Chomsky's Universal Grammar and Second Language Learning
Version of paper in Applied Linguistics 1985. For my more recent views see Multilingual Universal Grammar as the Norm or Chomsky's Universal Grammar (with Mark Newson 2007)
Having gone underground for a few years, once again Chomsky's ideas
of language learning are being discussed. A recent book, The Language
Lottery (Lightfoot 1982), readably outlines the theory; several collections
report research into its implications (Tavakolian 1981; Goodluck and Solan 1978)
and its theoretical aspects (Hornstein and Lightfoot 1981b; Baker and McCarthy
1981); most importantly a string of books by Chomsky himself has shown the
development in his views of language acquisition (Chomsky 1976; Chomsky 1980;
Chomsky 1981a). This paper tries to take stock of recent Chomskyan thinking in
terms of second language (L2) learning. The first section outlines the theory
itself, mostly drawing on Chomsky's own work; though parts may be familiar from
earlier versions, such an overview is necessary in order to ensure coherence.
The second section considers the implications for L2 learning, particularly
important because they appear to contradict some of the cherished assumptions in
the field; it should, however, be noted that Chomsky himself has not extended
the theory to L2 learning, apart from occasional scattered allusions. While the
first part attempts to present a consensus view of the LI theory, the second is
much more an individual interpretation of the theory for L2 learning.
1. THE THEORY OF UNIVERSAL GRAMMAR AND LANGUAGE ACQUISITION
A typical way in to the Chomskyan position is through a simple
conundrum (Baker 1979): an adult native speaker of a language knows things he
could not have learnt from the samples of speech he has heard; since this
knowledge is not based on his experience of the world, it must come from some
property inside his own mind.
Take the following two sentences, 'Is the programme that is on
television any good?' and *'Is the programme that on television is good?' A
speaker of English immediately knows that the first sentence is possible and
that the second is not; he knows in some sense that the 'is' that is shifted to
the beginning of a sentence in a question comes out of the main clause, rather
than the subordinate clause.
But how could he have acquired this piece of knowledge about
English? Some of the sentences he might have encountered during his life are
'The programme is good', "The programme that is on television is good', 'Is
the programme good?', and so on. None of these shows the rule being broken; they
give him information about what he can say, not about what he can't say.
The rule can be demonstrated to exist only by concocting an ungrammatical
sentence that would never occur in real life, *'Is the programme that on
television is good?', or by giving a grammatical analysis. But these are the
kinds of information that the child learning his first language precisely does not
have available to him. If native speakers find the sentence ungrammatical,
their judgement must be based on something other than their experience of the
world; the remaining possibility is that it is derived from some property of the
human mind that they all share.
A second example from English is the well-known pair, 'John is
eager to please' and 'John is easy to please', taken from the earlier 'Aspects'
model (Chomsky 1965);-on the surface the two sentences seem to have the same
structure but, looked at more closely, their underlying structures differ in
that in the first John is claimed to please other people, in the second other
people are claimed to please John. The sentences of English that the speaker has
heard may have included 'Mary is eager', "This is easy', 'Is John eager to
please?', and so on, none of which differentiates the two structures.
Conceivably an adult might explain the difference to the child, or some feature
of the particular situation might make it obvious; such accidental and
improbable occurrences cannot explain why children go through the same stages in
acquiring 'eager/easy to please' and are successful at about the same age
(Cromer 1970). If the child has not learnt the distinction from the input, he
must have done so from some property of his own mind. Both examples therefore
exploit the same argument, known as 'the poverty of the stimulus', to show that
the child knows things about language he could not have learnt from outside,
that important aspects of language are not strictly speaking learnable.
The language properties inherent in the human mind make up
'Universal Grammar', which consists, not of particular rules or of a particular
grammar, but of a set of general principles that apply to all grammars and that
leave certain parameters open; Universal Grammar sets the limits within which
human languages can vary. A native speaker of English knows that the sentence
'The train is arriving' is grammatical but *'arrives the tram' and *'arrives'
are not; the native speaker of Spanish knows that not only is 'el tren llega'
(the train arrives) grammatical, but so also are 'ha llegado un tren' (arrives a
train) and 'han llegado' (arrives). One of the parameters that is open in
Universal Grammar is the pro-drop parameter which is concerned roughly speaking
with the relationship of government between Subjects and Verbs (Chomsky 1981a).
English chooses not to have pro-drop; a Subject is required for every sentence
and it cannot be inverted with the verb in declarative sentences. Spanish,
however, is a pro-drop language in which 'empty' Subjects can occur and
inversion can take place, indeed is compulsory in certain circumstances (Green
1976). Hence a particular grammar amounts to a specification of the ways in
which it selects from the different possibilities inherent in Universal Grammar.
'The grammar of a language can be regarded as a particular set of values for
these parameters, while the overall system of rules, principles, and parameters
is UG . . . ' (Chomsky 1982). A partial analogy might be made to the
relationship of the European Convention on Human Rights to laws passed in the UK
Houses of Parliament; the Convention does not force particular laws on the UK,
but it establishes certain principles that the actual laws must conform to; it
sets parameters within which the laws can vary.
One way of visualizing Universal Grammar is to see it as part of
the brain: 'We may usefully think of the language faculty, the number faculty,
and others as "mental organs", analogous to the heart or the visual
system or the system of motor coordination and planning' (Chomsky 1980: 39).
