Comparing Chomsky, Skinner and Harris: How Are Human Roles Conceptualized?

  • Feifei Zhou


I will conduct a focused reading of the three authors’ take on the role of individual speaker and hearer in this chapter. Chomsky’s theoretical interest lies in a perfect state of understanding achieved by the linguistic competence of both speakers and listeners, which ensures instant and automatic understanding of well-formed grammatical sentences. This ‘creative’ ability of producing and understanding an infinite number of well-formed sentences in a specific language is taken to be innate in every human being. To a certain extent, both speakers and listeners in Chomskyan linguistics are locked up in an ideal world where well-formed sentences are transferred back and forth between them. He also believes that child learners’ language competence is largely genetically determined though they need linguistic stimulus from the social environment to activate the language faculty. In fact, what he means by the genetic basis also involves a critical age in child language development: if this age is missed, children will not be able to pick up the ‘native’ accent (Smith, Chomsky: ideas and ideals. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999). In addition, Chomsky dismisses any serious discussion of language use in real life though in his notion of native speaker’s intuition, there remain problematic links with language use in specific cultural and political contexts. Contrary to Chomsky, both Skinner and Harris distrust the transference of meaning guaranteed by a shared language between speakers and listeners in a so-called ideal world; yet, they soon part ways as to the roles played by human agents.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  • Feifei Zhou
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of EnglishLingnan UniversityHong KongChina

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