LINGUIST List 11.2138

Wed Oct 4 2000

Disc: Review Green

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Robert R. Ratcliffe, Re: 11.2128, Disc: Review Green

Message 1: Re: 11.2128, Disc: Review Green

Date: Wed, 04 Oct 2000 18:32:31 +0000
From: Robert R. Ratcliffe <>
Subject: Re: 11.2128, Disc: Review Green

> 1)
> Date: Tue, 03 Oct 2000 15:22:53 +0900
> From: (Kevin R. Gregg)
> Subject: Re: 11.2102, Disc: Review Green
> ****But wouldn't the putative ability of adults to get the L2
> morphosyntax right while not doing as well as kids in vocabulary 
>and pronunciation be grist for the mill of a theory that excludes 
>vocab and pronunciation from the bailiwick of UG?

I am sure it would be. And from your earlier post I realize I am not
quite sure what the orthodox generative position is on the L1-L2
distinction or even if there is one (a position). My understanding
(possibly misunderstanding) of the generative position is that a sharp
nature-nurture distinction is drawn: L1 acquisition is assumed to be a
biological development process like development of vision, L2 acquistion
purely cultural learning, like learning geography.

Let's agree that there are some differences in the results of L1 and L2
acquisition, is this sharp biology-culture distinction the best way to
account for them? If you say yes then a strange paradox emerges: the
things that are posited for UG, and which therefore must be in all
languages should be the hardest for the adult to learn since he no
longer has access to the Language Acquistion Device in which knowledge
of UG is contained. But my impression (I admit it's just that) as a
language teacher and learner is that the opposite is the case: some of
the features that have been posited for UG (grammatical cateogries,
phrase structure, etc.) seem to be relatively easy to learn, but
language particular idiosyncracies ("native" pronunciation, vocabulary,
irregular morphology) seem hard.

 Let's try another theory: Language learning at any stage has both a
biological and an environmental (or cultural) basis. Language structure
is shaped by an innate human conceptual apparatus-- "the built-in
meaning systems of the primate brain" to quote Dan Moonhawk Alford--
which is present to an individual throughout life. Grammatical
categories like noun and verb might reflect a predisposition to
categorize and to separate an object from its motion. (I've always
thought the common noun was sort of amazing-- the fact that humans
automatically assign objects to a category, attach a label to the
category, and are able to extend the label to other objects.)

On this theory differences in L1 and L2 are due to other causes,
including the environment (for example, children have an urgent need to
learn, which adults rarely do) and the fact that language learning
proceeds along with physiological development. Native speakers are
better at pronouncing their language just as people who started a sport
or musical instrument as children are generally better than those who
started late. The assumption that young children's cognitive (including
linguistic) abilities are actually far less than an adult's can explain
some things. Early mastery of vocabulary and irregular morphology
probably reflects the fact that memory develops earlier than the ability
to process syntax or grammatical rules. Young children have to rely on
brute force memorization to compensate for lack of adult capacity to use

> ***But of course no one is claiming that our intuitions are innate (or
> that our knowledge of calculus is innate). The claim is that there is
> a poverty of the stimulus problem in trying to account for our
> intuitions: eg Maxwell's intuitions about parasitic gaps (was it?)
> are not themselves innate (knowledge of English isn't innate), but he
> could not have those intuitions--not to mention share them with
> millions of others--were it not for some sort of innate knowledge.

As I see it there are two competing theories at issue: 1) The ability to
learn grammar is prior knowledge of grammar-- which would include things
like parasitic gaps. It seems clear to me that this is what Chomsky is
saying. 2) The ability to learn grammar is ontologically something quite
different from grammar, in the same way that the ability to learn
anything is different from what is learned. This is the position I
favor. (I am completely open minded as to whether this ability exists
solely to learn language or is part of wider cognitive abilities.) You
seem to be trying to hedge between these theories.

- -----------------------------------------------------------
Robert R. Ratcliffe
Associate Professor, Arabic and Linguistics,
Dept. of Linguistics and Information Science
Tokyo University of Foreign Studies
Asahi-machi 3-11-1,
Fuchu-shi, Tokyo
183-8534 Japan
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