(2012) Coming to Language: Wittgenstein's Social 'Theory' of Language Acquisition

Danièle Moyal-Sharrock


Lecture in Bergen 2012, Sep. 12. The two main problems of native language acquisition are: the problem of learning (explaining our grasp of the meaning of words); and the problem of productivity (explaining our ability to understand and produce novel, correct sentences, when the linguistic data we encounter is flawed and limited). Fodor’s and Chomsky's solution to these problems is to posit a mental linguistic structure (universal grammar or language of thought) as the framework that obviates the need for learning and makes an explanation of productivity possible. Ironically, Wittgenstein's solution is not as far removed from Fodor’s and Chomsky's as might be supposed. For, he 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 transmitted socio-culturally. 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.


philosophy; Wittgenstein Ludwig; 20th century philosophy; Chomsky Noam; Fodor Jerry; On Certainty; language acquisition; universal grammar; enculturation; productivity problem; rule-following

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