Universal Grammar and Second Language Acquisition

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2018

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Universal Grammar
2.1 Universal Grammar in general
2.2 Government/ Binding Theory
2.2.1 Principles
2.2.2 Parameters

3. Universal Grammar and First Language Acquisition

4. Universal Grammar and Second Language Acquisition
4.1 Second Language Acquisition in general
4.2 No UG Hypothesis
4.3 No Transfer/ Full Access Hypothesis
4.4 Full Transfer/ Full Access Hypothesis
4.5 Partial Access Hypothesis

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

The topic of this term paper is from high relevance when it comes to the human mind in general, but it has a special importance for those who are trying to start a career as Second Language teachers because Chomsky’s Universal Grammar Theory influenced the whole field of linguistic studies and Language Acquisition tremendously. Future teachers need to be aware of these perceptions to be successful at teaching languages. The beginning of this paper is therefore going to be discussing what Universal Grammar after Chomsky consists of in general and what it describes. This part is going to be functioning as an overview that will help to comprehend the following subchapter, which will be dealing with one part of Chomsky’s Government/ Binding Theory, the principles and parameters. Thereafter, a discourse on First Language Acquisition and Universal Grammar is going to be portrayed, since Universal Grammar is usually linked to First Language Acquisition and will help to understand the coherence of the previously discussed matters of Universal Grammar. The goal of these first few chapters is to create a transition to the main topic of the paper by providing some important background information of Chomsky’s studies and theories. Following that, Second Language Acquisition and Universal Grammar will be further examined starting with a brief introduction of Second Language Acquisition and what it means, so that the next subchapters can be understood properly. Following that, a few Hypotheses, which are concerned with Second Language Acquisition and Universal Grammar, are going to be looked at. This will be interesting since these Hypotheses seem to be going in different directions when it comes to Universal Grammar in Second Language Acquisition. The intent of this chapter is to determine what role Universal Grammar has in Second Language Acquisition. To complete this paper, a conclusion will provide a recap on the examined topic of this work and a personal view on the relevance of the topic, the results, and some suggestions regarding the future of this matter. The focus of this paper is going to be on the syntactic characteristics, however some subchapters might not stick to those only since some background knowledge needs to be provided as well, so that the complex topic of Universal Grammar and Language Acquisition can be thoroughly understood.

2. Universal Grammar

This chapter is concerned with what Universal Grammar is and what it consists of following the studies and perceptions Noam Chomsky’s. Furthermore, one of Chomsky’s many theories called the Government/ Binding Theory (1981) will be discussed to a certain extent by presenting two of its most important aspects called principles and parameters (Cook/ Newson 2007: 4) . Those aspects play a significant role in the later following investigation of Universal Grammar and its role in Language Acquisition.

