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Sunday, January 22, 2012

ENG Studies: Language and Cognition in the Perspective of Chomsky and Piaget

Noam Chomsky
The perpetual search for truth of humans has largely opened several views on matters influencing, if not entirely affecting our day-to-day experiences, thus creating a rather extensive but not exhaustive list of propositions to explain certain phenomena. One of such phenomena which has relatively sparked the curiosity of theorists, mostly in the past century, dealt with the relationship between language and cognition. Several literatures of important scholars (Piaget, Vygotsky, Whorf, and Chomsky) provide the inquisitive community answers to the apparent bond between the two concepts at hand, opening a wider window for intelligent debates in the role that language and thought plays in child development. 
Jean Piaget

However, the debate between Jean Piaget, a Swiss biologist and scholar, and Noam Chomsky, an American linguist and political critic, is, in general sense, worth examining given the fact that their debate has been “compared more and more frequently” (Piatelli-Palmarini, 1982: xiv) in the scholarly sphere. Their works about language and cognition have immensely influenced many other fields particularly and more importantly the pedagogy, which perhaps instigated historically notable paradigm shifts.

A radical constructivist, Jean Piaget has earlier offered his own explanation of the relationship between the two through his rigidly reviewed theory on child development which is dubbed as “cognitive determinism” (Owens, 1996: 131). Piaget believes that intellectual development is a direct continuation of inborn biological attributes which undergoes four stages1 as the child grows old.

Language development, which he considers part of intellectual development is therefore not independent and may generally be regarded as an offshoot of the child’s ability to represent reality as he continues to cultivate those inborn attributes through organization and adaptation. In other words, cognition is responsible for language development (see Fig.1) because as Piaget puts it, “…in the first place, adults convey different modes of thought by means of speech… [and] his language serves only to assert,… state objective facts [which] are closely bound up with cognition” (Piaget, 1959: 1).

Fig. 1. Language is both based on and determined by thought. (cognitive determinism) 

On the other hand, Noam Chomsky strongly dismissed the point raised by Piaget about cognition being a catalyst in the acquisition and development of language. Considered a leading figure in the cognitive revolution in the 1950s and 1960s, Chomsky (1968), who is an innatist, espoused the notion that “the child acquires language… at a time when he is not capable of complex intellectual achievements in many other domains” (p. 66). In this sense, the language of the child is not necessarily bound up with cognition, but is in fact, independent of it.

For Chomsky, human language, aside from being species-specific, is innate and not just borne out of the need to express thought as Piaget proposes. He considers the “language organ,” which is embedded within the broader architecture of the mind/brain2, responsible for the innate ability of the child to use language to convey thoughts. As an organ, compared to vital systems such as circulatory system, visual system, and immune system among others, it harnesses its full potentials through growth, predetermined by an initial state and equally complemented by the growth of other organs. This means that as a child grows, his language organ grows together with the increasing complexity of thought and his other body organs. Interaction, therefore, of these systems is a necessary requirement to carry out tasks such as expression of ideas. This interaction is explained more precisely by Chomsky (2000) in the following example which highlights the important role of language in generating expressions in the phonological level:

“The sensorimotor systems, for example, have to be able to read the instructions having to do with sound, that is the ‘phonetic representations’ generated by the language. The articulatory and perceptual apparatus have specific design that enables them to interpret certain phonetic properties, not others. These systems… must provide expressions with the proper phonetic form” (p.9).

In this case, production of language and thought are two separately maturing human abilities which are, in certain extents, interdependent with one another as well as with other body organs (see Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Language and thought are independent but related abilities

While both agree on the concept of a non-empty, genetically-determined initial state (fixed nucleus), followed by an intermediate state, and later on by a stable state of certain features of the human brain, which is developed through learning “in an external environment characterized by problems” (Cellerier in Piatelli-Palmarini, 1982: 68), the disagreement lies in the question how much is innate and how much is acquired.