Consequently, 'learning' is not the right word to describe how language
develops. A bulb becomes a flower; some cells become a lung. We do not say that
the bulb 'learns' to be a flower or the cells 'learn' to be a lung, although in
both cases certain aspects of the environment such as water and nourishment are
necessary to the process. Instead we say the bulb and the cells 'grow'. Their
growth is the realization of their genetic potential in conjunction with
'triggers' from the environment, the achievement of something that was within
them from the start. Why then do we say that the child 'learns' language rather
than language 'grows'? Universal Grammar present in the child's mind grows into
the adult's knowledge of the language so long as certain environmental
'triggers' are provided; it is not learnt in the same way that, say, riding a
bicycle or playing the guitar are learnt: 'a central part of what we call
"learning" is actually better understood as the growth of cognitive
structures along an internally directed course under the triggering and
potentially shaping effect of the environment' (Chomsky 1980: 33). Language
acquisition is the growth of the mental organ of language triggered by certain
language experiences. Hence the theory of Universal Grammar is frequently
referred to as part of biology. Indeed the theory is not dissimilar from ideas
current in biology on other issues, for instance the view that 'Embryogenesis
may then be seen as the progressive, orderly manifestation of the knowledge
which is latent in the egg' (Goodwin 1976: 202).
So, to acquire language, the child needs not only Universal Grammar
but also evidence about a particular language; he needs to hear sentences of
English to know how to fix the parameter for the order of Verb, Subject, and
Object. The evidence he encounters can be positive or negative (Chomsky 1981a).
Positive evidence consists of actual sentences of a language; by hearing 'The
cow jumped over the moon' or 'Johnny loves cabbages', the child learns that
English has Subject-Verb-Object order. Negative evidence falls into two
categories, direct and indirect. Direct negative evidence consists of
corrections of the child's mistakes by adults: 'You mustn't say "you
was", Jimmy, you must say "you were" '. Indirect negative
evidence is provided by the non-occurrence of something in the language the
child hears; the fact he never hears Subject-Object-Verb order is negative
evidence that English is a Subject-Verb-Object language. First language
acquisition relies chiefly on positive evidence; the child apparently receives
little direct negative evidence in the form of correction of syntax (Brown and
Hanlon 1970). The few corrections that occur are largely about dialectal or
socially stigmatized forms or socially prescribed politeness formulas, a small
fraction of English. The importance of indirect negative evidence is difficult
to assess, since it is clearly impossible to specify everything that the child doesn't
hear. Its value, however, depends upon the child already having certain
expectations about language that are not fulfilled, in other words it
presupposes a Universal Grammar in the child's mind. The whole of Universal
Grammar does not manifest itself in the child's speech at the same time.
Language principles that apply to long or complex sentences are needed only when
the child has the capacity actually to produce them; the parameters for SVO
order, for example, cannot apply when the child says only one word at a time.
Although language is a separate mental organ, its development is influenced by
other organs. While the claim that cognitive level and short-term memory
capacity limit the type of structure that may be employed has always been part
of the theory, the version current in the 1960s was sometimes interpreted as
claiming that the child's first sentences are closer to Universal Grammar;
McNeill, in a typical remark, said, though with qualifications, 'Early speech is
supposedly free of transformations and therefore should be a direct
manifestation of children's capacities' (McNeill 1970: 22). In the theory,
however, the language principles that are present manifest themselves in
accordance with the child's capacity to process information, and other
maturational factors; the child cannot reveal all he knows about language,
because of his other limitations. A distinction may be drawn between development—the
real-time learning of language by children —and acquisition—language
learning unaffected by maturation, sometimes called the instantaneous
acquisition model (Chomsky 1965; Pinker 1981). Sequence of development reveals
more about other cognitive systems than about language acquisition: '. . .
suppose it is a fact that children generally acquire the use of simple
one-clause structures before compound sentences; there is no reason to assume
that this fact must follow from some particular principle of the theory of
grammar, as opposed, let us say, to some property of perceptual maturation or
the developing short-term memory system' (Hornstein and Lightfoot 1981a: 15). So
far as acquisition is concerned, the interim developing grammars of the child
are irrelevant. It is nevertheless an open question in terms of development
whether the child starts with all the principles of Universal Grammar available,
or whether they gradually unfold as part of maturation: evidence to distinguish
principles that are present but cannot be revealed from those that are absent is
hard to conceive.
If Universal Grammar is present in toto from the beginning,
all human languages should conform to the language principles, whether the
stable grammars of adults or the temporary grammars of learners: 'A grammar . .
. represents a person's linguistic knowledge, whether the person is two years
old or twenty-two' (White 1981: 47). On this assumption, while many principles
are missing from the interim grammar, the rules that are present do not break
Let us now try to specify what the theory is actually dealing with.
