What Is Noam Chomsky’s Influence On Psychology?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Despite being a renowned linguist, Noam Chomsky has contributed significantly to the field of psychology. His contributions are typically associated with the creation of the theory of generative grammar, which is considered to be a significant addition to the field of theoretical linguistics in the 20th century. 

Below, we’ll discuss Chomsky’s linguistic theories and their impact on the field of psychology.

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Noam Chomsky: The linguist

Noam Chomsky is not a psychologist, nor did he originally plan on psychology being part of his research. As a linguist, he became famous for investigating various kinds of formal languages and whether it was possible to capture key properties of human language.

It was his theories about how children develop language, however, that would have a profound effect on the field of psychology. While it remains a mystery exactly how children segment syllables and words out of the sounds that they hear and acquire grammar to understand and produce language, different theories came into existence in the 1950s. These theories formed the basis for a field focused on how language development occurs.

One of the main theories was part of the work of Burrhus Frederic Skinner, otherwise known as B.F. Skinner. He was part of a group of behaviorists whose work centered on proposing new forms of learning. Skinner believed that classical conditioning was a far too simplistic explanation of what was complex human behavior. Part of his work included using positive and negative reinforcement to achieve desired results. In the context of language, Skinner put forth the idea that language development occurs through environmental influence.

Essentially, he argued that children learn language through behavioral reinforcement, whereby they realize the communicative value of words and phrases as correct utterances are positively reinforced.

Noam Chomsky thought that this theory left out several key components. He argued that children would never acquire the tools needed for processing an infinite number of sentences if the language acquisition mechanism were completely dependent on language input. 

To explain language acquisition, Chomsky proposed the theory of generative grammar, which was built on the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt. The theory was based on the idea that we are all built with innate, biological grammatical categories, and these facilitate language development in children and overall language processing for adults.

This system is thought to contain all the grammatical information needed to combine nouns and verbs into phrases. Thus, Chomsky believed that a child merely needs to learn the words of their language, as grammar is already hardwired into their brains.

Generative grammar

At its heart, Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar was a way of describing how people learn to communicate. The idea was that in order for us to build our levels of knowledge, some basic knowledge must already be present.

Chomsky argued that there is a distinction between the deep structure of language and the surface structure of language. Therefore, he put forth the idea that the deep structure aspects, including the meaning of a sentence, are not cultural but rather hardwired into the brain. That meaning is then transformed into the surface structure of words and sounds.

Chomsky hypothesized that the Language Acquisition Device (LAD) explained the acquisition of the syntactic structure of language because it was the system that determined the features of a child's native language or mother tongue. While it was a naturalistic approach, the theory gained support among experts in the field of language and behavior.

In a twist of the networking concepts of Information Processing Theory, Chomsky posited that knowledge, specifically procedural knowledge, becomes irreducible in complexity. When something is successfully networked, it can become intrinsically tied to its immediate network in a learner's mind. As a result, Chomsky believes that language is a purely cognitive phenomenon, and as opposed to behavioral.

He believed that language is not a product of cultural trial and error but is a reconstruction of instinctive knowledge that we already have. He also believed that each language spoken today has a common root in the language center of our brains. The different attributes of languages are then associated with various opportunities and approaches to networking verbiage and syntax.

The impact of generative grammar theory

Over the years, various linguists have modified the theoretical principles and methods related to transformational generative grammar. One of the points of this theory is to explain a native speaker's linguistic competence by framing linguistic descriptions regarding rules for creating an infinite number of grammatical sentences.

Within American psychology, Chomsky's theory paved the way for the cognitive revolution as a shift from behaviorism. Additionally, in his 1966 book, Cartesian Linguistics, and subsequent works, he laid out an explanation of human language faculties, which has become a model for investigation in various areas of psychology.


Three key ideas from Chomsky

There are three key ideas that came from Chomsky's theory that have impacted the present concept of how the mind works. The first of these ideas is that the mind is cognitive, which means that it contains mental states, beliefs, doubts, and more.

Secondly, Chomsky argued that the most important properties of language and mind are innate within us. Therefore, the development of our language abilities is based on the unfolding of innate propensities provoked by input from our environment and culture. This idea has now been extended beyond language, creating a move away from traditional behavior theories.

Finally, Chomsky developed the concept of "modularity," a critical feature of how the cognitive mind is defined. The mind, he argued, is composed of an array of interacting, specialized subsystems, but with limited flows of inter-communication. 

Stages of generative grammar

There are various stages that have been developed since Chomsky first introduced the idea of generative grammar and cognitive theory. As a result, there is increasing systematic insight into the structure of human language capacity as a component of cognitive endowment.

The first stage proposed a system of levels that systematically characterize linguistic expressions by their formal properties. This system created a complex theory of mental organization, which contrasted with the orientation of behaviorists in psychology.

The second stage was the Standard Theory, which described grammatical transformations related to levels of the syntactic organization, the deep structure, and the surface structure. Each of them had a part in determining the semantic and phonetic interpretation for those transformations.

As more generalizations occurred, the third stage developed, which is known as the Principles-and-Parameters Theory. This iteration of the theory showed that most of the language properties accounted for by idiosyncratic syntactic rules are derivable from general principles. With this change, individual languages seem to differ only with respect to lexical information and a restricted set of parameters that universal principles are sensitive to.

The impact of Chomsky

Chomsky’s theories have been distilled, which has further reduced language-specific principles to general conditions of cognitive organization. Chomsky's theory opened the door to cognitive sciences, moving the field of psychology in a new direction. Research into language development, including the biology of language, computational linguistics, neurolinguistics, and language acquisition, has only grown and has influenced formal semantics and pragmatics and the philosophy of language in general.

These contributions have allowed the field of psychology to grow in a new direction and have brought to light the need to understand and research how the mind works, not only regarding language but also in other areas as well. 

Chomsky has been active in politics and has been influential as a philosopher, scientist, and professor. Throughout his life, he has maintained that the goal of teaching is to help cultivate the growth and interest of children in exploring and learning. These ideas have lasted into the present day and continue to have an impact in numerous fields.

Where does this leave language acquisition?

While Chomsky and his theories have influenced the cognitive aspects of psychology, there is still no definitive answer to the problem of language acquisition. Some of the questions that researchers are still trying to answer include:

  • What is the exact process that transforms a child's utterances into grammatically correct, adult-like speech?
  • How much does a child need to be exposed to language to achieve an adult-like communication state?
  • What accounts for the variation between languages and the language acquisition process for children who are not raised to speak English as their first language?

Chomsky’s theory posited that our environment has an impact but that nature plays a larger part than might have originally been thought in the early part of the 20th century. At its heart, Chomsky's work seeks to understand and describe how people learn to communicate. 

Additionally, his work has pointed to the idea that all human language originates from a common source, an innate set of grammatical rules and approaches that is hardwired into the human mind.

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Noam Chomsky made significant contributions to the field of linguistics and psychology. His theories have helped psychologists understand more about the mind, language, and cognitive processes. Today, his theories continue to impact research into our mental states, linguistic abilities, and more. 

Science is continually evolving, and this includes the mental health field. To understand more about your own mental health, you might consider connecting with an online therapist. BetterHelp has a network of more than 25,000 psychologists and therapists, so you can be matched with someone who has experience in your specific areas of concern. Take the first step toward getting help and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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