Language Universals and Language Learning
This is a long post but it is leading up to something pretty wild and wooly.
I made reference tomy Rice professor, Trenton Wann, in my blog "What Constitutes a Human?" One of the things he taught me while I was at Rice (in class and in a lot of private chats thanks to his willingness to suffer my questions and arguments) was a deep suspicion of nativistic theories of human abilities. Before going to M.I.T., I knew that I would be running into the center of nativism in linguistics, for Noam Chomsky was arguing that we humans have an innate knowledge of language that takes the form of universal grammar. Naturally, I would be suspicious of that claim and I did not make myself popular when I expressed my doubts. One student called me "Stupid." That stung but I knew that she was being stunningly naive about what must be proved to prove that a human ability is innate. I didn't say so because I had not yet been fully admitted into the graduate program and she was a star student.
Chomsky did not hold that we speakers of English are born knowing English. That would be a very silly claim to make and Chomsky is not a silly man. It is evident to anyone who looks that the language anyone learns is a function of what language is spoken at home and, when it is different from the "official" language of the society, the language that is taught at school. Thus in the Arab world, everyone learns a regional variety of Arabic at home, and at school kids learn the standard language, which is more or less the language of the Koran. (I am not sure about the actual relationship between the standard language and the language of the Koran.)
What Chomsky meant by our having an innate knowledge of language is that we have an innate universal grammar. Against such a notion, it has long been recognized that languages can be very different in their "surface" structure, that is can be different as to such things as the specific sounds employed, how these sounds are organized into word bits called "morphemes", how these morphemes are combined to form words, and how words are combined to form phrases and sentences. There are languages like Vietnamese that exhibit very little morphology (noncomplex words not containing morphemes marking tense (walk vs. walked, number (boy vs. boys), gender (prince vs princess), case (she vs. her), etc. Such languages tend to exhibit strict word order so that case relations (subject vs indirect object vs direct object, etc.) are indicated clearly (Bill loves Sue doesn't mean Sue loves Bill). Other things marked by morphemes are provided by context in such languages. Though I have used English for all of my examples, English also exhibits very little morphology. Latin, as those who were, like me, forcibly introduced to it will know, exhibits a good deal of morphology and therefore can allow greater freedom in word and phrase order (such differences often reflecting other aspects of interpretation besides literal or conventional meaning).
There are polysynthetic languages like Inuktitut (an Eskimo language) in which whole sentences can be expressed in a single word thanks to the fact that many morphemes can attach to the word root that would in Vietnamese be individual words. This creates some serious problems for the notion of a universal grammar.
Most languages seem to distinguish the subject from predicate (verbs, both main and helping verbs, and direct and indirect objects and adverbials (prepositional phrases and one word adverbs such as to the store and there.) However, there is trouble in paradise. There are languages that vary substantively in the order of main elements. We have the SVO languages (subject, verb, object, as in English), SOV languages (Japanese), which though different from the English pattern, maintains the subject-predictate structure, VOS (a relatively rare type, but found in Malagassy, and also a language preserving the subject predicate distinction), and VSO (a very rare type, but found in Hixkaryana, which messes with the idea that every language exhibits the subject-predicate structure). And, to screw up the works some more, there are ergative languages like Basque (itself a total mystery as to its relationship to other languages) that treat the subject of an intransitive very like sleep and the object of a transitive verb like kiss the same way morphologically. The best web page I found in a quick Google search on language differences and similarities is one by Paul Hagstrom.
Despite all this variation there do seem to be some language universals which can be seen as evidence of the existence of universal grammar. As the site done by Hagstrom notes, many are implicational, stating for instance that if a language has property p, it will also have property q. So, if a language has nasal vowels (the vowel in the English word can) as part of its basic repertory of vowels (not true of English), it will also have nonnasal vowels (French is an example). But in general, to salvage the notion of universal grammar one must look to quite abstract language properties that are shared.
There is another factor to consider in evaluating whether there is a universal grammar that we are born with and this is that there seems to be a differential ability in learning languages between children (from 2 to12, roughly) and adults. Adults can clearly achieve great fluency in learning languages and some would argue that the difference has less to do with age, which equates to brain maturation and structural changes, than social, psychological, and educational factors (immersion vs learning in classes). For an overview, check out this site by
Ji-yeon Kook. I have significantly departed from my areas of expertise and won't take a position on this issue. However, it has been reliably reported that fluent nonnative speakers don't react instinctively to cursing they way native speakers do and that they are not as clear as to what is and is not a grammatical sentence in the dialect they share with native speakers.
One can also take the position that we have no language-specific innate cognitive capacity but rather we are born with a limited vocal apparatus that restricts us to a set of sounds that we can make with some being more easily made than others (stop consonants vs. others and nonnasal vowels vs. nasal vowels) and a powerful perceptual-cum-conceptual apparatus that allows us to learn that events exist that involve various sorts of relationships among them, such things as simple relations (John is tall or John kissed Mary involving an entity and a property or an actor, an action, and an acted upon) to complex causal connections (John killed the ant being cognitively parsable as John acted in such a way as to cause the ant to come to die). It could be argued that we bring that conceptual apparatus plus our developing capacity to master sound production plus our perceptual (visual and auditory) apparati to bear on language learning. (I know it is uncouth to use "plus" but I don't really care.) I would take the position that if we have these various nonlinguistic learning abilities they must themselves be innate to at least some degree for saying that we are born with a blank slate and we learn to learn before or as we learn things seems profoundly improbable.
There is still another possibility, of course, and that is that there are some language universals and there is an independent cognitive apparatus, both being innate, that we bring to bear on learning the language data we are exposed to. Nothing complex is ever just one way or the other contrary to what True Believers tend to think.
What I am going to assume here is that we do not start off with a blank slate upon which experience writes its lessons but that we have some sort of innate abilities that facilitates our learning languages. It is clear by now that though primates can be taught to communicate using symbolic language, none has ever acquired anything like a human language, namely a language that allows the embedding of one sentence inside another (I saw the boy who left) along with many other complex linguistic properties. However, the fact that they can communicate to some degree using symbolic language and can even, or so it is reported, learn some such symbols on their own does show that primates do enjoy some sort of very limited cognitive/linguistic abilities like ours. But, in contrast, human children not only learn language on their own (parents and others provide valuable input but don't teach their children their language -- they wouldn't know how) and vastly quicker than primates learn what they learn, they can learn several languages at once even when one is American Sign Language or some other sign language used by those who are hearing impaired (if that is the current PC designation.)
This is a long post, as many of mine have been, but I won't apologize for that. Let me add just one more thing. To prove that there are linguistic universals, there must be some property of one or more languages that cannot be learned from experience (from experiencing the primary language data they are exposed to and does not correspond to an independently needed cognitive ability (including thinking, memory, and all the rest). That is tough to do. But it is absolutely worth trying to do it.