Critically evaluate the theory of Universal Grammar and its contribution to second language learning and teaching.

| September 4, 2015

The theory of Universal Grammar (UG) has become a major area of focus for researchers who are interested in contributing to the present understanding of language learning and teaching. The theory of universal grammar is based on the view that knowledge about a language is based on some innate ability in his mind to acquire the language (Cook, 1985, 59). This means that a speaker of a language has the capacity to be aware of things that he may not have learnt from the speech sample he has already heard.

Different examples have been provided in linguistic discourse to demonstrate the existence of the universal grammar. One of these examples is one where a learner acquires information on which sentences are possible and which ones are not possible through exposure to speech samples. The learner does not gain exposure to “impossible sentences”, yet he immediately points out that the something is wrong with those sentences. This indicates that there is an innate ability that helps the language learner to identify situations where the rules of a language have been broken. Linguists refer to this ability as universal grammar. When native speakers of a language regard a sentence as unacceptable, they do so not on the basis of their experience of the world but on the basis of an ability that is shared by all human beings.

Another example that demonstrates the existence of an innate ability to acquire language is the tendency among children to differentiate two sentences which on the surface seem to have the same structure but have different. Moreover, all children tend to acquire this ability at around the same age. Children do not learn about these differences from the input that they get from the environment; rather they learn about them through their innate capacity for language acquisition. In both examples, the child lacks the stimulus to learn about a rule of a language, yet he goes on to learn about this rule. This demonstrates that the child understands some things about language that he may not have learnt from experience. Strictly speaking, such rules are not learnable; rather, they must be part of a universal grammar that every normal human being possesses. This is the main idea behind the theory of universal grammar. Over the years, many efforts have been made to assess the appropriateness of the theory of universal grammar. The aim of this paper is to critically evaluate this theory and its contribution to second language learning and teaching.

According to Pinker, (2010, 12), the universal grammar consists of a set of principles that can be applied to any grammar. This means that it leaves certain parameters open. In other words, universal grammar establishes limits within which variations in human languages can occur. According to Pinker (2010, 18), one of these parameters is the relationship between subjects and verbs. To this extent, it is possible for researchers to examine differences in terms of the way specific languages define the relationship between the subject and the verb. Once this relationship is established, the ideas generated can be used as guidelines during language teaching. Cook (1985, 3) draws partial analogy between universal grammar and the European Convention on Human Rights. The convention does not impose any specific laws on the UK; rather, it establishes principles that all laws of the country need to corm with. In other words, it sets parameters for variations within laws. Similarly, universal grammar does not impose grammatical rules on any language; rather, it specifies the extent to which variations within these grammatical rules can occur.

In the view of proponents of universal grammar, a child does not acquire linguistic skills in the same way that he acquires the skill to ride a bicycle. This is simply because the process of acquiring a language entails some form of “growth”. This means that a child simply realizes a genetic potential that is triggered by certain environmental factors such as speech samples. According to Rutherford & Smith (1985, 278) language teachers should understand that a central component of the so-called learning process entails the growth of the individual’s cognitive structures along a course that is internally directed. This growth must be triggered by the environment, for example through exposure to samples of speech. The aspect of growth has led some researchers to view language acquisition as a biological process. It is viewed as a process through which a mental organ that supports language grows after being exposed to certain language experiences.

For a child to acquire a language, he must possess not only Universal grammar but also some evidence about that particular language. This evidence may be in the form of sentences that the individual hears. For example, when a child hears an English sentence, his universal grammar enables him define the parameter for Subject-verb-object arrangement. According to Lightbown & Spada (2006, 46), the evidence may be positive or negative. Positive evidence is acquired when an individual listens or reads actual specific sentences of the target language. This evidence enables the child acquire information on the ideal arrangement of subject, verb, and object in a sentence. On the other hand, negative evidence consists of direct and indirect input. A child obtains direct negative evidence when his mistakes are corrects by a person who is proficient in that language, in most cases an adult. Indirect evidence is obtained when child realizes that something seems never to occur in the target language. For example, children of native English speakers gradually learn that the Subject-Object Verb order never seems to occur in all speech samples accessible to them. From this evidence, the learners deduce that in English, only the Subject-Verb-Object order is allowed.

During first language acquisition, children rely primarily on positive evidence. Children get very few opportunities to be corrected whenever they make mistakes while speaking in a language they are not fully proficient in. Even the little direct negative evidence that they receive is normally in the form of socially stigmatized or dialectal forms, which form an insignificant component of a language. However, proponents of UG are not clear on the role that indirect evidence plays in enhancing the language acquisition process. At the same time, the theory is often criticized because it does not provide a way of demonstrating the child’s appreciation of certain parameters within a universal grammar until the child is able to produce such structures. This phenomenon has far-reaching implications for language teaching because teachers may not be able to tell when a learner is able to appreciate the existence or importance of a specific grammatical rule in the target language.

