Linguistics and Philosophy

, Volume 24, Issue 2, pp 139–186 | Cite as

Nature, Nurture And Universal Grammar

  • Stephen Crain
  • Paul Pietroski


In just a few years, children achieve a stable state of linguistic competence, making them effectively adults with respect to: understanding novel sentences, discerning relations of paraphrase and entailment, acceptability judgments, etc. One familiar account of the language acquisition process treats it as an induction problem of the sort that arises in any domain where the knowledge achieved is logically underdetermined by experience. This view highlights the ‘cues’ that are available in the input to children, as well as childrens skills in extracting relevant information and forming generalizations on the basis of the data they receive. Nativists, on the other hand, contend that language-learners project beyond their experience in ways that the input does not even suggest. Instead of viewing language acqusition as a special case of theory induction, nativists posit a Universal Grammar, with innately specified linguistic principles of grammar formation. The ‘nature versus nurture’ debate continues, as various “poverty of stimulus” arguments are challenged or supported by developments in linguistic theory and by findings from psycholinguistic investigations of child language. In light of some recent challenges to nativism, we rehearse old poverty-of stimulus arguments, and supplement them by drawing on more recent work in linguistic theory and studies of child language.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Bates, E. and J. Elman: 1996, ‘Learning Rediscovered’, Science 274, 1849–1850.Google Scholar
  2. Bogan, J. and J. Woodward: 1988, ‘Saving the Phenomena’, Philosophical Review 97(3), 3–25.Google Scholar
  3. Bohannon, J. N. and L. Stanowicz: 1988, ‘The Issue of Negative Evidence: Adult Responses to Childrens Language Errors’, Developmental Psychology 24, 684–689.Google Scholar
  4. Bowerman, M. F.: 1998, ‘The “No Negative Evidence” Problem: How do Children Avoid Constructing Overly General Grammar?’, in J. A. Hawkins (ed.), Explaining Language Universals, Blackwell, Oxford.Google Scholar
  5. Brown, R. and C. Hanlon: 1970, ‘Derivational Complexity and Order of Acquisition in Child Speech’, in J. Hayes (ed.), Cognition and the Development of Language, Wiley, New York.Google Scholar
  6. Cazden, C. B.: 1972, Child Language and Education, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York.Google Scholar
  7. Chomsky, N.: 1965, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  8. Chomsky, N.: 1971, Problems of Knowledge and Freedom, Pantheon Books, New York.Google Scholar
  9. Chomsky, N.: 1975, Reflections on Language, Pantheon Books, New York.Google Scholar
  10. Chomsky, N.: 1981, Lectures on Government and Binding, Foris, Dordrecht.Google Scholar
  11. Chomsky, N.: 1986, Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin and Use, Praeger, New York.Google Scholar
  12. Chomsky, N.: 1995, The Minimalist Program, TheMIT Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  13. Chung, S.: 1994, ‘Wh-Agreement and “Referentiality” in Chamorro’, Linguistic Inquiry 25, 1–45.Google Scholar
  14. Clark, E.: 1987, ‘The Principle of Contrast’, in B. MacWhinney (ed.), Mechanisms of Language Acquisition, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ.Google Scholar
  15. Crain, S.: 1991, ‘Language Acquisition in the Absence of Experience’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 14, 597–650.Google Scholar
  16. Crain, S. and C. McKee: 1985, ‘The Acquisition of Structural Restrictions on Anaphora’, in S. Berman, J. Choe, and J. McDonough (eds.), Proceedings of the 16th North Eastern Linguistics Society, GLSA, Amherst, MA.Google Scholar
  17. Crain, S. and M. Nakayama: 1987, ‘Structure Dependence in Grammar Formation’, Language 63, 522–543. Reprinted in C. Otero (ed.), Noam Chomsky: Critical Assessments, Routledge: London.Google Scholar
  18. Crain, S. and D. Lillo-Martin: 1999, Introduction to Linguistic Theory and Natural Language Acquisition, Blackwell, Oxford.Google Scholar
  19. Crain, S. and R. Thornton: 1998, Investigations in Universal Grammar: A Guide to Experiments in the Acquisition of Syntax and Semantics, The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  20. Cowie, F.: 1999, What’s Within: Nativism Reconsidered, Oxford University Press, New York.Google Scholar