First of all it is concerned with grammatical competence, the speaker's
knowledge of the language, not with what Chomsky calls pragmatic
competence—the ability to place 'language in the institutional setting of its
use, relating intentions and purposes to the linguistic means at hand' (Chomsky
1980: 225). It contrasts grammatical competence with pragmatic competence rather
than communicative competence, since there are many uses of languages other than
communication: 'either we must deprive the notion "communication" of
all significance, or else we must reject the view that the purpose of language
is communication' (Chomsky 1980: 230). Secondly, for those familiar with earlier
versions it is plain that rules play a much less central role. Chomsky (1982)
shows elegantly how rules are in fact consequences of principles of Universal
Grammar and of the way in which particular parameters are set. A grammar
consists of a specification of the values of parameters, which may be
represented as rules, but these are of secondary importance. Thirdly, a new
distinction separates core grammar (those parts of the language that have
'grown' in the child through the interaction of Universal Grammar with the
relevant language environment) from peripheral grammar (the parts outside the
core). Any particular language such as English contains elements that are
derived from its history (the structure of 'the more the merrier', for instance,
comes from Old English), that are borrowed from other languages (the
pronunciation of 'police' shows it is a late borrowing from French), or that
have been added to it by other accidental processes ('the dreaded lurgy' entered
British English and became a children's game because of a radio programme);
these do not reflect the principles of Universal Grammar in the same way as the
core:'... it is reasonable to assume that UG determines a set of core grammars
and that what is actually represented in the mind of an individual even under
the idealisation to a homogeneous speech community would be a core grammar with
a periphery of marked elements and constructions' (Chomsky 1980: 8). While some
aspects of an individual's grammar come from Universal Grammar, others are
influenced by other factors.
Let us now see what this means for learning. By using the same
language principles, a French child constructs a grammar of French, an English
child a grammar of English. The two grammars represent different choices within
the guidelines set by Universal Grammar, different applications of the same
linguistic principles in response to different environments; 'Experience is
necessary to fix the parameters of core grammar' (Chomsky 1981a: 8). But the
children also have to learn aspects of language that are peripheral, that do not
conform to Universal Grammar. The child's mind 'prefers' to adopt rules based on
the handy set of principles with which it is equipped; they are in a sense the
easy way out, and need only triggering experience to be learnt. By listening to
the language around him, he can decide how to fix the parameter of sentence
order as SVO or SOV, for instance. His mind 'prefers' not to adopt peripheral
solutions, as they fall outside his pre-programmed instructions; they are more
demanding. This may be interpreted through the concept of markedness: the child
prefers to learn 'unmarked' knowledge that conforms to Universal Grammar, rather
than 'marked' knowledge that is less compatible with it. Core grammar and
peripheral grammar are weighted differently in the child's mind. Chomsky sees
peripheral learning as systematic and related to core learning; 'there should be
further structure to the system outside of core grammar. We might expect that
the structure of these further systems relates to the theory of core grammar by
such devices as relaxing certain conditions of core grammar, processes of
analogy in some sense to be made precise, and so on, though there will
presumably be independent structure as well' (Chomsky 1981a: 8). Hence we may
expect to find a continuum of markedness from core to periphery. The distinction
does not, however, entail that core unmarked grammar is necessarily learnt
first. 'We would expect the order of acquisition of structures in language
acquisition to reflect the structure of markedness in some respects, but there
are many complicating factors; e.g. processes of maturation may be such as to
permit certain unmarked structures to be manifested only relatively late in
language acquisition, frequency effects may intervene, etc' (Chomsky 1981a:
9).Sequence of development again is an unreliable guide to acquisition.
Though not part of the theory itself, earlier versions were often
associated with the notion of language acquisition as hypothesis testing. It is
important, however, to define the sense in which hypothesis testing is
acceptable. One interpretation has been that the child creates a hypothesis
about the grammar more or less at random; he produces sentences according to his
hypothesis, and the feedback he receives from the situation tells him whether or
not it is correct. In this sense, hypothesis testing has never recovered from
the blow administered to it by Martin Braine, who argued that it required
negative as well as positive evidence to be successful (Braine 1971; Baker
1979); the child cannot discover if his hypothesis is right or wrong if he is
not told when he makes mistakes. But, as we have seen, it is widely accepted
that correction is infrequent; the child does not meet enough negative evidence
to reject incorrect hypotheses. Nor does he produce enough incorrect sentences
to test out hypotheses adequately; while at the earliest stages it could be said
that the child's sentences are incorrect, after, say, the age of four, though
the child's language lacks many structures, it is by and large grammatical. The
lack of negative evidence and of incorrect sentences shows the inadequacy of
hypothesis testing through feedback from outside. Another interpretation of
hypothesis testing is nevertheless acceptable: To acquire language, a child must
devise a hypothesis compatible with presented data—he must select from the
store of potential grammars a specific one that is appropriate to the data
available to him' (Chomsky 1965: 36). Universal Grammar allows different core
grammars in different languages; the child has several initial hypotheses to
choose from, several parameters to fix; his internal Universal Grammar severely
restricts the range of hypotheses he can entertain, the final choice depending
upon evidence from the environment. Hypothesis testing is a possible explanation
for language acquisition, in the sense that the child chooses from the limited
number of possibilities provided by Universal Grammar in accordance with the
evidence he meets.
Let us try to summarize the roles of the environment and of
cognition within the theory, two threads that have run through the discussion.
