Abstract: Chomsky’s universal grammar (UG) has always had a following among certain linguists. This article discusses the strengths and weaknesses of UG in the L2 setting according to its proponents and opponents. The author also evaluates it using Kaplan’s five-point tool and Long’s eight-point measuring stick.
Key Words: Universal Grammar, Evaluations, SLA
According to Chomsky, there is a “system of principles, conditions, and rules that are elements or properties of all human languages”. He also proposed the government and binding theory, which was an attempt to characterize the principles of UG. Hawkins (2001) in his article suggested that while “poverty of stimulus” could provide incontrovertible evidence for UG in SLA, a more compelling reason for assuming the involvement of UG was the attempt to explain L2-L1 differences. It is true that UG can be used to explain how children can acquire a kind of grammar form that they never heard of. This grammar the children use may be incorrect in their native language, but may be correct in another language, which proves that language is universal. And children have an innate language acquisition device to form their own grammar of that language.
II.The Strengths of UG
Meanwhile, Lydia White stressed the fact that UG provided new insights into the phenomena related to language transfer. There are various hypotheses within UG framework, like Full Access to UG/No Transfer, Full Transfer/Full Access, and Full Access/Impaired Early representations. Those hypotheses are about the “core” of language—principles and parameters, which “UG theory is, in essence, an explanation of the role these play in L2 acquisition” (Ellis). However, it is hard to test some grammatical properties related to parameters. UG to some extent stimulated the researches in the field of second language acquisition, meaning a growing number of empirical studies were based on it. According to White, UG theory also offered very specific and testable claims about the nature of native speaker linguistic competence. It emphasizes the property of language grammar. Additionally, Ellis claimed UG theory has elegant simplicity. The few tenets in UG form a recognizable logical as well as in depth sequence. What’s more, UG theory has a strong power of prediction, because “the notion of ‘clustering’ allows researchers to predict that once a particular parameter has been set a whole range of linguistic properties will become available to the L2 learner”(Ellis).
III.The Weaknesses of UG
However, there were a lot of opposing views to UG. According to Ellis, UG has limited scope, which means UG focuses on the knowledge of grammar instead of the use of grammar. Therefore as some researchers acknowledged, the theory fell into property theories, and it could not explain how the process of language acquisition takes place as transitional theories can. Also, Mitchell and Myles (2004) said that UG only focuses on sentences level, rather than a context. In addition, Ellis pointed out that UG theory does not have operational constructs, because it is hard to interpret the behavior that is under measuring. It is different to tell performance from competence in the real situation. How do you know a student performs badly is due to his/her low innate competence or because of other extrinsic factors that affect his/her performance? Furthermore, as Ellis mentioned in the section of the relation of UG theory and language pedagogy, UG has no meaningful pedagogy to teachers. It is mainly because UG focuses on property of language acquisition rather than the process of language acquisition, which is opposite from applied linguistic views. Additionally, Mitchell and Myles (2004) claimed that UG does not care about individual differences, or other factors like sociolinguistic, cognitive, or affective factors.
IV.The Evaluation of UG Based on Kaplan’s and Long’s Evaluation Tools
Based on Kaplan’s evaluation tools, UG theory has clear definitions of its key concepts and does not contradict itself. Nevertheless, the theory does not have explanatory power, because it cannot explain how the process of language acquisition happens, or why learners acquire one form before another one. Thus it is also lack parsimony, since it cannot provide simplest or more direct description that maintains the explanatory power. Regarding falsifiability, UG theory is testable to those who believe the theory is true, though there are numerous researches that have been done based on UG. UG theory has no pragmatic significance, and it cannot provide practical values for understanding teaching. It is because UG is a property theory that does not emphasize on how to use the knowledge.
In accordance with Long’s evaluation criteria for comprehensive second language theories, UG theory addresses the language universal, which is a main focus of this theory. However, it does not address environmental factors or affective considerations, like social status, input environment, or motivation. Moreover, UG itself does not directly address the differences between child and adult language development, but some researchers who tried to apply UG to L2 acquisition did realize that L1 acquisition is different from L2 acquisition, but both L1 and L2 acquisitions have access to UG. Additionally, the theory does not stress the need for attention or awareness based on conscious processing, though it seems to support the view that language acquisition is a conscious process. By saying this I mean language learners acquire language through input and L1 as well as universal grammar system. Learners need to experience a period that is to consciously correct their interlanguage to match the utterances they hear around them. For the saying that language acquisition is more than exposure to comprehensible language samples, UG theory definitely favors that. It is because UG theorists believe people acquire language not only through input. According to the notion of “poverty of stimulus”, people cannot receive all the utterances they will use, and language learners often produce utterances that they never received. Therefore, UG is here to explain this phenomenon. Language learners have access to UG to acquire language. Nevertheless, unlike cognitive approach, UG does not contain any cognitive components to explain the interlanguage systematicity. In addition, it does not mention gradual or sudden changes in learning in its theory.
As every coin has two sides, there is no perfect when it comes to theories. Universal Grammar, the very essential theory about language learning, even with so many critics, does provide a multitude of insights on language acquisition and raise inspirations to researchers on second language acquisition later on.
Ellis R, (1993), Appraising Second Language Acquisition Theory in Relation to Language Pedagogy, http://coursestar.org/ku/markham/TL817/docs/Ellis.htm
Hawkins R, (2001), The Theoretical Significance of Universal Grammar in Second Language Acquisition, Second Language Reserch
Mitchell R & Myles F, (2004), Second Language Learning Theories, Oxford University Press, New York.