2.1 Universal Grammar in general

Noam Chomsky’s idea of Universal Grammar started influencing most of linguistic views on language and language acquisition in the 1960’s (Cook/ Newson 2007: 1). His theory is considered to be the most explicit and influential theory of human language acquisition or learning” (Salkie 1990: preface). Before looking closer into Universal Grammar and its components it is fundamental to mention that Chomsky distinguishes between externalized (E-)language and internalized (I-)language (Cook/ Newson 2007: 13). E-language is concerned with the external investigation of language, while I-language is concerned with what goes on in the human mind and sees language as “a system represented in the mind/brain of a particular individual” (Chomsky, 1988: 36). Now that it became obvious, that Chomsky’s studies of Universal Grammar are focused on the internal and not on the external aspects of language, a further characterization of said Universal Grammar in general can be approached. Firstly, Chomsky states that there is a language facility in our minds which Universal Grammar is a part of and which is independent from other facilities in our brain like mathematics (Cook/ Newson 2007: 49). “Universal Grammar is part of the genotype specifying one aspect of the initial state of the human mind and brain” (Chomsky 1980: 82). This initial state includes principles and parameters1 of languages which are needed for acquiring language. Since the processes and language facilities in the human mind cannot be fully proven or examined “the information in UG is clearly of an abstract kind” (Salkie 1990: 41) which makes it difficult to grasp what it exactly states. Furthermore, Universal Grammar tries to answer the question “what can be learned when humans acquire language” (Saleemi 1992: 13). Chomsky assumes that since humans can understand and form comprehensible words or sentences in a certain language early on in their life and later in second language acquisition as well, there must be knowledge in our minds before being exposed to language which enables humans to access abstract principles, parameters, and syntactical rules that form Universal Grammar (Cook/ Newson 2007: 41). Along with this position goes that it is impossible for these principles and parameters to be acquired since we already incorporate them in our minds. Additionally, Chomsky “emphasizes similarities, rather than differences” (Salkie 1990: 12) in languages, which is important to keep in mind as well whilst looking at the principles and parameters. They can be applied to several languages and not just one, which makes it [UG theory] extremely powerful (Cook/ Newson 2007: 2). The last important fact about Universal Grammar that one must know is, that it is restricted in the way that some aspects of language are not connected to Universal Grammar and simply must be learnt (ibid., 25) e.g. irregular verb forms in the past tense: run -> ran; fall -> fell.

2.2 Government/ Binding Theory

The question how Universal Grammar can be applied to all human languages is answered by Chomsky when we look at the most important aspects of his Government/ Binding Theory2 which include the principles that are fundamental to all languages in general, and the parameters which allow and distinguish syntactical variability between languages (Cook/ Newson 2007: 62). To understand the upcoming subchapters of Principles and Parameters, it is important to know that they are based on the basic conception that “sentences consist of phrases” (Cook/ Newson 2007: 28) and that these phrases can be broken down into Noun Phrases (NP) and Verb Phrases (VP) which then break down into Verb (V), Noun (N), Determiner (D) etc. (ibid.). This process goes on until only words or morphemes are left and it is often represented in tree diagrams3 (ibid., 31). Hand in hand with that goes the fact that “elements of the sentence[s] appear to move”4 (ibid., 33) under certain circumstances and principles, which are going to be looked at in the following chapter.

2.2.1 Principles

The Principles5 Chomsky established are laying down the fundamental features of all natural languages and their common grammatical rules (Saleemi 1992: 11). Based on how sentences are structured and how they move as explained before, it is easier to explain the concept of Chomsky’s Principles of Universal Grammar and how they are universal with the help of an example. The example that is going to be portrayed in detail is called the Locality Principle. This principle states that there is a certain limitation to movements within a sentence (Cook/ Newson 2007: 36). “Movements have to be short” (ibid.) and if they are not short, they are not grammatically correct (ibid.). The same happens if elements are being moved outside of the part of the sentence they originally came from. The sentence then becomes ungrammatical (ibid.). Chomsky distinguishes between different kinds of movement phenomena which conform to the Locality Principle6 (ibid., 62-118). Some are going to be presented and illustrated through English examples in the following. The first kind of movement which conforms to the Locality Principle is called the subject- auxiliary invasion (ibid., 37). The auxiliary is usually positioned behind the subject, but moves before it to form yes- no questions in English (ibid.). The first example will illustrate the invasion with one auxiliary. (1) You will go to school today. -> Will you go to school today? The next example is going to picture a sentence with auxiliary one and auxiliary two, this makes obvious in what way the Locality Principle helps deciding what element can be moved before the subject and which cannot. (3) You will have gone to school a Will you have gone to school? b * Have you will gone to school? Due to the Locality Principle the second auxiliary cannot be in front as in (3) b because it is ungrammatical to move the element with the longer movement distance, rather than the one with the shortest as in (4) a.

Another kind of movement which conforms to the Locality Principle of the shortest movement is the Wh-movement. It is concerned with the forming of questions and replacing objects by displacing question words to the front of its own clause (Cook/ Newson 2007: 38). The following examples will include one clause at first and then another one with two.

