Chomsky vs Skinner: A Battle for Language (Pt. 1)

The field of linguistics has had many different perspectives on the topic of language based on a time period’s available evidence. As it was taught in Linguistic Anthropology, this field went through many viewpoints, such as evolving from historical linguistics to descriptive linguistics.

Our knowledge of linguistics keeps evolving with time and accurate evidence. Nothing can be a more apt example of this then the debate over how language forms between two great scientists, B.F. Skinner and Noam Chomsky. To start off with, Skinner is more widely known in the field of Psychology as one of the pioneers of Behaviorism but as mentioned previously,  he also theorized about language development.  He spoke on how children learn language from the environment around them, mainly in a behaviorist framework. Basically, as a child learns new language skills, social influences will use reinforcement to help their learning move along, such as a child saying the word “book” and their teacher nods and rewards them for saying the right word and identifying the right object being focused on.

This theory though came under heavy criticism from another renowned scientist and researcher, Noam Chomsky. He postulated the theory of a Universal Grammar innate to all humans, which enables children to learn language and get informed about grammatical structures. This biological tool helps us to combine nouns and verbs into coherent sentences. Chomsky also said how there is a prime period for language to be learned in children, pretty much the younger the better or else it will be difficult for children to use language later in their lives. This perspective of language development is referred to as generative grammar.

The debate between the two also showcases the divide between Psychology and Anthropology as social sciences. Psychology concentrates more on an individual level, such as a person’s cognition and attitudes, while Anthropology focuses more on the individual in connection to their culture. These two areas can overlap in their research focuses, language acquisition in this case, usually though with different explanations for external actions and behavior.

This disagreement in language acquisition became a subject of heated debate between Chomsky and Skinner, emblematic of the divide between the two social science fields.

In the midst of this debate though, a unique event had occurred; the discovery and rescue of a feral child named Genie Wiley.

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