First, so far as the environment is concerned, Chomsky has been at pains to
point out that all learning involves inherent properties of the child's mind:
'Every "theory of learning" that is even worth considering
incorporates an innateness hypothesis' (Chomsky 1976: 13). Even behaviourism
attributes to the child an ability to form associations of stimulus and
response. All learning theories are therefore interactionist in that they have
to take into account both the learner and the situation; to quote Martin Buber
in a rather different context, 'Meaning is not in us or in things, but between
us and things it can happen'. Theories differ in how they strike the balance
between person and situation, Chomsky coming down heavily at the learner end,
behaviourism at the situational end. Chomsky's theory assigns a precise role to
the environment: negatively it denies that it provides sufficient evidence for
the learning of particular aspects of linguistic knowledge without the aid of a
powerful in-built grammar; positively it suggests the environment provides
positive evidence to help the learner fix the ways in which Universal Grammar
applies to the language he is learning. Universal Grammar makes certain things
obligatory in any grammar; others it leaves free to vary within pre-set limits;
the environment provides evidence about the particular limits that apply in a
given case. "Thus, UG presumably determines that a clause S will have a
complementiser and propositional content S, which may be tensed or infinitival.
But experience determines that in English, infinitival clauses use the form
to-Verb and may have the complementiser for rather than that or
that buy and play are associated with concepts of the conceptual
system as they are' (Chomsky 1981b: 38). One of the implications of the theory,
therefore, is a shift in the balance of what is learnt from grammar to lexis.
Much grammatical knowledge simply needs fixing though evidence from the
environment. What does need learning is how particular lexical items can enter
into various structures. 'A large part of "language learning" is a
matter of determining, from presented data, the elements of the lexicon and
their properties' (Chomsky 1982: 8).
The role of cognition is complex. There are two senses in which
cognition is involved; one is the development of overall levels of thinking, the
stages of cognitive development familiar from Piaget or Bruner; the other is the
systems of information processing involved in handling language, which can be
called channel capacity. So far as acquisition is concerned, the mental
faculty of language does not need to be related to other faculties of the mind,
as for instance Piagetans would claim that language presupposes certain
cognitive operations (Sinclair-de-Zwart 1969). So far as development is
concerned, language is bound up with other elements of cognitive maturation.
Partly this is because development deals with language in use—with pragmatics
and performance: 'much of the investigation of early language development is
concerned with matters that may not properly belong to the language faculty, . .
., but to other faculties of the mind that interact in an intimate fashion with
the language faculty in language use' (Chomsky 1981b: 35). Partly, however, as
we have seen, language development interacts with cognition in that certain
language principles cannot be deployed until the child has developed the channel
capacity to handle them. So, for instance, short-term memory may be vitally
important to development, because the length of sentence that can be uttered
limits the principles that can be employed. Although language is an independent
mental organ, in development it nevertheless needs to draw on other mental
organs. Indeed, the same argument applies to physical organs: phonological
development may be affected by the myelinization of the nervous system, which
gradually allows more complex signals to be transmitted (Lecours 1975); the
growth of gyrus granule cells in the hippocampal area of the brain may allow the
child to attain a particular cognitive level at the age of about five (Rose
1980). Neither of these physical changes affects acquisition itself, but may
have profound effects on language development. Thus certain aspects of cognitive
and physical development can influence the order in which a child develops
As the purpose of this section has been to present the theory as a
whole in order to bring out its implications for L2 learning, it is not the
place to evaluate it or to discuss the acquisition research carried out within
the theory reported in Tavakolian (1981) and Goodluck and Solan (1978). A
criticism that is often voiced is its abstraction from the everyday world.
Competence is separated from performance, grammatical competence from pragmatic
competence, acquisition from development, core from peripheral grammar, each
removing something from actual language use: 'To discover the properties of UG
and core grammar we must attempt to abstract away from complicating factors of
various sorts, a course that has its hazards but is inescapable in serious
inquiry, in linguistics no less than in other domains' (Chomsky 1981b: 39). Some
people would dispute whether such abstraction is valid; has the baby been thrown
out with the bathwater? Bresnan and Kaplan (1982) claim, for instance, 'there is
a scientific responsibility to show that the real does asymptotically
approach the ideal under certain circumstances', a responsibility not shouldered
by the present theory. Its power depends instead on the argument from the
poverty of the stimulus that speakers know things they could not have learnt.
Can a single paradoxical argument bear the weight that is put upon it? Chomsky
himself insists that the argument of the poverty of the stimulus is not peculiar
to linguistics, but part of all sciences concerned with development; it is so
obviously true that birds do not 'learn' to have wings that people do not see
that the same argument is involved. Moreover, Feyerabend has argued that science
proceeds not through theory formulation and testing, but through the
presentation of new ways of arguing, which he terms 'propaganda' (Feyerabend
1975). Thus Galileo's theory of relative motion relied not on actual evidence,
but on an argument about an artist drawing on a ship in motion. The Chomskyan
argument is in the same tradition, the presentation of an argument that is no
more unrelated to what it is trying to explain than that advanced by Galileo.
2. UNIVERSAL GRAMMAR AND
SECOND LANGUAGE LEARNING
The relevance of the theory to L2 learning depends not so much on
the uncertain analogy to LI learning as on the original conundrum of the poverty
of the stimulus: how can a speaker of a second language know things he could not
have learnt from the language he has encountered? In other words, if the L2
speaker knows that *Is the programme that on television is good?' is
ungrammatical, and if the knowledge is not demonstrably derived from experience,
it must originate within his own mind. While no research has investigated L2
learners' judgments of such sentences, the other example used above, 'easy/eager
to please', has been looked at by d'Anglejean and Tucker (1975) and Cook (1973),
who found that L2 learners are indeed able to distinguish the two structures
after they have been learning English for a certain period of time. In this
instance the knowledge is not likely to be drawn from experience, since on the
one hand 'easy/eager to please' has not figured in teaching syllabuses,
structural exercises, or pedagogical grammars, and on the other it is improbable
that native speakers have demonstrated it to the L2 learner. The answer to the
conundrum is once again that the L2 learner's knowledge derives from some
property of the mind. However, while the conclusion is the same as in first
language acquisition, it may have a different explanation, in as much as the
minds of L2 learners or the situations have different properties.
