Learnability of a Language

analytical Essay
2875 words
2875 words

Learnability of a Language


A child must achieve competence with an infinite language based on a finite number of heard sentences. This is the essence of Noam Chomsky's "poverty of the stimulus" argument. As originally presented, it made a case for nativism, forcing empiricist theories to explain how such competence is achievable. In Stephen Pinker's Language Learnability and Language Development, he uses learnability both as a challenge to theories of language acquisition, and as a heuristic for evaluating them. Terrence Deacon, in The Symbolic Species, while dismissive of most of Chomskyan linguistics, still sees the learnability problem as a challenge to any theory that hopes to explain human linguistic knowledge. I will begin with a scrutiny of Pinker and Deacon's similar responses to the learnability problem, and will then examine Pinker's learnability criterion, which counters Deacon's aims.


The views of Deacon and Pinker overlap to a surprising extent. Some shared ground, and potentially shared ground, are to be found in their views on learnability. Both feel compelled to respond to the formal version of the poverty of the stimulus argument, as originally stated in a mathematical learning theory paper by E. Mark Gold. Gold proved that without feedback about hypothesized grammars or examples of ungrammatical constructions, it is impossible to inductively learn the unique grammar that produces an infinite language, even with a learning algorithm that remembers all observed data (Gold 1967).

A number of responses to Gold's theorem have been offered. Gold himself proposed a likely solution: that "the class of possible natural languages is much smaller than one would expect from our present model of syntax"...

... middle of paper ...

...ological points of view.


Deacon, Terrence W. (1997). The Symbolic Species. New York: Norton.

Elman, Jeffrey L., E. A. Bates, M. H. Johnson, A. Karmiloff-Smith, D. Parisi, K. Plunkett (1996). Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gold, E. Mark (1967). Language Identification in the Limit. Information and Control 10,447-74.

Pinker, Stephen (1979). Formal models of language learning. Cognition 7:217-283.

Pinker, Stephen (1984). Language Learnability and Language Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Pinker, Stephen and Bloom, Paul. Natural Language and Natural Selection. In The Adapted Mind, eds. J.H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, J. Tooby. Oxford: Oxford UP, pp. 451-493.

Wexler, Kenneth, and Culicover, Peter W. (1980). Formal Principles of Language Acquisition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

In this essay, the author

  • Analyzes how noam chomsky's "poverty of the stimulus" argument made a case for nativism, forcing empiricist theories to explain how such competence is achievable.
  • Argues that pinker's one-sided use of parsimony is a serious problem for the linguistics of adult languages.
  • Argues that the learnability problem has been productive in stimulating research, as the work of elman, wexler and culicover, newport, deacon and others has shown. pinker's continuity assumption is a poorly founded, relying on
  • Describes elman, jeffrey l., bates, johnson, karmiloff-smith, parisi, and plunkett. rethinking innateness.
  • Analyzes how deacon and pinker's views on learnability overlap to a surprising extent.
  • Analyzes how pinker and deacon's view of the learning process reopen the debate between chomsky and piaget, between nativism and empiricism.
  • Compares pinker and deacon's theories of language evolution, which have implications for the parsimony debate.
  • Explains pinker, bloom, and wexler, kenneth. natural language and natural selection. in the adapted mind.
Get Access