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Argument in Favour of the Poverty of Stimulus

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In Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct (1994) he discusses various topics related to language acquisition and the mental life of language. He is a vehement follower of the Chomskyan theory of Universal Grammar and the innateness of language hypothesis. According to Pinker the well known assumptions that, “children learn to talk from role models and caregivers,... grammatical sophistication used to be nurtured in schools, but sagging educational standards… have led to a frightening decline in the ability of the average person to construct a grammatical sentence” (1994:18) is entirely false. The main reason that Pinker gives for this position is the fact that, “Language… is a distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brains… which develops in the child spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction” (1994:18) In the following essay I will be supporting Pinker’s claim by firstly discussing some of the terms and theories that I will be using in the essay (such as nativism, Universal Grammar and some of Chomsky’s theories), analyzing the Poverty of Stimulus argument and its background, and then giving some evidence in favour of and against the argument.

In my assignment I will mainly be using the work of the following researchers: Steven Pinker who, as previously stated, is in favour of the Poverty of Stimulus argument and Chomskyan theories (1994), Stephen Laurence and Eric Margolis who argue for the Poverty of Stimulus argument and try to dispel some of the skepticisms surrounding the argument (2001), Geoffrey K. Pullum and Barbara C. Scholz both of whom feel that the POV argument is lacking in evidence and requires more research (2002), Peter Gordon who examines an idea that children can learn natural languages without any innate knowledge but through negative feedback (1990) and of course various of Noam Chomsky’s own articles. I will also be quoting various philosophers including Rene Descartes, Roger Bacon and Benedict Spinoza. Personally I am a great supporter of Pinker’s work on language acquisition and the innateness hypothesis. In my opinion there is too much evidence in support of the claim of some kind of innate �instinct’ in human beings for acquiring language to just be ignored out of hand while the evidence against it is lacking in validity. This essay will seek to weigh the two opposing viewpoints and establish a clear overview of both the argument and its criticisms.

I will begin by introducing some of the more general terms that will be included in this essay. The first thing we need to look at is nativism because this is at the core of the Poverty of Stimulus and innateness hypothesis arguments. In the field psychology, nativism is the idea that we humans have certain traits or abilities that are �native’ or hard wired into our brains at birth ( Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker are two of the biggest supporters of this claim. Both of them argue that we are born with �cognitive modules’ (psychological abilities that are made up of inherited genetic properties) that allow us to learn or acquire certain skills including language. They further argue that without these genetic properties the acquisition of these abilities would be vastly impaired or virtually impossible. One contradictory theory to this states that the brain can acquire these cognitive modules through experience (such as sensory perception or formal learning) and so does not need a genetic explanation (

The Poverty of Stimulus argument is an argument in favour of linguistic nativism. The theory states that there are various properties or parts of language that the child cannot acquire through simply observing the world around them. There has to be some kind of innate ability to �fill in the gaps’ in order for a child to acquire the language in the short amount of time it takes them to do so (Chomsky, 1980). This argument also provides support to theories of generative grammar e.g. Universal Grammar. The basic argument can be summed up as follows:

1. There are patterns in all human language (natural language) that cannot be learned by children using only positive evidence. Positive evidence is the set of grammatical sentences that the child has access to by observing its use by other speakers. Negative evidence is evidence about what is not grammatical e.g. when a parent corrects a child’s speech it qualifies as negative evidence.

2. Children are normally only faced with positive evidence for these patterns as the average sentences they hear are mostly �correct’ and no negative evidence for these patterns are entered into. They are never told that a sentence is an ungrammatical sentence every time one is uttered so therefore they cannot learn what expressions are incorrect in their language.

3. Children do learn the correct forms of grammar for their native language and know which expressions are ungrammatical.

Conclusion: Humans have to have some form of innate linguistic capacity which provides the rest of the evidence needed to complete their grammatical sophistication to maturity (Chomsky 1980).

Another big factor in the Poverty of Stimulus argument is the theory of Universal Grammar. It is a theory of linguistics which states that there are certain grammatical principles that are the same through all the world languages. These principles are thought to be innate in humans as they are so widespread. It does not claim that all languages have the same grammar. Rather Universal Grammar proposes a set of rules that govern how children acquire their language(s) and how they effectively produce grammatical sentences (Chomsky 1965). Universal Grammar is generally studied by looking at various world languages and then making abstract generalizations called linguistic universals. This idea is not a new one and can be traced back to Roger Bacon (a 13th century philosopher) who stated that, “all languages are built upon a common grammar, substantially the same in all languages, even though it may undergo in them accidental variations” ( Notable modern researchers of Universal Grammar include Edward Sapir and Noam Chomsky who thought that issues of the Poverty of Stimulus argument are related to a nativist approach of language. Crtitics of Universal Grammar assume that children are still able to acquire a language without some вЂ?inborn’ linguistic universal ability. The grammatical generalizations that



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