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The Poverty of Stimulus Argument and the Cognitive Revolution

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The Poverty of Stimulus Argument and the Cognitive Revolution Language is what distinguishes human beings from all the other species living in this world. Our ability to learn a language is what has kept humanity going for so many centuries. By being able to communicate, we have broken many barriers that have helped us to evolve. One question that has been controversial regarding language acquisition is if language is a human instinct or if it was invented by our cultures. Since language is learned during childhood, Noam Chomsky turned to children’s ability to produce language in order to answer this enigma. One of Noam Chomsky’s great contributions in the study of language is the poverty of stimulus argument. According to Laurence and Margolis, “the idea behind the poverty of stimulus argument is […] that the knowledge acquired in language acquisition far outstrips the information that is available in the environment” (p. 221, 2001). This argument demonstrates that kids are not given enough language samples for them to have the level of language acquisition they show. This argument is the main justification for debating that language is innate (Pinker, p. 30, 1994). For example, if a child wants to express that he ate an apple, he might say that he “eated” an apple instead.

There is no way that somebody taught him that sentence before, because it is grammatically incorrect. Instead, he processed it in his mind and created a past tense that made sense to him. He did not have enough information from his exposure to the language to make that mistake. Chomsky also presented some linguistic regularities to explain his argument. As stated on the article “The Poverty of the Stimulus Argument,” examples show that if kids didn’t have the innate ability to process language, they would formulate the simplest and most natural response when changing a sentence’s meaning. For example, the sentence “the dog is in the house” is changed to a question only by changing the “is” to the beginning of the sentences. Therefore, the sentence “the man who is changing the car’s tire is Anna’s father” would follow the same pattern. This is not the case, because the sentence would not make sense at all if the “is” were placed at the beginning. Because children are able to differentiate and avoid these errors, the argument is established. The poverty of stimulus argument is supported by nativists, who believe that the human mind has many innate features, including the acquirement of language. In contrast, empiricists believe that language has more to do with our sensory system (Laurence, & Margolis, p. 219, 2001).

The study of the mind has always been controversial, so it is not surprising that there are some theories disputing the poverty of stimulus argument. One of them is behaviorism, which rejects “the study of the mind as unscientific, and sought[s] to explain the behavior of organisms with laws of stimulus-response conditioning” (Pinker, p. 504, 1994). The poverty of stimulus argument refuted this because Chomsky stated that every sentence that a person creates is a brand new combination of words, and that the brain is capable of producing an unlimited number of sentences. He also said the fact that children develop their grammar abilities without instruction, therefore stating that children learn the rules of language, not the exact response (Pinker, p. 9, 1994). Chomsky even reviewed Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior, which was ground-breaking because it slowed down behaviorism as America’s leading school of psychology by showing that Skinner’s stimulus-response learning was too imprecise to be scientific (Bolles).

Noam Chomsky’s and Skinner’s debate has often been referred to as the cognitive revolution. As stated by Barnard and Larson, the revolution started in the 1950’s when Chomsky challenged Skinner’s explanation of language acquisition. Chomsky’s revision of Verbal Behavior was where he argued that there is more to language than just punishments and reinforcements. He asserted that humans had the innate ability to learn a language, which was ultimately supported by the poverty of stimulus argument. Behaviorism was forever changed as a result. Language is such an important aspect of the human race, it is so vital to the existence that is often taken for granted. Humans would not be able to communicate feelings, commands, needs, or even information to the coming generations without a common language. Despite the thousands of languages that currently exist in the world, every person was biologically wired to learn at least one of them. Chomsky’s poverty of stimulus argument is without a doubt one of the most important debates of modern psychology and linguistics.


Barnard, K, & Larson, M. (n.d.). The cognitive revolution. Retrieved from http://www3.niu.edu/acad/psych/Millis/History/2003/cogrev.htm Bolles, B. (2009, July 19). Poverty of the stimulus: part 1, chomsky 1959. Retrieved from http://www.BabelsDawn.com Laurence, S, & Margolis, E. (2001). The poverty of the stimulus argument. British Society for the Philosophy of Science, 52, 217-226. Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct. New York, NY: HarpersCollins Publishers.

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