Nativism and the poverty of the stimulus: A demanding argument for the ‘innateness’ of language

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Domi Dessaix



This article critiques nativism about language (also called linguistic nativism), the view that language capacities are somehow innate, associated especially with Noam Chomsky (for example, 1980, 1993). The focus of the article is on the so-called ‘poverty of the stimulus argument’ (PSA), often taken to be the backbone of nativism, which says that children’s knowledge of language is underdetermined by their linguistic environment. I first argue for how the nativists’ claim should be interpreted—an important task given arguments that the notion of ‘innateness’ in science is problematic (e.g. Mameli & Bateson 2006). I then outline and critique one example of a PSA, that of Lidz et al. (2003), applied to English anaphoric ‘one’. I show that the study is far from successful in demonstrating a PSA for this feature of language. I also argue that the problems with Lidz et al. (2003) are instructive in showing how difficult it is to empirically substantiate a PSA. The article concludes that nativists about language needs to move away from the PSA and look to alternative means of supporting their thesis.

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