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Generative Grammar


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Well, I was wondering how many of you have heard about this.

Language is a wonder - we can never be sure how it really works. It's a psychological and cognitive property of humans. Brain activity is needed to comprehend and produce it. Noam Chomsky, who was among the firsts to think about this more seriously, called this the ability of humans to speak a particular language - Language is a part of the mind that allows people to speak. This theory had been called differently throughout history, so at was Transformational (Generative) Grammar, (Extended) Standard Theory, Government and Binding Theory...nowadays, its what we consider generative grammar.

The key assumption of generative grammar is that sentences are ''generated'' by the human mind by it using a subconscious set of rules - the syntax is in the mind. Which also means that the rules are as well - we know the pattern of our language because it is inborn. That's why native speakers know what's correct and what not even if they don't have a formal education - they know their language.

Well, any thoughts? How important is generative grammar to schools in your country? Have you learnt about it?

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OMG!!! I've had this discussion in class. My mind is now scrambling because I had this lecture sometime in 1997, as a college sophomore. (Haha, that's soooo long ago!!!)

If my memory serves me, this is the reason why kids are thought to have the capacity to learn 'any' language when exposed to it prior to age 5. Generally, each baby's brain is wired with 'different' languages. By virtue of exposure, (being born to a specific country), babies get to 'tap' and 'activate' the language of that country. In essence, as babies we really don't have to learn everything from scratch, because like you mentioned, the pattern of language is inborn

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Yes, exactly, that's the gist of it. Children, I mean, human beings in general, already have the patterns of Universal Grammar (or Language - Human Language Capability). Their minds are able to grasp the logic of syntax and therefore, they can learn languages. All of the languages (English, French, any language on the planet) are just instances of Language.

And so, while being exposed to one particular language, they determine its pattern from all possible patterns - SVO for English, for example, as they're constantly being exposed to subject-verb-object sentences that they immediately reject all other possibilities. And so, by the age of five, they can understand complex sentences even though they use simple ones in speech. Whatever the case, their knowledge about their language is absolute (their competence).

This also means that exposure is the key. It doesn't matter whether a child was born in German family if the language being spoken is English. The child will speak English.

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You said it right! I'm still scrambling my memory on this, but I do remember this topic was one of the topics that caught my interest way back in college. From what I can recall from lectures of long ago, one can picture a tree for this. Our brain has this several branches representing the different languages, but because of exposure (as you said, the language constantly used around the little human), a particular branch [the language branch that was tapped] becomes sturdier and sturdier because it's what's been constantly fed through the surrounding conversations, music, TV, etc.. In essence, we don't know how things started out - except that things have always been there (we never had to study those things; we just know them innately).

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Exactly, you've said it just right (and let me say - your memory and the associations with the subject seem impeccable). Language is like a tree. And like any tree, it grows and develops. All the branches are there, meaning, all languages, but only a few become dominant due to exposure to that language and such. We don't make any effort to make this happen - it simply does. How can you stop a tree from growing if it's healthy and the environment is perfect?

This also makes drawing trees by using Phrase-Structure Rules all the more appropriate. It's my favourite part of the practical side. I love sentences and syntax, so it's all very interesting to me. Seeing how noun phrases and verb phrases develop and become more complicated is truly a wonder. Everything seems so logical and so well-ordered that it makes you really ask yourself who had DESIGNED the language - it's like a clockwork, so precise, so... Anyway, I am glad that there are other people who'd also had interest for this at one point.

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