The most obviously different property is that the L2 learner
possesses a grammar of a first language incorporating the principles of
Universal Grammar and specifying a particular set of values for its parameters.
Two possibilities for L2 learning need to be considered: the learner might have
access to Universal Grammar either directly or indirectly through the first
language. In a way this rephrases the debate about the relationship of first and
second language learning—whether L2 learners start from scratch, or depend
upon their first language; while the dust has never settled on this dispute, one
position is that L2 learning is like LI learning when situational and cognitive
factors are ruled out (Cook 1977): the apparent discrepancies are caused either
by accidental or necessary differences in the situations, or by non-linguistic
differences in the learners' minds, rather than by anything in the language
process itself. So far as the principles of Universal Grammar are concerned, the
question amounts to asking whether L2 grammars are constrained in the same way
as LI grammars. Schmidt showed that a group of L2 learners of English produced
only natural surface orders such as 'John sang a song and played the guitar' or
'John plays the. guitar and Mary the piano', rather than unnatural orders such
as *'Sang a song and John plays guitar' or *'John the violin and Mary plays the
piano', thus obeying the principle that only the second identical noun or verb
may be omitted from the sentence (Schmidt 1980). Ritchie found that adult
learners of English correctly judged sentences such as "That a boat had
sunk that John had built was obvious' grammatical, and sentences such as *'That
a boat had sunk was obvious that John had built' ungrammatical (Ritchie 1978),
demonstrating that they still had access to a principle of Universal Grammar
called the Right Roof Constraint (reformulated slightly differently in the
present theory) that elements that are moved in the sentence must not cross
certain types of boundary.
The notion of parameter-fixing can formulate the relationship
between first and second language learning in a more precise way. To take a
specific example, if Universal Grammar is directly accessible to the L2 learner,
it should not affect a Spanish learner of English that the two languages have
fixed the pro-drop parameter differently; lie simply needs the proper triggers
to fix it anew. However, if it is not directly accessible, he can approach
English only through the value of the parameter for Spanish. The question of
whether L2 learning recapitulates LI learning can be narrowed down to
considering whether L2 learners' grammars reflect the principles of Universal
Grammar, and whether parameters are still free to be fixed in a second language
from triggering evidence.
There is, however, a third possibility: in some sense the L2
learner might be cut off from Universal Grammar after a certain age. Lenneberg's
Critical Period Hypothesis, henceforward CPH, set the limits for LI acquisition
between the ages of two, before which the child is too immature physically, and
twelve, after which the brain is too inflexible (Lenneberg 1967). Although
Chomsky wrote of it approvingly in 'Aspects' (Chomsky 1965: 206), the CPH has
not been discussed within the current framework. Presumably it would mean that
after a particular age, the principles and parameters of Universal Grammar are
no longer directly accessible to the learner; the older L2 learner has no option
but to work through his L1 or through a non-language faculty. One reason for the
lack of discussion of the CPH in the current theory may be that it is concerned
with physical or cognitive maturation, that is to say, development; acquisition
does not by definition take account of maturational factors. It has always been
difficult to reconcile the CPH with successful L2 learning after the critical
period. It has usually been salvaged by arguing that the first language acts as
a mediator to Universal Grammar; the fact that a person over forty can learn to
communicate in a foreign language 'does not trouble our basic assumption on age
limitations because we may assume that the cerebral organisation for language
learning as such has taken place during childhood, and since natural languages
tend to resemble each other in many fundamental aspects, . . . the matrix for
language skills is present' (Lenneberg 1967:176). Chomsky himself has queried
the importance of the LI as a mediator: 'While it may be true that "once
some language is available, acquisition of others is relatively easy", it
nevertheless remains a very serious problem—not significantly different from
the problem of explaining first language acquisition—to account for this fact'
(Chomsky 1969). In the current theory, mediation would be successful if the
values of parameters were the same in the two languages; if the learner has been
cut off from Universal Grammar, it is hard to see how he can retrieve the
original parameters to fix their values differently in the second language.
Evidence for the CPH in relation to L2 learning has been widely discussed by,
inter alia, McLaughlin (1978), and Paivio and Begg (1981); the usual conclusion
is that it is disconfirmed by evidence that adults and older children are better
than younger children at L2 learning when the circumstances are the same, e.g.
Asher and Price (1967) and Ekstrand (1976), and that there are not the expected
differences between children acquiring their first language and adults acquiring
their second when situational and other accidental factors are discounted.
Within the present theory, the evidence from Ritchie (1978) and Schmidt (1980)
suggests that a strong form of the hypothesis is not tenable, as learners after
the critical period demonstrate they have access to at least some of the
principles of Universal Grammar.
