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Innatism in TEFL

Innatism in TEFL

A scene from 2001 by Stanley Kubrick

There are many approaches to the study of language: cultural, social, artistic, historical etc.

There is also an approach which looks at language and how the brain manages to decode and use it. To explore this idea, take a look at this famous sentence:

Colorless green dreams sleep furiously.

It was created by the linguist, Noam Chomsky‏‎, and it is a good example of a perfectly correct, grammatically sound, sentence which makes no sense whatsoever in the real world. It was suggested by Chomsky to support a new approach to language acquisition‏‎, namely Innatism.

What is Innatism?

Simply put, innatism maintains that the human brain is born with ideas and knowledge already pre-programmed into it and that certain aspects of language are already with us from the start. They are, in other words, innate.

Before Chomsky, behaviorist‏‎s argued that language was a purely learned ability and that a child had to be taught everything about it from birth. But, by developing groundbreaking theories in the field of psycholinguistics, Chomsky suggested that people are born with an innate language ability which enables them to acquire language.

For example, thanks to this innate knowledge of language the human brain can recognize a sentence to be correct even though it has never been heard or seen before and even though that sentence carries no intrinsic meaning. Look at Chomsky’s sentence again:

Colorless green dreams sleep furiously.

We all know it is grammatically correct, despite it having no logical meaning, but how do we know this?

Chomsky argued that language rules must already exist in our brains in order for us to understand the language used around us because children learn language despite the way they are exposed to it rather than because of the way they are exposed to it. They hear false starts, incomplete sentences and so on and yet manage to make sense of the language despite this. Instead, Chomsky argued that children learn how to make sense of their own mother-tongue because of the relation they have to the underlying rules they already possess.

Generative Grammar & Innatism

Innatism is closely linked with generative grammar, Simply put, this is the idea that all languages are related and if we look deep enough there is a single set of language rules which apply to all languages.

Innatism suggests that these rules are already present in our brains from birth.

In learning their native languages, children acquire specific rules that determine the sound and meaning of utterances‏‎ in the language. These rules interact with each other in incredibly complex ways but the entire system is learned in a relatively short time and with little or no apparent conscious effort.

Chomsky felt that the most plausible explanation for the success of human language learners is that they have access to a set of grammar rules already pre-programmed. From birth they start to hear a language and apply those rules and can with relatively little effort they learn the language.

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