Noam Chomsky - Developmental Psychology - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

Noam Chomsky
Developmental Psychology
The Canon


BORN 1928, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Educated at the University of Pennsylvania



There is no bigger contributor to theory at the intersection of linguistics and psychology than Noam Chomsky, though he is not a trained psychologist but rather a theorist with a Ph.D. in philosophy. And though a discussion of his work might fit well into other chapters of this book, his theories about the development of language make that discussion appropriate here, in this chapter about developmental psychology. Chomsky’s theories are organized around his concept of transformational grammar, which has to do with the patterns and rules that a language uses, and with how new sentences can be formulated from existing sentences. Chomsky also continues to be a force as a political activist, an economic theorist, and a social critic.

From early on, Chomsky’s work looked at the development of language, and he attacked the fundamental aspects of behaviorism as they pertained to language learning. In so doing, Chomsky became an important figure within the rising field of cognitive psychology. Recall that most behaviorists theorized that language is learned the way any other type of behavior is learned, through conditioning and repetition. Chomsky thinks this conception falls short of the truth. He believes that we are born preprogrammed to learn language, and that language learning is a process distinct and qualitatively different from the types of learning that go on in connection with other behaviors. Humans, Chomsky says, come with a built-in language acquisition device (LAD), which exists in the brain and is qualitatively distinct and unique. This idea is considered to reflect a nativist theory of language acquisition, a theory that says we’re genetically ingrained with the distinct ability to learn language. Chomsky sees the LAD as a processor that is set in motion by verbal input. He theorizes that the LAD entails inherent understanding of the structure of universal grammar, and that it gives children the ability to put words together in meaningful ways after they have learned some initial vocabulary.

Chomsky has made the case for this theory with his poverty-of-stimulus argument, which proposes that mere exposure to the stimulus of hearing people say particular sentences could never be sufficient to account for the ability of toddlers to learn how to speak. He argues that languages are so elaborate and complex that they can’t possibly be taught only by parents and peers, or discovered through trial and error. There are innumerable basic, comprehensible sentences that have likely never been spoken before, Chomsky says, and yet we are already completely capable of both uttering and understanding them. If we were to hear them, we would understand them automatically and intuitively. Chomsky’s critique of conditioning as the sole explanation for language development is quite significant, and it hastened behaviorism’s fall from dominance.

Chomsky has done a lot of work in the area of syntax, which has to do with the patterns of word arrangement that lead to meaning within phrases and sentences. He posits that any sentence has both a deep structure and a surface structure. The surface structure is in the way the words look and sound, whereas the deep structure has to do with the underlying meaning and allows for analysis and interpretation. The sentences “I love my parents.” and “My parents are loved by me.” have basically the same deep structure; they mean the same thing. Their surface structure, however, is different; the two sentences look different on the page and sound different to our ears. Chomsky has also explained that we derive meaning from morphemes and phonemes. Morphemes are the smallest bits of a language that still have some sort of meaning. In English, we have plenty of these nonwords that nonetheless are understood quite well, such as ing or anti or un or ness. Of course, plenty of actual words are themselves morphemes: dog, top, snap. Combine two or more morphemes into something new, and we understand what it means, whether it’s a word (unsnap, topless) or not (undog). Phonemes are even smaller linguistic units; they are sounds (or gestures, in sign languages) that are recognized as belonging to a particular language and as being distinct from one another. American English has 26 letters but about 44 phonemes (perhaps the precise number depends on one’s accent), as various letters can be used for different sounds (the long o in open and the short o in on), and letters can be combined to form whole new sounds (ch or sh or th). Though Chomsky is not the first theorist to talk about phonemes and morphemes, he has moved research significantly forward in this area and helped establish linguistics as a science. He has also embraced the linguist and neurologist Eric Lenneberg’s theory of critical periods of development when it comes to language learning. This theory says that, just as in several aspects of biological growth, there is a window of time early in life when language learning must begin; if language learning doesn’t begin during that time, then language will be markedly difficult to learn later on. The case of the pseudonymous Genie, a so-called feral child who was rescued at the age of 13 after years of severe neglect, isolation, and lack of stimulation, is often cited as evidence for this theory. Despite many interventions, Genie failed to become fluent in any spoken language, a result attributed to her having completely missed exposure to language input during that critical period.


Incidentally, Chomsky has stated that only humans come equipped with the LAD. The fact that apes (including a chimpanzee pointedly named Nim Chimpsky) have been taught to use sign language shows that this is not necessarily the case. However, the question of whether animals can use language spontaneously or have rule-bound structures of grammar remains a matter of some controversy.


Chomsky’s influence on cognitive psychology, language development, and linguistics cannot be overstated. His critiques of behaviorism contributed to its demise as a full-spectrum explanation of behavior. His nativist understanding of language development has spurred decades of research into the nature of language acquisition in children, and his study of syntactical structures has pushed forward the study of cognitive science in general.


A famed example of the difference between deep structure and surface structure involves this sentence: “The French bottle smells.” Are we talking about how the French make perfume, or about a French bottle that is taking on a nasty odor? It depends on how we create the phrasing in our minds—what we make of its syntax. We can understand the words “The French bottle” as the subject of the sentence, or we can understand “The French” as the subject and “bottle” as a verb. Or consider the function served by a comma. There’s a big difference between “I like cooking, my family, and my pets” and “I like cooking my family and my pets.” As punctuation continues to go by the board with the explosion of texting as a form of communication, it will be interesting and often amusing to see the miscommunications that arise from the difference between surface structure and deep structure.