The provision of input is crucial to acquisition, but the necessary input may consist of a handful of sentences.
We come then to the question of sequence of development. Much L2 learning research has prided itself on discovering sequences of acquisition, as if a sequence were itself an explanation rather than a fact that needed to be explained. Far from the claim of the standard Critical Period Hypothesis that there is a cut-off point for language acquisition, and far from the usual claim of the Monitor Model that acquisition can take place at any time while conscious learning may occur only after a certain age Krashen, , if a growth model of UG is correct and UG is still available, the acquisition of older L2 learners will reflect UG better than that of younger L1 or L2 learners since they would have all the principles simultaneously present.
Like other contemporary linguistic theories, UG also emphasizes the importance of vocabulary. He or she needs however to acquire an immense amount of detail about how individual words are used. A major learning component according to the UG theory will indeed be vocabulary, if not perhaps in the way that either learners or teachers presently conceive of it.
UG theory clearly has little to say about many of the controversies about classroom language learning; it cannot be taken to support or deny various positions that are outside its remit. Thus for instance it is unjustifiable to invoke UG theory or indeed any Chomskyan view of language acquisition as supporting the provision of explicit rules to the learner. Needless to say, grammatical explanation may work for aspects of grammar that are not the central factors of UG; such peripheral areas as the acquisition of closed-class grammatical morphemes may well yield to such treatment.
Knowledge of language is not conscious; the model has no way for conscious knowledge to become unconscious. And of course whatever explanations were vouchsafed to learners would need to be in terms of principles which they already possess unconsciously anyway rather than of construction-specific rules. Again this is not to say that such explanations would not work for aspects of grammar or of language outside the UG purview.
But such views cannot be accommodated within the areas of language acquisition covered by the UG theory itself. Nor is it possible to interpret UG theory as supporting the hypothesis-testing theory in the form in which it became familiar in L2 research and language teaching - the learner makes a hypothesis about the grammar, tries it out and modifies it in the light of how successful it is. Such a process requires feedback to the learner concerning the correctness of his or her temporary hypothesis, as first argued by Braine ; without such feedback the learner would never know whether the hypothesis were correct.
But in first language acquisition correction of the appropriate syntax is not universally provided, and so cannot be an essential component of L1 acquisition. So far as the learning of other aspects of language than the syntactic core, UG theory is simply neutral; perhaps these are precisely the parts of language that have to be learnt, since the rest is innate.
It may be that communicative goals imply other forms of learning; pragmatic competence is multi-functional and includes a communicative function as well as others; such uses are not part of UG which is concerned with knowledge of language grammatical competence. The argument here has implied that UG is only one component out of many in L2 learning.
The UG approach may indeed tackle the most profound areas of L2 acquisition, those that are central to language and to the human mind. But, once these are established, there may be rather little to say about them; the UG principles are not learnt, the parameter settings probably need rather little attention. On the one hand this is indeed proof of their central importance to language learning; UG is proof against situation and against learner variation because of its central importance.
On the other hand the complexity, the difficulty, and indeed much of the interest, in L2 learning may be the aspects that are not predictable from UG theory-learner variation, situational purpose, foreign accent, motivation, and an endless list.
The study of classroom L2 learning needs to operate within a framework that includes not only a linguistic model of acquisition such as UG but also psychological models of speech processing, language development, and cognitive development, a sociolinguistic model of discourse interaction, and an educational model of the values and purposes of language teaching.
Having produced so many caveats, is it possible to venture some simple concrete applications to language teaching? So far as classroom interaction is concerned we have seen that the most that the UG theory would recommend is the provision of adequate language samples for parameter setting to take place.
Let us take a modern beginners course The Cambridge English Course Swan and Walters, to see what linguistic evidence it provides the students. Again everything necessary to set the parameter is introduced within the first few weeks of the course. The argument in favour of this originally was that our ignorance of language acquisition meant we interfered with it at our peril.
Laissez-faire works because of the accidental reason that the necessary evidence is simple and common, and so bound to be present in the input. Behind the classroom stands the syllabus.
A student does not need to learn that a phrase always has a head of a related syntactic category because, quite literally, everyone knows that. A glance at current syllabuses may disclose areas which can be eliminated for these reasons. The use of the concept of parameters by teachers depends upon a decision whether L1 parameter-settings are transferred or not. Firstly, being aware of what is taken care of by UG can free the teacher to pay attention to other things that actually need teaching; to some extent this already takes place since the teacher is not aware of the general principles or specific parameters that he or she has been covering: ignorance is bliss.
First, it is highly expressed in songbirds that modify their innate vocal repertoires: in canaries it is expressed seasonally, when adult birds modify their songs Teramitsu et al. As such, they raise the possibility that other aspects of language processing are similarly acquired in the absence of task-specific constraints. Rather, exposure to language merely triggers the parameters to adopt the correct setting. Second, recursiveness is not language specific either, but is a feature of other domains of human cognition and endeavor as well. X-bar syntax.
