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For a certain kind of leftwinger, there’s no bigger blight on the world than the USA. Admittedly, the foreign policy mistakes of successive US administrations have supplied ample grist to the mill of anti-Americanism, but you don’t have to be a neo-con to see that the deep hostility of people like Julian Assange to America's role in the world is utterly unbalanced.

Perhaps the most respectable exponent of this kind of worldview is Noam Chomsky, the grand old man of theoretical linguistics. As if often the case with public intellectuals, achievement in a specialised academic field somehow translates into a general license to have your ill-considered rants on unrelated topics taken seriously.

However, as a fascinating post by Deevy Bishop – a Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology – explains, Chomsky might not even be right about linguistics.

  • “As someone who works on child language disorders, I have tried many times to read Chomsky in order to appreciate the insights that he is so often credited with. I regret to say that, over the years, I have come to the conclusion that, far from enhancing our understanding of language acquisition, his ideas have led to stagnation, as linguists have gone through increasingly uncomfortable contortions to relate facts about children’s language to his theories.”

Chomsky’s most famous theory is that the acquisition of language by children relies on an innate understanding of a universal grammar common to all human languages. The justification runs like something like this: The fact that we can understand the structure of meaningless sentences like “colourless green ideas sleep furiously” suggests that syntax is independent of semantics (the actual meaning conveyed by a normal sentence):

  • “From this, it was a small step to conclude that language acquisition involves deriving abstract syntactic rules that determine well-formedness, without any reliance on meaning.”

Now, for various reasons, it appears that these abstract rules cannot be informally learned by children simply from listening to language being used around them. And yet children still manage to acquire syntactically correct language long before they are ever taught the rules in a formal way (if indeed they ever are).

  • “So we were led to the inevitable, if surprising, conclusion that if grammatical structure cannot be learned, it must be innate. But different languages have different grammars. So whatever is innate has to be highly abstract – a Universal Grammar.”

This is certainly an interesting idea. The trouble is that there’s little empirical evidence to support it. Professor Deevy argues that instead of trying fit the facts to the theory, we need recognise that the theory is flawed:

  • “The mistake here was to assume that an educated adult's ability to judge syntactic well-formedness in isolation has anything to do with how that ability was acquired in childhood.”

In other words, Chomsky has made a valid observation (about the way that sentences can be analysed by linguists), but has falsely assumed that it is of fundamental relevance to the issue at stake (about how human beings acquire language in the first place).

Deevy makes no comment about Chomsky’s political views, but something analogous surely applies: Just because bad things are done within the context of America’s political and economic systems, it does not mean that those systems are fundamentally bad.

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