Positive and Negative Evidence in Language Learning

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Grammar is traditionally subdivided into two areas of study – morphology and syntax. Morphology is the study of how words are formed out of smaller units, syntax studies the way in which phrases and sentences are structured out of words.
Traditional grammar describes the syntax of a language in terms of a taxonomy (classification). This approach is based on the assumption that phrases and sentences are built up of a series of constituents, each of which belongs to a specific grammatical category and serves a specific grammatical function. In contrast to the taxonomic approach, linguist Noam Chomsky developed a cognitive approach to the study of grammar in which the study of language is part of the wider study of cognition. The goal of the linguist in the cognitive approach is to determine what is it that enables native speakers to speak and understand the language fluently. Any native speaker of a language can be said to know the grammar of his/her language. Native speakers have grammatical competence in their native language – they have tacit (subconscious) knowledge of the grammar of their language, they know how to form and interpret words, phrases and sentences.
Chomsky has drawn a distinction between competence -- the speaker-hearer’s knowledge of his language, and performance – the actual use of language in concrete situations. Every native speaker of a language makes occasional slips of the tongue or misinterprets something but this does not mean they do not know their native language, these are just performance errors attributable to various factors such as tiredness, drugs, external distractions and so on. The ultimate goal in studying competence is to characterise a mental state, the internalised linguistic system (I-l...

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...e two types of evidence which might be expected to be available to the language learner, positive and negative evidence. Positive evidence comprises a set of observed expressions illustrating a particular phenomenon. Negative evidence may be direct – comes from the correction of children’s errors by other speakers of the language, and indirect – the non-occurrence of certain types of structure. Since parameters are binary, the child does not need negative evidence from the nonoccurrence of certain types of structure, but rather can rely on positive evidence from the occurrence of such structures. This widely accepted claim that children use only positive evidence in language learning is known as the no negative-evidence hypothesis.

Works Cited

Radford, A. (2004) English Syntax: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, ISBN 0 521 54275 8 (paperback)
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