The answer to the conundrum may, however, be caused by differences
in the environment; the L2 learner might know things he could not apparently
have learnt because the situation supplies him with special types of evidence
either not available to the native child or not usable by him. The kinds of
evidence that an L2 learner encounters probably depend more on the type of
situation than for the native child, particularly whether it is a 'natural'
informal situation such as an immigrant using the language for everyday
purposes, or an 'artificial' formal situation such as a classroom. In the
natural setting one may assume that L2 learners probably meet positive and
negative evidence in more or less the same proportions as native children; they
also meet language modified by native speakers to their communication needs. One
suspects, however, that correction is less likely with foreign adults, since it
is more rude to correct an adult than a child. In the classroom setting on the
other hand, direct negative evidence sometimes looms larger, since some teachers
provide frequent and systematic correction, at least on a surface syntactic
level. Older classroom learners may also encounter what can be called explanatory
evidence, that is to say, explanations of the grammatical rules of the
language. In practice few learners meet adequate explanations of syntactic
points such as 'easy/eager to please'; as Chomsky points out, 'it must be
recognised that one does not learn the grammatical structure of a second
language through "explanation and instruction" beyond the most
rudimentary elements, for the simple reason that no one has enough explicit
knowledge about this structure to provide explanation and instruction' (Chomsky
1969). Nevertheless, in principle explanatory evidence is available to older L2
learners in formal settings in a way
that it is not to the native child, as theories such as cognitive code learning
(Carroll 1965) and the Monitor Model (Krashen 1981) have emphasized.
The role of cognition is also different in L2 acquisition, since
the learner is not necessarily subject to the same maturational constraints. Let
us first consider this in terms of cognitive levels. To study L2 learning in
adults is in a sense to study language acquisition divorced from maturation, as
Gass and Ard have argued (Gass and Ard 1980). Thus the 'natural' order of L2
development (Krashen 1982) is perhaps closer to acquisition than is LI
development; it differs from LI development wherever the LI has, so to speak,
been held up for lack of cognitive maturity or channel capacity. Gass and Ard
(1980) suggest that children's order of acquisition of relative clauses follows
their cognitive development, while the order of acquisition by L2 learners
reflects a principle of accessibility; the L2 learner's development tells us
more of acquisition than the native child's. While the formula that L2 learning
equals acquisition is attractive, it rests upon the assumption that the channel
capacity for language use depends upon maturation and does not need to be
re-acquired in a second language. However, some aspects of channel capacity are
not transferred to a second language, i.e. they are in some way dependent on the
first language. In contrast to Gass and Ard's work it has been suggested, for
example, that English relative clauses require a certain capacity of speech
processing memory in the listener, gained by the native child around the age of
seven; the foreign learner does not start from an adult position, but has to
reacquire this channel capacity in the new language (Cook 1975). Similarly, some
language-related aspects of memory such as rehearsal strategies and short-term
memory capacity are substantially transferred to a second language (Cook 1981),
others such as the clustering of vocabulary are not (Cook 1977). To say that L2
development is acquisition minus maturation is not the same as saying it is
acquisition minus limitations upon channel capacity; L2 development is still
affected by cognitive factors. The problem is discovering which cognitive
processes need to be re-established in a second language, which can be
An overall conclusion for L2 learning research is that development
is not necessarily reliable evidence for acquisition in a second language: the
L2 sequence of development may reflect the re-establishing of 'channel capacity'
for using the language, rather than language acquisition per se. Statements
about sheer order of acquisition need support from accounts of the
interrelationship between development, channel capacity, and other cognitive
processes, before they can be considered valid for L2 acquisition or compared to
LI acquisition. Hence the discovery of a common acquisition sequence for L2
learners, which has been hailed as 'surely one of the most exciting and
significant outcomes of the last decade of second language acquisition research'
(Burt and Dulay 1980: 325), must be seen as a first step in the description of
development (and incidentally based largely on the presence or absence of a few
surface syntactic features, rather than on underlying linguistic principles); it
can say little about acquisition until the order has been shown to be the
product of language acquisition itself, rather than channel capacity. The fact
that L2 learners use simple one-clause sentences before complex sentences, or
plural V before possessive V, or interpret 'eager/easy to please' initially as
the same structure tells us more about L2 development than about L2 acquisition,
without further information.
A related question is the concept of markedness in L2 learning,
reviewed in Rutherford (1982). Within the current theory, unmarked aspects of
grammar are those that are directly related to Universal Grammar and form the
'core'; marked aspects are less directly related to Universal Grammar and form
'peripheral' grammar; thus markedness reflects the degree to which something is
related to Universal Grammar, and consequently the degree to which it is
learnable by the child from inbuilt principles. One use of markedness within L2
research has been in connection with the Accessibility Hierarchy (Keenan 1972),
which postulates a continuum going from rules that are most accessible and hence
most widespread in human languages and most easily learnt, to those that are
least accessible, found more rarely- in the world's languages, and learnt with
more difficulty. The most often cited example is relative clauses; clauses based
on a Subject relationship, e.g. "The man who came in is English', are more
accessible than those based on, say, an Object-of-Comparison relationship, e.g.
"The boy that I am fitter than is leaving'.
Eckmann (1977) argues that a comparison of the target and mother
languages predicts that learners should find the most difficulty with those
aspects of the L2 that are more marked in terms of accessibility than the LI.
Cook (1975) found certain similarities to the Accessibility Hierarchy in LI and
L2 learners of English, as did Gass (1979), although some differences emerged.
The acquisition of relative clauses has also been studied within the framework
of the present theory by Liceras (1981) in terms of the markedness of 'filters',
and by Flynn (1983) in terms of the 'right branching principle'.