The capacity of the child to process information poses a major challenge for proponents of UG. Unlike adults, children are unable to reveal all that they know about language. This is because of the other limitations that come with their young age and level of mental development. To account for these differences, Pinker (2010, 58) describes the distinction between development and acquisition. The term “development” is used to refer to the real-time learning process that children go through while acquisition, sometimes referred to as the instantaneous acquisition model, is the language learning process that is not affected in any way by maturation. This information is very crucial for language teachers because it can enable them differentiate between the language acquisition approaches that are applicable to children and those that should only be applied in language acquisition among adults.

Information about how language acquisition among children occurs is beneficial because it focuses on cognitive systems in their entirety. By focusing on all cognitive systems, linguists are able to ponder over the issue of whether all principles of UG available in the child’s mind are triggered at one go or whether they unfold gradually as the child continues to mature. This question is of utmost importance especially in light of the view that children tend to acquire simple one-clause structure before learning how to use compound sentences. On this basis, one may be tempted to assume that that the abilities of the UG tend to unfold gradually as part of the child’s maturation process. However, proponents of the theory of UG are yet to come up with a conclusive answer to this question. No evidence is available that can form the basis of making a distinction between principles that are already present in the child’s mind but cannot be accessed from those that are still absent.

One of the greatest contributions of the theory of universal grammar is that it contributes immensely to the human understanding of grammatical competence. Grammatical competence is the knowledge that a speaker has about a language. This theory provides language teachers with an incentive to seek more information regarding the grammar of a language. It enables the teachers draw a clear distinction between grammatical competence and pragmatic competence. Pragmatic competence is the ability to think about a language in terms of the institutional setting in which it is being used. In this way of thinking, the individual draws a connection between the purposes and intentions and the linguistic means available (Chomsky, 2005, 8).

The theory also gives language teachers an opportunity to move away from earlier versions of language acquisition theory that were based on the view that rules play a central role in language acquisition. Based on these versions, teachers were putting too much emphasis on the mastery of grammatical rules, in most cases with negative consequences on language learning and teaching. According to Chomsky (2005) teachers should understand that rules are simply outcomes of the principles established by universal grammar as well as the way parameters are set in a specific language. Although these parameters are importance, they are of secondary importance in language acquisition. The theory of universal grammar enables teachers understand the importance of not attaching primary importance to parameters set by a specific language.

The theory of universal is often criticized for failing to provide solutions to salient issues relating to language learning and teaching (Ellis, 2006, 84). For instance, the theory does not give an indication on whether grammar should be taught immediately a learner gets exposure to L2 or whether the teacher should wait until the learner has acquired some linguistic competence. Another issue that remains unresolved is on whether grammar instruction should be massed or distributed (Ellis, 2006, 84). Massed instruction is one where the time available for teaching is concentrated into a very short period while distributed instruction is one where the duration of teaching is distributed over a long period. At the same time, the choice between intensive and extensive instruction still remains an open question. In intensive instruction, teachers typically dedicate the entire lesson to only one grammatical structure. In extensive instruction, many grammatical structures are taught in one lesson. Teachers face similar challenges when deciding on issues relating to explicit and implicit grammatical knowledge as well as the need to integrate grammar into communicative activities (Ellis, 2006, 84).

One of the ways in which the theory of universal grammar attempts to answer these questions is by describing the differences between core grammar and peripheral grammar. Core grammar encompasses those components of the language that have been “growing” in the child through the interaction between universal grammar and the relevant language environment. A major challenge, however, is that fact that while most elements of an individual’s grammar originate from universal grammar, others are impacted upon by other factors. For example, some the elements of English trace their origin to the history of this language. However, others are borrowed from foreign languages. Moreover, others have been incorporated through accidental processes. In these examples, the principles of universal grammar are violated. This violation becomes evident when one assumes that UG should be the basis of the core grammars as well as the representation of an innate capacity in the individual’s mind. In this case, it is also assumed that the language learner is exposed to a homogenous speech community. Language teachers get into serious problems in their efforts to differentiate between those elements of the individual’s grammar that originate from universal grammar and those that have been contributed to by other factors. The theory of universal grammar does not provide a framework upon which these differences can be identified.

