Language Acquisition and Historical Linguistics 6/7

Language acquisition plays a significant role in historical linguistics today. After Chomsky’s insistence that there is an inborn aptitude for the use of language systems, linguists began to investigate what elements comprise language acquisition and which parts within the process could help describe how and why language changes.

It would be interesting to cite the part of Steven Pinker’s discussion on why language is only partially learned. He explains that children acquire just bits of the language and how this is related to the universal grammar (Pinker 242-243). The first reason is obvious: it would be difficult for the brain during the evolution to develop a neuronal structure that would store an immense number of words. The second reason for partial learning, somewhat more interesting in the light of historical linguistics, is that “language inherently involves sharing a code with other people”:

An innate grammar is useless if you are the only one possessing it: it is a tango of one, the sound of one hand clapping. But the genomes of other people mutate and drift and recombine when they have children. Rather than selecting for a completely innate grammar, which would soon fall out of register with everyone else’s, evolution may have given children an ability to learn the variable parts of language as a way of synchronising their grammars with that of the community (Pinker 243).

Book cover
In this book Hale gives an excellent explanation about different uses of the word "language". (Image source: Amazon)

This “sharing” is immensely important, not only because of the obvious reasons (a language dies with its speakers), but also because of acquisition/transfer of language, or, as already noted “a grammar” in Hale’s terminology. Hale refers to “grammar” as a knowledge state, shaped in acquirer’s mind when the acquirer is exposed to primary linguistic data (PLD, provided by E-Language). The data interacts with the acquirer’s hardcoded linguistic ability (“initial state of knowledge of language”), or universal grammar. We can label the steps of “grammar” acquisition as S1, S2 and so on. At an Sn stage we can claim that acquisition is over.

There are several interesting conclusions related to the acquisition process. The first is in defining the steps of acquisition and answering why the definition is important in the context of “grammar” and E-language. The answer is that acquirers adopt a grammar by rejecting the S1 stage in favour of the S2 to reach the level when they can generate the PLD to which they were initially exposed (Hale 13). What exactly happens between the stages, and whether there are some key elements regarding the language change, or whether there are conditions that influence the change – are rather interesting questions that Hale addresses, too. However, they are out of the scope of this Paper, so it would suffice to state that children in their mature states of language acquisition speak like people to whose language they were exposed, effectively updating PLD for the future acquirers.

The second important conclusion is that in this model there must be a terminal state of acquisition. The absence of it would cause a serious problem: if the acquirers continue to modify their knowledge state, if they continue to learn the “grammar” throughout their life, there would be no stage in the language definable as “synchronic state”. Without synchronous states of language, linguists could not set the markers for the study of the differences between the states, or, in other words, there would be no valid empirical framework for the diachronic study (Hale 14).

Previous text in the series: Mutual intelligibility, Wave Theory
Next text:
Historical Linguistics: Remarks