Take the case of prodrop. To a UG theorist these all reflect the pro-drop parameter; a crucial generalization is being overlooked. Teachers are missing an important insight if they see these as separate bits of information about different languages rather than as a two-way variation in languages. Teachers I have spoken to have indeed found the two examples of the head parameter and the pro-drop parameter useful insights that help them to understand their students.
UG may be of help at one stage removed from the student. In Slobin, D. New York: Academic Press. In Hook, S. Dordrecht: Foris. The reader is referred to Elman et al. For now, considerations of space demand a return to our topic, viz. We saw in the previous section that in order to support the view that all of UG is innately known, nativists about language need to hold not just that the data for language learning is impoverished in a few isolated instances, but that it's impoverished across the board.
That is, in order to support the view that the innate contribution to language acquisition is something as rich and detailed as knowledge of Universal Grammar, nativists must hold that the inputs to language acquisition are defective in many and widespread cases. After all, if the inputs were degenerate only in a few isolated instances, such as those discussed above, the learning problem could be solved simply by positing innate knowledge of a few relevant linguistic hints, rather than all of UG.
Pullum and Scholz helpfully survey a number of ways in which nativists have made this point, including:. In this section, I will set aside features i and ii as being characteristic of any empirical domain: the data are always finite, and they always underdetermine one's theory. No doubt it's an important problem for epistemologists and philosophers of science to explain how general theories can nonetheless be confirmed and believed.
No doubt, too, it's an important problem for psychologists to explain the mechanisms by which individuals acquire general knowledge about the world on the basis of their experience. But underdetermination and the finiteness of the data are everyone's problem: if these features of the language learning situation per se supported nativism, then we should accept that all learning, in every domain, requires inborn domain-specific knowledge. But while it's not impossible that everything we know that goes beyond the data is a result of our having domain-specific innate knowledge, this view is so implausible as to warrant no further discussion here.
I also set aside features iii and iv. For one thing, it is unclear exactly how degenerate the pld are; according to one early estimate, an impressive And even if the data are messier than this figure suggests, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the vast weight of grammatically well-formed utterances would easily swamp any residual noise. As to the idiosyncrasy of different children's data sets, this is not so much a matter of stimulus poverty as stimulus difference.
As such, idiosyncrasy becomes a problem for a non-nativist only on the assumption that different children's states of linguistic knowledge differ from one another less than one would expect given the differences in their experiences. As far as I know, no serious case for this last claim has ever been made.
In this section, we will focus on features v and vi of the pld. Figure 2. Five possible relations between the language generated by hypothesis H and the target grammar L. Take a child learning the grammar of her language, L. Figure 2 represents the 5 possible relations that might obtain between the language generated by her current hypothesis, H , and that generated by the target grammar, L.
A learner in situation i , ii or iii is in good shape, for she can easily use the pld as a basis for correcting her hypothesis as follows: whenever she encounters a sentence in the data i. In this way, H will keep moving, as desired, towards L. However, suppose that the learner finds herself in situation iv , where her hypothesis generates all of the target language, L , and more besides. There, she is in deep trouble, for she cannot use the pld to discover her error. Every sentence of L , after all, is already a sentence of H.
For as we have seen, the pld is mostly just a sample of sentences, of positive instances of the target language. It contains little, if any, information about strings of words that are not sentences. For instance, children aren't given lists of ungrammatical strings. Nor are they typically corrected when they make mistakes. And nor can they simply assume that strings that haven't made their way into the sample are ungrammatical: there are infinitely many sentences that are absent from the data for the simple reason that no-one's had occasion to say them yet.
Negative evidence, however, does not appear to exist. There are two ways they could do this.
One would be never to generalize beyond the data at all. But clearly, children do generalize, else they'd never succeed in learning a language. The other would be if there were something that ensured that when they generalize beyond the data, they don't overgeneralize , something, that is, that ensures that children don't make errors that they could only correct on the basis of negative evidence. According to the linguistic nativist, this something is innate knowledge of UG.
Second, let's abandon the idea, which reappears in many presentations of the Argument from the Unlearning Problem; that learners' hypotheses must be explicitly falsified in the data in order to be rejected. Let's suppose instead that learners proceed more like actual scientists do — provisionally abandoning theories due to lack of confirmation, making theoretical inferences to link data with theories, employing statistical information, and making defeasible, probabilistic rather than decisive, all-or-nothing judgments as to the truth or falsity of their theories.
Intuitively, viewing the learner as employing more stochastic and probabilistic inductive techniques enables one to see how the unlearning problem might have been overblown.
What the argument claims, rightly, is that negative data near enough do not exist in the pld. However, what learners need in order to recover from overgeneralizations, is not negative data per se , but negative evidence , and arguably, the pld do contain significant amounts of that.
For example:. Non-occurrence of structural types as negative evidence : Suppose that a child's grammar predicted that a certain string is part of the target language. Suppose further that that string never appears in the data, even when the context seems appropriate. Proponents of the unlearning problem say that non-occurrence cannot constitute negative evidence — maybe Dad simply always chooses to say The girl who is in the jumping castle is Kayley's daughter, isn't she?