Coming to Language: Wittgenstein’s Social ‘Theory’ of Language Acquisition

Danièle Moyal-Sharrock


The two main problems of native language acquisition are: the problem of learning (how to explain our grasp of the meaning of words); and the problem of productivity (how to explain our ability to understand and produce novel, grammatically well-formed sentences when the linguistic corpus we encounter is flawed and limited). Fodor’s and Chomsky's solution to both these problems is to posit a (perfect) mental linguistic structure (a universal grammar or a language of thought) as the framework that putatively obviates the need for learning and makes an explanation of productivity possible. Ironically enough, Wittgenstein's solution is not as far removed from Fodor’s and Chomsky's as might be supposed. For, Wittgenstein too posits a framework at the basis of our language-games – indeed a partly grammatical framework which includes a universal grammar. But the commonality stops here, for Wittgenstein's universal grammar is neither innate nor inner; it is rooted in our primitive reactions and interactions and is transmitted socio-culturally – either explicitly, through heuristic means; or implicitly, through exposure to, and practice of, the language. Wittgenstein's 'framework' for the acquisition of language is therefore heterogeneous: it consists of a language in use (and hence a grammar); a shared form of life; training and/or repeated exposure. Of course, for a successful acquisition of language, physical susceptibility to such training/exposure, as well as a basic trust on the part of the learner are also required. Wittgenstein’s account of how we come to language can be counted as a social theory of language acquisition: it is in social practices, not in the mind, that we come to language.


20th century philosophy; philosophy; Wittgenstein Ludwig; action; language acquisition; rule following; On Certainty; training; universal grammar

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