November 12, 2006
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Too sick today to write anything substantive, so of course I’ve spent two-thirds of the day dozing, and the remainder digging around for articles on the poverty of the stimulus argument… For those who might have missed this particular obsession, the poverty of the stimulus argument is one of the claims discussed as part of our all-Chomsky-all-the-time reading group discussion. The basic claim is that children learn grammatical rules that are so massively underdetermined by their environments, that the pattern of early language acquisition provides strong evidence for the existence of an innate, specific faculty for language acquisition. Since I’m sure all my readers share my fascination with this argument, I thought I’d post the link to the best article I stumbled across in my admittedly somewhat fever-impaired reading today: Geoffrey Pullum and Barbara Scholz’s “Empirical Assessment of Stimulus Poverty Arguments” The Linguistic Review 19 (2002): 9-50.
The gist of Pullum and Scholz’s argument is that, in the cases most often cited in the nativist literature, the stimulus might, in fact, not be so impoverished after all. They challenge linguists to engage in more extensive empirical investigation before making strong claims about the rarity of children’s exposure to particular sentence structures – and they also point to the need to establish more explicit and well-reasoned statistical measures for how much environmental exposure would be “enough” to undermine the claim that children could not possibly deduce a grammatical principle from their environmental exposure.
The article, it should be noted, is not itself a critique of nativism – it remains agnostic on the issue. The authors’ intention is simply to point to the weak empirical base for existing claims, and to challenge the discipline to become more serious about empirical investigation – and also epistemological clarification – if it intends to persist in viewing the poverty of stimulus argument as pivotal for the cognitive science case for universal grammar.