Define Chomsky’s UG. How can it be exploited in SLA research?

Universal grammar can be simply defined as a set of universal innate principles of grammar shared by all languages.That a child will not be able to learn its mother tongue without a set of innate principles ,because the linguistic data it is exposed to are too poor is the central point of the UG.The theory given by the American linguist Chomsky, attempts to explain language acquisition in general, not describe specific languages.The key features of the UG are given below. 

UG consists of different kinds of universals.Chomsky identifies two types:substantive and formal.Substantive universals consist of fixed features such as the distinctive phonetic features of which sounds are made or syntactic categories such as noun,verb,and object.Formal universals are more abstract.They are statements about what grammatical rules are possible in languages.

Formal and substantive universals are constrains and therefore delimit the options by setting parameters which must then be fixed according to the particular input data that the child obtains. 

So,the principles and parameters which can be defined as a framework in human brain make UG possible. UG holds  a set of principles and parameters arranged into modules such as Binding Theory and it is a computation system that ranges from the component of  Phonological Form to the component of Logical Form ,that is ,from ’sound’ to ’meaning’.

The rules the child learns can be unmarked or marked.The universals that the child learns form the core grammar and the distinctive features are termed as peripheral.

To sum up, there are some innate universal principles without which a child cannot master his mother tongue.But the input data are also a must as the input triggers the LAD.
Effects of UG parameters on L2A

There are certain principles of UG that vary from language to language. The variation is built into UG in the form of parameters with different settings. Parameter settings between the L1 and the L2 may be both identical and different. If identical, L2 learners need not result it: but if different they have to reset it. Again when a particular parameter is not available in the L1, the learners have to activate it newly in their L2. Thus on these issues the UG hypothesis makes a number of important observations that best explain L2A. For instance, as White(1989) points out, though UG is available in L2A, it cannot necessarily interact immediately with the L2 input. The initial hypothesis that works in the mind of the learners is that L1 parameter value applies to it. As a result L2 learners initially use L1 parameter value to organize the L2 data that causes transfer effects in the interlanguae. However, finally L2 learners become able to reset the parameter setting appropriate to the L2. Towell and Hawkins(1994) also express the same view. According to them this transfer of L1 parameter setting can have two effects. If the setting in the L2 happens to be the same as the setting in the L1, then the learner should get grammatical properties of the L2 which are dependent on that parameter setting right from the very beginning of acquisition. Where the settings differ between the L1 and the L2 the learner would initially be expected to get wrong grammatical properties in the L2 dependent on that parameter setting.

Some of the empirical studies done on the use of parameter setting also show positive evidence for the UG hypothesis. White refers to three pro-drop parameter studies, one carried out by herself and the other two by Phinncy(1987) and Hilles(1986) each of which clearly suggests that Spanish learners of English become finally able to avoid omission of subject-nouns and free subject-verb inversion in English, though at the initial stage L1 interference occurs. Towell and Hawkins (1994) mention the study by Hulk (1991) that investigated the acquisition of French word order by a group of Dutch speaking subjects. Hulk’s finding also reveal that in spite of the presence of L1 value at early stages, Dutch learners gradually become able to reset the parameter setting and acquire French word order. Another grammatically judgment task by White 1988cited in White1989, p.113) on Subjacency violation suggests that native speakers of French are able to recognize “S” as a bounding node for Subjacency in English, though in French “S” is not a bounding node.


The concept of markedness is one more important issue to be discussed here. Researchers have used this as a source of explanation and prediction in L2A. According to Ellis markedness theory can help to explain why some differences between the native and the target language lead to learning difficulty, while other differences do not.” Markedness refers to those aspects of a language that are unnatural and complex. If a parameter has more than one value, one of them is said to be more natural than the other. So, the natural one is unmarked and the other is marked. According to UG, “unmarked aspects of grammar are those that are directly related to Universal Grammar and form the “core”: marked aspects are less directly related to Universal Grammar and form the “peripheral grammar”. Therefore, from markedness study one prediction can logically be deducted that L2 learners will find unmarked aspects of the L2 much easier to learn than marked ones, because unmarked aspects are directly related to UG. Moreover, since unmarked aspects are easier to learn, if can also be assumed that unmarked settings will occur in interlanguage before marked settings. Furthermore, the masrkedess concept offers a good explanation of L1 interference in the L2 grammars. The concept suggests that L2 learners will always tend to transfer unmarked values of the L1 to their interlanguage. The study by Mazurkewich 1984 shows that French learners of English find unmarked “pied-piping” sentences like

3.a To whom did John give the book     
 easier than marked “preposition-stranding” sentences like
3.a Who did John give the book to

Thus markedness study demonstrates further evidence that UG is effective and plays a vital role in explaining L2A.

3. Counter Arguments

So far an attempt has been made to consider the evidence that has led some of the researchers to assume that UG plays a crucial role in L2A. But there are many researchers who hold contrary views. According to them UG is not accessible to L2 learners, and hence cannot play any role in L2A. They also differ with some of the basic assumptions made by the UG based researchers. Besides, a number of empirical studies also strengthen their position against the UG hypothesis some of which are mentioned below.

Larsen-Freeman and Long claim that the input is not degenerate because “both caretaker speech and language addressed to non-native speakers have been found to be well-formed.” As cited in Melaughlin, Schachter has pointed out that “phenomena such as confirmation checks, clarification requests, and failures to understand quality as negative input.” Thus the poverty of the stimulus argument has been under attack. The argument of Structure-dependence is also refuted by Parker 1989(mentioned in Larsn-Freeman and Long 1991). Parker argues that the rule of structure-dependence can be gathered from the input, it does not require any innate knowledge. She also raises questions about Subjaccency effects. She illustrates that Subjaccency effects “can be accounted for without recourse to innate linguistic knowledge: through the assumption in a theory of learning of a preference for continuity.” In another grammatically judgment task by Schatcher as White reports Korean and Indonesian learners failed to reject Subjaccency violations. The theory of markedness also causes much debate. Various definitions have been used. As a result, same aspects are classified as unmarked by one researcher and marked by another. It is not true either that L2 learners always acquire or transfer unmarked form. In a related study, White 1983 finds that sometimes learners carry over marked constructions from the L1 to the L2.


As mentioned, it is clear that no uniform view can be established about the role of UG in L2A. There are both arguments and counter-arguments on the issue. Empirical studies have done so far also reveal mixed findings. But the research in the domain is still in its initial stage and has been restricted to a very limited area. Until the research is carried out in other untrodden area of L2A no final judgment on the issue is possible. However, on the basis of findings revealed so far against and for the hypothesis, it becomes evident that researchers tend to use UG as a source of hypothesis about L2A. In this case at least, it is to be admitted that UG can be used very effectively. It helps in a great deal to explain many of the problems of L2A that could otherwise have been left unresolved. It helps to make some important predictions particularly about interlanguage and transfer effects of the L.1.Therefore, it can be affirmed that Universal Grammar plays a crucial role in second language acquisition and more research on the issue might explore new dimensions.