The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Universal Grammar

An important assumption lies at the core of Chomsky's theory. Chomsky claimed that we have some innate knowledge of what a grammar is and how it works. Then experience determines which specific language (i.e., grammar) we will learn. When we are taught a language, we do not memorize each sentence word by word: eventually, we learn the grammar of that language, and the grammar enables us to both understand and utter more sentences than we have ever heard. Somehow our brains refuse to learn a language by memorizing all possible sentences: our brains tend to infer a grammar from all those sentences. Chomsky concluded that our brains are pre-wired to deal with grammars, that there exists some kind of universal linguistic knowledge.

The linguistic ability is inherent as much as arms: we do not learn to have arms, we just have them. Experience simply shapes them.

In 1981, Chomsky introduced the concept of a "universal grammar" to defend his thesis that language is innate: we are born with a brain that is pre-wired to learn language; which language we learn depends on what sentences we are exposed to. Our brain is born with a "universal grammar", a set of universal rules that enable it to deal with language (as an abstract skill).  Chomsky's point was that languages are impossibly difficult to learn: however, children routinely learn their home language in a few years.  Therefore, their brain must be "ready" to acquire language in a way that no computer is. In other words, what the brain has to learn is not the whole concept of "language", but something smaller and simpler. If the brain contains a "universal grammar", then what we have to learn is not the whole concept of "language" but only the specifics of our home language.

Formally stated, Chomsky decomposes a user's knowledge of language into two components: a universal component (the "universal grammar"), which is the knowledge of language possessed by every human, and a set of parameter values and a lexicon, which together constitute the knowledge of a particular language.  The ability to understand and utter language is due to the universal grammar that is somehow encoded in the human genome.  A specific grammar is learned not in stages, as Jean Piaget thought, but simply by gradually fulfilling a blueprint that is already in the mind. 

Children do not learn, as they do not make any effort. Language "happens" to a child. The child is almost unaware of the language acquisition process.  Learning to speak is not different from growing, maturing and all the other biological processes that occur in a child. A child is genetically programmed to learn a language, and experience will simply determine which one.  The way a child is programmed is such that all children will learn language the same way.

Language acquisition is not only possible: it is virtually inevitable. A child would learn to express herself even if nobody taught her a language.

Chomsky’s belief in innate linguistic knowledge is supported by a mathematical theorem proved in 1967 by Mark Gold (“Language Identification In The Limit”): a language cannot be learned from positive examples only. A grammar could never be induced from a set of the sentences it is supposed to generate. But the grammar can correctly be induced (learned) if there is a (finite) set of available grammars to choose from. In that case the problem is to identify the one grammar that is consistent with the positive examples (with the known sentences), and then the set of sentences can be relatively small (the grammar can be learned quickly). .

In 1977 Chomsky, inspired by the US linguist John Ross, also advanced a theory of “government binding” that would reduce differences between languages to a set of constraints, each one limiting the number of possible variants. Grammar develops just like any other organ in the body: an innate program is started at birth but it is conditioned by experience; still, it is constrained in how much it can be influenced by experience. An arm will be an arm regardless of what happens during growth, but frequent exercise will make its muscles stronger. Ditto for grammar. Growth is deterministic to some extent: its outcome can fluctuate, but within limits.


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