  21. Demetras, M. J. and K. N. Post: 1985, Negative Feedback in Mother-Child Dialogues, Paper presented at the Society for Research in Child Development, Toronto.Google Scholar
  22. Elman, J. L., E. Bates, M. H. Johnson, A. Karmiloff-Smith, D. Parisi, and K. Plunkett: 1996, Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development, The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  23. Ferguson, C. A.: 1977, ‘Baby Talk as a Simplified Register’, in C. E. Snow and C. A. Ferguson (eds.), Talking to Children: Language Input and Acquisition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.Google Scholar
  24. Fodor, J. D. and S. Crain: 1987, ‘Simplicity and Generality of Rules in Language Acquisition’, in B. MacWhinney (ed.), Mechanisms of Language Acquisition, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ, pp. 35–63.Google Scholar
  25. Foss, D. and D. Hakes: 1978, Psycholinguistics, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliff, NJ.Google Scholar
  26. Goldin-Meadow, S. and C. Mylander: 1990, ‘Beyond the Input Given: The Child’s Role in the Acquisition of Language’, Language 66(2), 323–355.Google Scholar
  27. Goodman, N.: 1965, Fact, Fiction and Forecast, Bobbs Merrill, New York.Google Scholar
  28. Halle, M.: 1990, ‘Phonology’, in D. Osherson and H. Lasnik (eds.), An Invitation to Cognitive Science, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  29. Higginbotham, J.: 1983, ‘Logical Form, Binding, and Nominals’, Linguistic Inquiry 14, 679–708.Google Scholar
  30. Higginbotham, J.: 1986, ‘Linguistic Theory and Davidson’s Program in Semantics’, in E. Lepore (ed.), Truth and Interpretation, Blackwell, Oxford.Google Scholar
  31. Hirsh-Pasek, K., R. Treiman, and M. Scheneiderman: 1984, ‘Brown and Hanlon Revisited: Mothers’ Sensitivity to Ungrammatical Forms’, Journal of Child Language 11, 81–88.Google Scholar
  32. Horning, J. J.: 1969, A Study of Grammatical Inference, Doctoral dissertation, Stanford University. Stanford A.I. Project Tech. Report No. CS 139.Google Scholar
  33. Hornstein, N. and D. Lightfoot: 1981, ‘Introduction’, in N. Hornstein and D. Lightfoot (eds.), Explanation in Linguistics: The Logical Problem of Language Acquisition, Longman, London, pp. 9–31.Google Scholar
  34. Hume, D.: 1739, A Treatise of Human Nature, Oxford University Press, Oxford.Google Scholar
  35. Jaeggli, O.: 1980, ‘Remarks on to Contraction’, Linguistic Inquiry 11, 239–245.Google Scholar
  36. Lasnik, H.: 1976, ‘Remarks on Coreference’, Linguistic Analysis 2, 1–22. Reprinted in Howard Lasnik: 1989, Essays on Anaphora, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht.Google Scholar
  37. Lasnik, H. and S. Crain: 1985, ‘On the Acquisition of Pronominal Reference’, Lingua 65, 135–154.Google Scholar
  38. Levelt, W. J. M.: 1975a, Formal Grammars in Linguistics and Psycholinguistics, Mouton, The Hague.Google Scholar
  39. Levelt, W. J. M.: 1975b, ‘What Became of the LAD?’, Peter de Ridder Publications in Cognition, Vol. I, Peter de Ridder Press, Lisse, Holland.Google Scholar
  40. Lightfoot, D. W.: 1991, How to Set Parameters: Arguments from Language Change, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  41. MacWhinney, B. and E. Bates: 1989, The Cross-Linguistic Study of Sentence Processing, Cambridge University Press, New York.Google Scholar
  42. Marcus, G. F.: 1993. ‘Negative Evidence in Language Acquisition’, Cognition 46, 53–85.Google Scholar
  43. Mind and Language: 1998, Vol. 13, Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Oxford.Google Scholar
  44. Marcus, G. F.: 1998, ‘Rethinking Eliminative Connectionism’, Cognitive Psychology 37, 243–282.Google Scholar
  45. Morgan, J. L. and L. L. Travis: 1989, ‘Limits on Negative Information in Language Input’, Journal of Child Language 16, 531–552.Google Scholar
  46. Nelson, K. G., G. Carskaddon, and J. D. Bonvillian: 1973, ‘Syntax Acquisition: Impact of Environmental Variation in Adult Verbal Interaction with the Child’, Child Development 44, 497–504.Google Scholar
  47. Newport, E. L., H. Gleitman, and L. R. Gleitman: 1977, ‘Mother, I’d Rather do it Myself: Some Effects and Non-Effects of Maternal Speech Style’, in C. Snow and C. Ferguson (eds.), Talking to Children: Language Input and Acquisition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.Google Scholar
  48. Pinker, S.: 1984. Language Learnability and Language Development, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  49. Pinker, S.: 1990, ‘Language Acquisition’, in D. N. Osherson and H. Lasnik (eds.), An Invitation to Cognitive Science, Vol. 1, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 107–133.Google Scholar
