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Learning Language

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Until the 1950’s, our understanding of how we learn was based almost entirely on behaviorist theories of the stimulus-response model of conditioning.  Not all psychologists were convinced, however, and beginning in 1955, American Noam Chomsky presented an alternative explanation of learning.

In it, he showed that as we learn language, we need to make sense of it, rather than simply learning “parrot fashion.”  Chomsky noticed that children progress much faster in learning language than they would by simply imitating, and have a grasp of complex grammatical structures at a very young age.

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He concluded that all languages have a similar underlying structure-a “universal grammar”-and that we have an innate ability to use this to find meaning as we learn language.

Chomsky’s theory of language learning is sometimes said to have a sparked “cognitive revolution” in psychology, shifting emphasis from behavior to mental process-but for many European psychologists the approach was nothing new.

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