It is unclear precisely how the Accessibility Hierarchy is to be
handled within the present theory; it could be interpreted as a continuum from
unmarked core grammar to marked peripheral grammar. The evidence of Eckmann
(1977) and Gass (1979) none the less suggests that the L2 learner operates with
a concept of markedness based on closeness to the principles of Universal
Grammar. White has developed this notion in terms of the relative markedness of
different settings of a parameter (White 1983). Her example is the comparative
restrictiveness of movement rules in English compared to French (technically S
is a bounding category in English, but not French); the English setting for the
parameter is less marked. Consequently French learners of English are likely to
have particular problems with movement in English, since they are moving from a
language with a more marked setting to one with a less marked. It should be
pointed out, however, that markedness is used in other senses to the one found
here, to refer to grammatical complexity, for example, as in some of the sources
cited by Rutherford (1982), or to preferences for particular meanings of words,
as in Kellerman (1979). Also the present theory does not assume that markedness
is directly reflected in order of development, even if this additional
assumption is made by many first and second language researchers. Though there
is some plausibility in feeling that 'natural' unmarked forms should be learnt
before those that are 'unnatural' and marked, features of channel capacity,
etc., distort the sequence. However crucial to acquisition, the actual sequence
of development disguises markedness in many ways.
The theory has clear implications for the notion of 'interlanguage'
in L2 learning research (Selinker 1972)—the assumption that the L2 learner has
a grammar of his own that is systematic in its own terms and that is distinct
from both the first and the second languages. We have seen earlier that one
interpretation of the theory is that not only the final grammar of competence is
governed by Universal Grammar, but also all the interim grammars that the child
goes through en route to adult competence (White 1982). Consequently,
interlanguage as a human language must fit in with Universal Grammar. The
studies by Schmidt (1980) and Ritchie (1978) cited earlier show that
interlanguages reflect principles of surface order and of movement, and hence
demonstrate their subjection to Universal Grammar.
Interlanguages should be considered no more deviant than ordinary
grammars; they too are based on the properties of the human mind. Error Analysis
based on the interlanguage hypothesis has therefore two new factors to take into
account: one that interlanguages incorporate universal principles, the other
that errors may be the result of channel capacity rather than of acquisition per
se. One conceptual problem, however, is that L2 learning is seldom complete,
in that few learners ever approximate to native competence; all their grammars
are interlanguages. Hence the instantaneous acquisition model is difficult to
apply, because there is no settled final competence, no 'steady state' grammar.
The concept of L2 learning as hypothesis testing is fundamentally
affected by the theory. It has often been suggested that L2 learning is a
process in which the learner creates interim guesses about the language which he
tries out to see whether they are right or wrong and reformulates them if
necessary (Cook 1969); Ellis, for instance, claims 'The principal tenet of IL
theory, that the learner constructs for himself a series of hypotheses about the
grammar of the language and consciously or unconsciously tests these out in
formal or informal learning contexts, has withstood the test of both speculation
and considerable empirical research' (Ellis 1982). The arguments against
hypothesis testing that were raised earlier are equally true of L2 learning. In
the natural environment, or a classroom that simulates a natural environment,
the learner encounters only positive evidence, and does not get enough negative
evidence to confirm or disconfirm his hypotheses.
'Natural' L2 learning cannot therefore consist of hypothesis
testing in the sense in which hypotheses are checked against external feedback;
the same argument holds. On the other hand, the learner in a classroom or other
artificial setting may receive direct negative evidence or have access to
explanatory data; he might therefore receive enough non-primary evidence for
hypothesis testing to be feasible. But this leads to an odd paradox: hypothesis
testing by feedback has usually been claimed to be the 'natural' informal way of
learning a second language, the provision of correction and explanation an
'unnatural' formal way. Hence L2 learning research has to be cautious in its
support of hypothesis testing. It is acceptable only in the sense that the
learner checks positive evidence against the limited set of hypotheses provided
by his Universal Grammar.
The role of Contrastive Analysis is also very different in the
theory. Rather than being compared directly, two languages may be compared
indirectly through the ways in which they embody the same linguistic principle
while fixing parameters differently. Thus English is related to German through
the slightly different ways in which it fixes sentence order. Structural
comparison is a matter not of actual rules, but of the way in which the rules
exploit the same underlying resources. The concept of core and periphery implies
that this type of comparison must be supplemented by an account of how the two
grammars deviate from core grammar for whatever reason. Thus, while English and
French can be found to be similar in terms of the core parameter of sentence
order, the account of their relationship also needs to take in the more
peripheral rule that auxiliaries precede the Subject in certain types of
question. At the core, the theory provides a common measuring stick for two
grammars; as we move to the periphery, the stick becomes less appropriate and
more attention has to be paid to other factors than Universal Grammar. A further
relevant point is the distinction between development and acquisition; classical
CA compared the two final steady-state grammars, i.e. was about acquisition. As
Zobl has suggested, it may be fruitful to relate CA instead to development; 'it
is paramount that the role of prior LI knowledge be conceptualised as a variable
which may introduce variation into a developmental sequence'(Zobl 1982).