  50. Plunkett, K. and I. L. Elman: 1997, Exercises in Rethinking Innateness: A Handbook for Connectionist Simulations, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  51. Pullum, G. K.: 1996, ‘Learnability, Hyperlearning, and the Poverty of the Stimulus’, in J. Johnson, M. L. Juge, and J. L. Moxley (eds.), Proceedings of the 22nd Annual Meeting: General Session and Parasession on the Role of Learnability in Grammatical Theory, Berkeley Linguistics Society, Berkeley, pp. 498–513.Google Scholar
  52. Putnam, H.: 1971, ‘The “Innateness Hypothesis” and Explanatory Models in Linguistics’, in J. Searle (ed.), The Philosophy of Language, Oxford University Press, London, pp. 1300–1339.Google Scholar
  53. Quine, W. V. O.: 1953, ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’, in From a Logical Point of View, 2nd edition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  54. Read, C. and P. Schreiber: 1982, ‘Why Short Subjects are Harder to Find than Long Ones’, In E. Wanner and L. Gleitman (eds.), Language Acquisition: The State of the Art, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 78–101.Google Scholar
  55. Rey, G.: 1998, ‘A Naturalistic A Priori’, Philosophical Studies 92, 25–43.Google Scholar
  56. Rizzi, L.: 1990, Relativized Minimality, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  57. Rumelhart, D. E. and J. L. McClelland: 1986, ‘On Learning the Past Tenses of English Verbs’, in J. L. McClelland, D. E. Rumelhart, and the PDP Research Group (eds.), Parallel Distributed Processing: Explorations in the Microstructure of Cognition, Vol. 2, Psychological and Biological Models, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  58. Sachs, J. S.: 1967, ‘Recognition Memory for Syntactic and Semantic Aspects of Connected Discourse’, Perception & Psychophysics 2, 437–442.Google Scholar
  59. Sachs, J., R. Brown, and R. A. Salerno: 1976, ‘Adults’ Speech to Children’, in W. von Raffler-Engel and Y. Lebrun (eds.), Baby Talk and Infant Speech, Swetz & Zeitlinger, Lisse, the Netherlands.Google Scholar
  60. Saffran, J., R. Aslin, and E. Newport: 1996, ‘Statistical Learning by 8-Month-Old Infants’, Science 274, 1926.Google Scholar
  61. Selkirk, L.: 1972. The Phrase Phonology of English and French, Doctoral dissertation, MIT.Google Scholar
  62. Slobin, D.: 1972, ‘Children and Language: They Learn the Same Way All Around the World’, Psychology Today 6, 71–82.Google Scholar
  63. Smith, N.: 1996. Structural Eccentricities, Vol. 2, Glot International, pp. 7–8.Google Scholar
  64. Smith, N., and I.-M. Tsimpli: 1995, The Mind of a Savant, Blackwell, London.Google Scholar
  65. Snow, C. E.: 1972, ‘Mothers’ Speech to Children Learning Language’, Child Development 43, 549–565.Google Scholar
  66. Snow, C. E.: 1977, ‘Mother’s Speech Research: From Input to Interaction’, in C. E. Snow and C. A. Ferguson (eds.), Talking to Children: Language Input and Acquisition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.Google Scholar
  67. Synder, W. and S. Rothstein: 1992, ‘A Note on Contraction, Case and Complementizers’, The Linguistic Review 9, 251–266.Google Scholar
  68. Thornton, R.: 1990, Adventures in Long-Distance Moving: The Acquisition of Complex Wh-Questions, Doctoral dissertation, University of Connecticut, Storrs.Google Scholar
  69. Thornton, R.: 1996, ‘Elicited Production’, in D. McDaniel, C. McKee, and H. S. Cairns (eds.), Methods for Assessing Children’s Syntax, TheMIT Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  70. Thornton, R. and S. Crain: 1998, ‘Successful Cyclic Movement’, in T. Hoekstra and B. Schwartz (eds.), Language Acquisition Studies in Generative Grammar, John Benjamins, Amsterdam.Google Scholar
  71. Wanner, E.: 1974, On Remembering, Forgetting, and Understanding Sentences, Mouton, The Hague.Google Scholar
  72. Wexler, K.: 1979, Untitled Presentation at theWorkshop on Learnability, 4-8 June, Laguna Beach, California.Google Scholar
  73. Wilson, B. and A. M. Peters: 1984, What are you Cookin’ on a Hot?: A Blind Child’s “Violation” of Universal Constraints, Paper presented at the 9th Boston University Conference on Language Development, Boston.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stephen Crain
    • 1
  • Paul Pietroski
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of LinguisticsUniversity of MarylandCollege ParkUSA

Personalised recommendations