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What Are the Applications of Universal Grammar?

By Laura Metz
Updated: May 17, 2024

Universal grammar is a controversial linguistic theory which states that there are certain characteristics shared by all languages and that humans are born knowing these characteristics. Some linguists try to identify these characteristics, while others study the differences between children and adult language learners to determine what information is innate and what is learned. The basic applications of universal grammar include the study of proposed linguistic universals and the search for a portion of the brain known as the Language Acquisition Device (LAD).

Although the best known proponent of universal grammar is Noam Chomsky, the theory was first talked about years before he was born. Roger Bacon wrote the first universal grammar theory in the thirteenth century, about seven centuries before Chomsky’s 1957 publication Syntactic Structures. Universal grammar is proposed primarily because of the similarities between languages and the poverty of stimulus argument, which states that children learn language almost automatically without receiving enough instruction.

Characteristics that all languages share are called linguistic universals. There two types of universals are absolute and statistical. Absolute universals are those that are true in all known cases, and very few exist. For example, “all languages have pronouns” is an absolute universal. Statistical universals are better known as tendencies because they are true only in the majority of cases, not all.

Linguist Joseph Greenberg developed forty-five universals from his study of approximately thirty languages, and almost all of them were implicational. This type of universal takes the form of an if-then statement, such as, “if a language is spoken, then it has consonants and vowels.” Non-implicational universals are straightforward declarative statements. For example, the sentence “all languages have nouns and verbs,” is a non-implicational universal.

Scientists also conduct cognitive studies based on universal grammar. One theory within universal grammar states that everyone is born with a Language Acquisition Device (LAD). The LAD is a portion of the brain which knows all linguistic universals automatically and enables children to quickly learn a language. Since language learning is more difficult for adults than children, the critical period hypothesis states that the LAD degenerates or becomes increasingly difficult to access as a child grows.

Both applications of universal grammar could greatly increase the ability and ease of learning languages. For example, someone who knows all linguistic universals would have a great advantage for learning every natural language. In addition, if scientists discovered an LAD and learned how to access it throughout life, elderly people might be able to learn languages with the ease of a preschooler.

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Discussion Comments
By jmc88 — On Feb 28, 2012

I would be really interested to learn how the Universal Grammar hypothesis could be used for older people trying to learn a new language.

Maybe there are studies with good evidence that could easily refute my hypothesis, but my idea is that maybe children aren't necessarily better at learning a new language, they just don't have a language already in their head to cloud things up.

When I was in high school, I took 3 years of French, and I did all right. I still remember a lot of my vocabulary words and how to make sentences. Later on, when I was in college, I decided to try to learn Swedish. I was doing pretty well with the vocabulary, but it was the verb conjugation and syntax that eventually discouraged me.

Everything I did, I naturally compared to English. If you are a kid, though, you don't know the definition of a prepositional phrase or a gerund, so you can't get tripped up by those things. You learn the language based on words' relations to one another, not their literal translations.

By matthewc23 — On Feb 27, 2012

@Izzy78 - Just going by what you said about the list including things about syntax and word formation and the like, I wonder whether there are any caveats to the rules. Besides English, I know Spanish and German, and all three of those languages have differences in the way sentences are formed.

I think most people are at least vaguely familiar with how Spanish speakers put all of the adjectives after a noun, but it is the complete opposite in English and German (which is probably the language most closely associated with English). Even then, though, English and German have major contrasts in the way they put sentences together, especially questions. I might argue that Spanish and English are closer when it comes to making questions.

I can see how you could make comparisons between all the languages, but the universals would have to be worded extremely carefully.

By Izzy78 — On Feb 26, 2012

@JimmyT - I was curious about the same thing, so I looked up Greenberg's list online. I just glances through them. Like you, I think I'll read more into them when I get more free time. Just from the ones I skimmed, though, it seems like they mostly concern syntax and word agreement. It seems amazing that the things on the list hold true for all the languages studies, so I guess maybe they are onto something with the Universal Grammar idea.

I had heard of Noam Chomsky and knew that he was a linguist, but didn't have any idea what his main contributions where. Has anyone ever read any of his books? Are they something that the average person could pick up and read and understand, or are they made for people familiar with linguistics and use a lot of unfamiliar terminology?

By JimmyT — On Feb 26, 2012

Wow, this was really interesting. I had never heard anything about this theory before. I have always heard the argument that children have an easier time learning a new language than an adult does, but I never new the rationale behind it.

Am am especially curious about what some more of the universals are. I don't know anything about the Asian languages, but I am willing to assume that they must have the same parts of speech that western languages have. I would say the African languages probably do, as well. Besides those, what other types of things are intrinsic to every language?

I really think this is interesting, so I might read some more into it when I get a chance.

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