives or adverbs or nouns.

So that’s really the idea of universal grammar. It’s often misinterpreted but hopefully this made it a little bit clearer. I hope you found this helpful, if so, please like the video and subscribe to the channel for more.

Thanks for watching!