Julia passed the test (4) What did Julia pass -?7 (5) a A girl asked [ what Julia passed -] b * Who did a girl ask [ whatpassed -] ? As one can see, example (4) and (5) a work grammatically correct because the question word moves to the front of the clause it is originated in and replaces the object. In example (5) b, the turquoise marked question word takes a long movement distance outside of its own clause into a higher clause and makes the question immediately ungrammatical. All of the examples above point out how important the Locality Principle is when it comes to movement, since the limitation of short movement makes it easier to build sentences. Since the principles need to be proven to be applicable to all languages8 to be part of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, as we stated earlier, it is needed to apply these principals to other languages. The following examples are concentrating on the subject- auxiliary inversion and are going to be in German. (6) Julia guckt den Film (i.e. Julia watches the movie) -> Guckt Julia den Film ? (i.e. Does Julia watch the movie?) direct translation: Watches Julia the movie? (7) Julia hat den Film geguckt. (i.e. Julia watched the movie) -> Hat Julia den Film geguckt ? (i.e. Did Julia watch the movie ?) direct translation: Has Julia the movie watched ? Since the auxiliary or the verb with the shortest movement always moves to the front whilst forming a yes-no question, the subject- auxiliary inversion conforms the Locality Principle not only in English, but also in other languages because it is the case in the example above too. This means that “the Locality Principle is then a universal principle that applies to a variety of constructions in many languages: it is part of UG” (Cook/ Newson 2007: 40).

2.2.2 Parameters

The aim of the Parameters is to determine syntactical variabilities between languages (Cook/ Newson 2007: 41) because “if language consisted solely of invariant principles, all human languages would be identical” (ibid.). One of the Parameters9 by Chomsky that is going to be presented in this paper is the Head Parameter. It is indicating that all phrases contain a head which functions as the central element of the phrase and other elements of that phrase, so called complements revolve around it (ibid.). The important question that the Parameter deals with is the “location of the head in relationship to other elements” (ibid.). The first example is going to be in English. Three different Phrases will be investigated in order to determine where the head is located. (8) sisters forever NP10 Noun (head) complement sisters forever (9) cook the pasta VP11 Verb (head) complement cook the pasta (10) under the bed PP12 Preposition complement under the bed After looking at these examples it becomes clear that the position of the head is in the front when it comes to the English language. The next step is to have a look at another language, in this case it is going to be Japanese: E wa kabe ni kakette imasu (direct translation: picture wall on is hanging; i.e. The picture is hanging on the wall) We are going to have a look at two Phrases included in this sentence (ibid., 42-43).


1 These are going to be explained later on in this paper.

2 Other aspects of the Government/ Binding Theory cannot be discussed in this paper. For further reading c.f. Cook/ Newson 2007: 61-62.

3 For further reading on that topic c.f. Cook/ Newson 2007: 29-32.

4 Movement of sentence elements can be further studied in Cook/ Newson 2007: 31-34.

5 For more information on other Principles c.f. Cook/ Newson 2007: 62-118.

6 Not all kind of movements and comparisons to other language can be presented in this paper. For further reading c.f. Cook/ Newson 2007: 36-41).

7 The bullet ( - ) is in these examples placed where an object gets replaced with a question word. The replaced element and the bullet are marked in matching colors.

8 I am going to limit this comparison to one language and the subject- auxiliary inversion, although there are more to proof the universal function of this principle. The colors are going to match the ones from the previous example of that topic.

9 For more Parameters c.f. Cook/ Newson 2007: 62-118.

10 Noun Phrase.

11 Verb Phrase.

12 Preposition Phrase, later Postposition Phrase.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Universal Grammar and Second Language Acquisition
University of Duisburg-Essen
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Universal Grammar, Chomsky, Second Language, Language acquisition, sla, UG, linguistics, syntax, english, children, language learning, theory, theorie
Quote paper
Julia Niehaus (Author), 2018, Universal Grammar and Second Language Acquisition, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/541610


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