From this discussion, it is evident that the theory of universal grammar identifies two main factors that influence language acquisition: cognition and environment. In this theory, Chomsky (2005, 14) makes an aggressive attempt to lean towards inherent abilities of the child’s mind. Emphasis is on justifying the existence of the innateness hypothesis. This is in contrast to behaviourism, which focuses on the ability by the child to form stimulus-response associations. The theory also deviates from mainstream models where an interactionist perspective is normally adopted. In this interactionist approach, focus is both on learners and the situation in which they acquire language. This deviation has far-reaching implications for language learning and teaching. Learners and teachers who abide by the provisions of this theory are likely to put less emphasis on the role of the situation in which the learner acquires a language.

The interactionist perspective is based on the notion that a balance between individual and situation is inevitable in the language acquisition process. Unlike interactionist theorists, Chomsky (2005, 15) chooses to lean towards the learner end. In situations where the environment comes in, it is assigned a precise role. In Chomsky’s view, the learner realizes that he cannot rely on the environment to learn particular aspects of a language without the assistance of an in-built grammar (Cook, 1985, 7). At the same time, the environment gives the learner access to positive evidence that enables him introduce changes to the way in which universal grammar is applicable to the specific language that he is in the process of learning. In some cases, the environment leaves the parameters free, such that variations can occur within pre-set limits. In this case, the environment helps the learner determine which particular limits are applicable in any given case.

According to Mitchell & Myles (2004, 46), the theory has far-reaching implications for language learning and teaching primarily because it causes emphasis to shift from grammar to lexis during the learning process. The theory gives the indication that much grammatical knowledge can easily be fixed through access to evidence available in the environment. The aspects that require some learning are those relating to the ways in which specific lexical items fit into various structures. Once the learner is presented with data, the largest part of the learning begins, whereby the learner must determine different elements of lexicon as well as their properties.

The role of cognition is not as simple and straightforward as that of the environment. This is because one has to ponder over the cognitive development process that leads to overall changes in levels of thinking. At the same time, the issue of information processing has to be addressed. According to Cook (1985, 15), language acquisition can occur even if the language faculty is not related to other mental faculties. It is generally assumed that the fact that one is able to acquire language means that other cognitive operations are functionally in a normal way. However, from the perspective of development, language is viewed as just one of the components of cognitive maturation. This is partly because issues relating to development cannot be addressed in the absence of a language-in-use context. In other words, one of the reasons for acquiring a language is to address aspects of pragmatics and performance. On this basis, it is often argued that most of the issues that arise during early language development relate to issues that may not fit accurately into the language faculty. Incidentally, these issues relate to other mental faculties that often interact intimately with the language faculty during day-to-day language use.

The theory of universal grammar has played a critical role in enlightening language teachers about the importance of information processing capabilities in language acquisition. The teachers is able to gain a better understanding of the importance of assessing the extent to which the learner is able to process information provided to him during the language acquisition process. However, in most cases, concepts relating to information processing are applicable to first language acquisition among children. In this case, it is evident that short-term memory plays a critical role in language development. This is because the length of the sentences that a child can utter imposes limits on the principles that the child can employ. The main problem with this line of thinking is that it may not be applicable to adults who want to acquire a second language. This is simply because unlike children, they may not need to worry about problems relating to information processing. The adults’ cognitive abilities have already fully developed. In most cases, the adults may even be fully aware of the aspects of pragmatics and performance that they must confront in the process of acquiring the new language.


Chomsky, N (2005), ‘Three Factors in Language Design’, Winter, vol. 36, no. 1, pp. 1-22

Cook, V (1985), ‘Chomsky’s universal grammar and second language learning’, Applied Linguistics, vol. 2, no. 6, pp. 1-18.

Cook, V (1989), ‘Universal grammar theory and the classroom’, System, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 169–181.

Cook, V (2008), Second language learning and language teaching, Hodder Education, London.

Ellis, R (2006), ‘Current Issues in the Teaching of Grammar: An SLA Perspective’, TESOL Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 83-107.

Lightbown, P & Spada, N (2006), How languages are learned, Oxford University  Press, Oxford.

Martohardjono, G & Flynn, S (eds.) (1985), The Age Factor in Second Language Acquisition, Multilingual Matters Ltd., Bristol.

Mitchell, R & Myles, F (2004), Second language learning theories, Arnold Publishers, Los Angeles.

Pinker, S (2010), The language instinct: How the mind creates language, HarperCollins, New York.

Rutherford, W & Smith, M (1985), ‘Consciousness-raising and universal grammar’,  Applied linguistics, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 274-282.

Schachter, J (1988), ‘Second Language Acquisition and Its Relationship to Universal Grammar’, Applied Linguistics, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 219-235.

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