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  The thesis of innateness, in linguistics, has been reworked and brought to prominence since the 1960s by Noam Chomsky. However, the idea that human beings are born with certain aspects of knowledge already in place is in fact very old, stretching back at least as far as Plato. Chomsky asserts that several specific aspects of linguistic knowledge must be inborn in the child. Without this genetic headstart, it is argued that children would be unable to learn their native language as quickly and efficiently as they patently do.

Currently, the most important argument advanced in favour of innateness is the so-called argument from the poverty of the stimulus. The ‘stimulus’ is taken to be the language of parents and care-givers which provides a model of the grammar which the child must learn. It is asserted that there are certain highly abstract principles of language which are simply not present in the input stimulus. Yet even very young children, nevertheless, have a clear grasp of this kind of linguistic knowledge. The necessary conclusion for Chomsky is that the child must be genetically ‘pre-wired’ with just those aspects of language knowledge which are absent from the input. In fact, empirical demonstrations that the stimulus genuinely is impoverished have never been provided, since it is extraordinarily difficult to show that the child\'s knowledge could not just as easily be explained by a general ability to deduce the structure of a given linguistic principle. Even so, current debate is centred not so much on whether aspects of language and language learning could be innate, as on precisely what is innate. MS



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