ESL Term:

Universal Grammar

ESL/EFL Glossary: A Guide to applied linguistics terminology.


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universal grammar: This is an innatist view that all people are born with some knowledge of language.  Linguists use this hypothesis to explain how it is we can acquire a language with a 'poverty of stimulus' or not enough input to account for the complexity of output. Essentially, we are all born with the capacity for any kind of language. This is not to say we are born with knowledge of the particular rules of our own language, but rather general or universal principles of all languages. This innate knowledge allows us to select a particular language based on a few instances of input and produce very complex output that we he have never encountered as input. One example of a kind of principle proposed by universal grammar theorists is the innate parameter.  Essentially, we are born with parameters of language and minimal instances of input will allow us to figure out how to set the parameters for our own language (keep in mind this is a subconscious process). Evidence for this is found in the head-first or head-last parameter of language, which has been uncovered: In English, phrases are head-first: that means that a noun is at the head of a noun phrase, a preposition is at the head of a prepositional phrase, and verb is at the head of a verb phrase. Our innate parameter is such that if one of these phrases is head-first, they all will be. And hence a few utterances whereby a child understands that a preposition heads a prepositional phrase will allow the child to correctly construct other phrases too. In Korean and Japanese, prepositional phrases are head-last and accordingly, so are the other phrases.  This will resonate well with any English speaker who has studied Japanese or Korean and discovered that everything seems to be backwards. The Innatists claim that this is an example of the parameter having been set differently.