To sum up, the hypothetical picture of L2 learning that emerges is
that the learner contributes a set of language principles and unfixed
parameters; the evidence he encounters enables him to fix the parameters into a
new grammar. While his first language affects his acquisition, it cannot help
him acquire those parts of grammar that vary from one language to another. He
also encounters evidence that does not fit Universal Grammar, for which he has
to adopt more marked solutions. His environment, though different from the LI
child's in some respects and subject to greater variation, does not provide him
with any way out of the problem of the poverty of the stimulus. Because of his
greater maturity, he does not have the same restrictions as the native child; in
terms of cognitive level, but not of channel capacity, his development shows
acquisition more closely than first language acquisition. How could this
position be shown to be correct? One simple test is to see if the L2 learner
knows rules he could not have learnt from the environment and that could not
have been mediated through the first language, such as 'eager/easy to please'.
Another is to show that interlanguages always reflect Universal Grammar, as
Ritchie and Schmidt suggest (Schmidt 1980; Ritchie 1978). A third is to see
whether L2 development shows characteristic differences from LI development so
far as the absence of maturation is concerned, as argued in Gass and Ard (1980).
But far more detailed and wide-ranging research is needed to show that there is
real substance to this picture. Even if it is rejected, L2 learning research
still has to defend its use of the concepts of hypothesis testing, sequence of
development, and interlanguage, which are no longer compatible with the theory
of Universal Grammar, either by severing its links with first language
acquisition theory or by rethinking its ideas accordingly.
At the moment a long and treacherous route connects the theory with
language teaching. On the negative side it removes some of the justifications
for language teaching techniques claimed to be derived from earlier versions of
the theory. It has often been suggested that students should be actively
encouraged to try out their interim hypotheses in teaching situations so that
they can use feedback to determine whether they are right (Cook 1969).
Communication games, for example, have been justified on the grounds that they
put the learner in a communicative situation where he gets instant feedback.
Allwright (1977) argues that 'The success or failure of successive attempts to
communicate in such tasks provides automatically G2 and G3 ("cues" and
simple knowledge of results) from which the learners can infer the
characteristics of the target language.' Such teaching techniques are not
supported by the interpretation of hypothesis testing put
forward here, even if they are desirable for other reasons. The new
version also is not sympathetic towards the primacy of communication in language
learning, one of the tenets of communicative methodology. In many ways the
current theory seems closer to the humanistic trend in language teaching, with
its emphasis on the value of the foreign language to the student's multi-faceted
personal growth as described in Stevick (1980). The role attributed to the
environment is also very different from that assumed in recent language teaching
which has emphasized the importance of the language the students hear, whether
in terms of the syllabus, the types of activity carried out in the classroom, or
the provision of meaningful input (Krashen 1982); in the theory the environment
only provides triggers.
Language teaching too might try exploring the possibility of
providing triggering evidence. A while ago Newmark and Reibel argued that the
learner should be allowed to apply the language principles in his mind without
interference from the teacher (Newmark and Reibel 1969). Chomsky himself wrote
that 'we should probably try to create a rich linguistic environment for the
intuitive heuristics that the normal human being automatically possesses'
(Chomsky 1968). The discovery of some, if not all, of the principles and
parameters of Universal Grammar means modifying the Newmark and Reibel argument,
since, if we are no longer ignorant, we could provide appropriate triggers for
them to function; the learner's task might be expedited by meeting the right
evidence at the right moment. As the sequence of L2 development depends partly
upon channel capacity, the evidence must show how the parameters are fixed and
how they may be encountered at the time when such factors as STM capacity are
able to cope. Keith Nelson has described an approach for accelerating first
language acquisition based on 'rare event' learning (Nelson 1982); first he
assesses whether a child is 'ready' to learn a particular structure, then he
provides examples of it over a short period; triggering experience when the time
is ripe teaches the child the structure. Similarly the prototype theory of
categorization suggests that there are 'best' examples of categories; a robin is
a 'better' example of a bird than an ostrich (Rosch 1977). An L2 learner might
then be presented with best-example sentences for which he is 'ready', to hasten
the operation of Universal Grammar. Perhaps, for instance, the L2 learner of
English needs to hear enough sentences early on to fix in his mind the fact that
English is an SVO language. Paradoxically a theory firmly based on the inherent
powers of the mind can come full circle to the effects of the environment on
learning; the existence of a particular parameter of variation triggered by the
environment suggests that the timing and nature of the trigger affect its
acquisition, other things being equal.
So, to conclude, this paper has tried to explore' the relationship
between the theory of Universal Grammar and L2 learning. Feyerabend has
suggested that science should simultaneously explore several alternatives,
rather than confining itself to a single dominant model at a time: 'pluralism of
theories and of metaphysical views is not only important for methodology, it is
also an essential part of a humanitarian outlook' (Feyerabend 1975: 52). It has
not been argued here that Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar is uniquely
important for L2 learning, but that it is an alternative that applied linguists
should evaluate for themselves rather than reject out of hand. A recent
characteristic of applied linguistics has been its disassociation from
contemporary theoretical linguistics; a bare handful of articles have attempted
to relate the Chomskyan position to applied linguistics (Newmeyer 1982; Roca
1979; Sharwood Smith 1982). It would be dangerous if this attitude precluded the
applied linguist from suspending his disbelief long enough to investigate what
is happening in linguistics, even if after a closer look he decides it is not
My thanks are due to the following for their extensive comments on earlier
drafts of this paper: D. Arnold, N. Chomsky, F. Eckmann, C. James, D. Lightfoot,
F. Newmeyer, I. Roca, T. Roeper, L. White, H. Zobl. Needless to say, the errors
that remain are mine.
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