In Chomsky’s point of view, humans are born with abstract concepts of language universals such as a system of rules and structures which we use to express thought in a grammatical and comprehensible manner. Since we are born with these, “knowledge of language is normally attained through ‘brief’ exposure…” (Chomsky, 1968: ix). He regards this intrinsic knowledge of language as linguistic competence, which is manifested through linguistic performance. Thus, language is a nature of man, which doesn’t necessarily require formal training and exposure.

Chomsky also points out that one would expect that human language should directly reflect the characteristics of human intellectual capacities, that language should be a direct “mirror of the mind.” In essence, language nurtures cognition in the onset of child development.

Contrary to this assumption, Piaget believes that man’s “fixed nucleus” or his practical intelligence should be organized and coordinated, adapting to the demands of the environment in which a person dwells. However, in order to accomplish this, a more formal knowledge of structure and “problem space” is required. The formal knowledge spells a general sense of coordination among processes such as mental and motor compositions. This, therefore, proposes the need to nurture the cognitive faculty, which covers the linguistic ability of man in order to coordinately perform tasks to successfully pass through the stages of development.

These conflicting points were instrumental to the academe’s radical adoption of approaches in teaching language. Chomskyan linguistics, for one, has a dramatic impact on the Cognitive Approach in language teaching. As a response to the inadequacies posed by the behaviourist features of the earlier predominant approach (i.e.-audiolingualism), the cognitive approach views language learning as rule acquisition, not habit formation. In addition, the approach doesn’t give much attention to the teaching of grammar, but if needed, it should be taught deductively (i.e. – rule first, practice later) (Celce-Murcia, 2006). Chomsky’s theory therefore, led to the removal of explicit grammar knowledge in the teaching of language since the child is believed to possess the innate capacity to learn the rules of the language even without explicit instruction.

Meanwhile, Piaget’s position on cognitive development profoundly influenced, not just language teaching but the entire academe as a whole. As a forerunner of the Theory of Constructivism in Learning, he proposed that in order for the child to harness his full cognitive potentials, “teachers as instructional managers should ensure that the learning environment should be rich in physical (concrete) experiences because growth in any one stage depends upon activity” (Simatwa, 2010: 370). Following these principles, constant exposure to the target language, in terms of language teaching can be regarded as a major requirement for language development. This means that teachers should expose children to realistic situations by allowing them to “play” in their environment.

These significant theorists and their theoretical innovations, as proven in the preceding paragraphs, have indeed carved their own space in the rich history of man’s search for truth and meaning. Because of their debate in the concept of language and cognition, more light was shed in this previously obscured domain of human knowledge.


1. Jean Piaget theorized that the child from birth undergoes four stages of development – sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational and formal operational stage.

2. Chomsky recognizes the fact the faculty of language, being a very recent revolutionary development, is “biologically isolated in crucial respects” (Chomsky, 2000). He hopes that Biolinguistic inquiry would some day give the slash “/” in mind and brain substantive content in the future.


Beilin, H. (1975). Studies in the cognitive basis of language development. USA: Academic Press.

Celce-Murcia, M. (2006). “Language teaching approaches: An overview.” In Celce-Murcia, M (Ed.), Teaching of English as a second or foreign language, 3rd Ed. Singapore: Heinle & Heinle.

Chomsky, N. (1968). Language and mind. USA: Harcourt Brace Javanovich.

Chomsky, N. (2000). New horizons in the study of language and mind. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Owens, R.E. (1996). Language development: An introduction. USA: Allyn & Bacon.

Piaget, J. (1959/2002). The language and thought of the child. UK: Routledge.

Piatelli-Palmarini, M. (1982). Language and learning: The debate between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky. UK: Routledge.

Philip, J. (2001). Psycholinguistics: Influences on Language Pedagogy. Date retrieved: November 30, 2011 from

Simatwa, E. (2010, July). “Piaget’s theory of intellectual development and its implication for instructional management at pre-secondary school level.” Educational Research and Reviews. Date retrieved: November 30, 2011 from

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