A little knowledge ……..

Recently I got involved in a discussion with Marek Kiczkowiak, who runs the TEFL Equity blog, about the distinction made in academic literature between native speakers (NSs) and non-native speakers (NNSs).  Marek replied to my comments with a post on his blog, titled “Of native speakers and other fantastic beasts”, where he argued that if any such differences existed between NSs and NNSs, they were fuzzy, ill-defined, subjective, imagined, abstract, theoretical, ideological, and refuted by as many studies as supported them. I wrote a second post replying to Marek, and in subsequent comments, I think we managed to resolve most of our differences.

A few days later, Scott Thornbury posted a late comment on Marek’s blog. This is what he said:

Hi Marek. A bit late in the day but… I suspect that Geoff insists on the NS-NNS distinction because it is absolutely central to the Chomskyan project (to which he is fervently – dare I say uncritically – committed) which presupposes an innately determined (hence genetic) language learning device which, like milk teeth, can only be available for a very limited period, whereafter general (i.e. non-language specific) learning abilities kick-in, accounting for the less than ‘native-like’ proficiency levels attained by late-starters. If, on the other hand, you take the perfectly plausible view (e.g. argued by Michael Tomasello, Nick Ellis, and many others) that general (i.e. non-language specific) learning capacities are implicated in language acquisition from the get-go, and hence that there is no need to hypothesise either a genetically-programmed language acquisition device nor a qualitative difference between native and non-native speakers, then the whole Chomskyan enterprise collapses, taking with it the distinction between man and beasts, and leading to the end of civilization as we know it.

Thornbury’s suspicions are groundless. If “the Chomskyan project” refers to Chomsky’s theory of first language acquisition and of UG, then

  1. I’m not fervently committed to it, and
  2. the NS-NNS distinction is not absolutely central to it.

As to the first matter, you can find ample evidence to refute Thornbury’s accusation of my “fervent and uncritical commitment” to Chomsky in Jordan, 2004, and in this blog. In both places you’ll find criticism of Chomsky’s theory, of its reformulations, and of various attempts to protect it. Furthermore, I’ve consistently argued (always unsuccessfully against Kevin Gregg) that theories of SLA need pay scant regard to Chomsky’s theory of L1 acquisition. Thornbury concludes that, since I comment on his and other people’s misrepresentations of Chomsky’s work, I must be a brainwashed UG devotee; he’s wrong.

As to the second matter, pace Thornbury, Chomsky’s theory of L1 acquisition does not presuppose that the LAD, “like milk teeth, can only be available for a very limited period”, and furthermore, any such putative restriction has absolutely nothing to do with his main concern – the description of UG.

Hence, Thornbury is wrong about the motivation for my insistence on the NS-NNS distinction and wrong about its having an “absolutely central” place in “the Chomskyan project”. Thornbury’s mistakes stem from confusion about what Chomsky’s theory of language acquisition actually says, and confusion about what the so-called “critical period” in language acquisition refers to; his comments suggest that the enormous body of research on sensitive periods in SLA is the work of followers of the Chomskyan project, all bent on proving that the less than ‘native-like’ proficiency levels attained by late-starters is a result of their being deprived access to the LAD.  This is obvious nonsense.

In studies of first language acquisition, the issue of a critical period was introduced by Lenneberg in 1967. The issue of sensitive periods in SLA also became a major issue, and remains so today. In order to get the background to the issue of sensitive periods in SLA, we need to return for a moment to Chomsky. How does UG relate to SLA?  There are four main hypotheses:

  1. There is no such thing as UG.
  2. UG exists, but second language learners only have indirect access to it via the L1.
  3. UG exists, but L2 learners only have partial access to it.
  4. Second language learners have full access to UG.

Hypothesis 1 Those who deny the existence of UG see no need to postulate a LAD, and no need to look for linguistic universals either. Thornbury is a fellow-traveller in the emergentist camp which rejects UG and we’ll look at his views in a moment. We might put the important work of O’Grady (see, for example, O’Grady, 2011) in a slightly different camp, since, while he rejects UG, he argues for the need to recognise the existence of innately guided learning of some sort.

Hypothesis 2  The best-known hypothesis regarding the second position is Bley-Vroman’s Fundamental Difference Hypothesis (Bley-Vroman, 1989a, 1989b). Brey-Vronan argues that the mind is modular, and that there exists a language faculty (UG) which is essential for the development of L1, but that UG is not directly at work in SLA.  According to Bley-Vroman, adult second language learners do not have direct access to UG; what they know of universals is constructed through their L1, and they then have to use general problem-solving abilities, such as those that operate in non-modular learning tasks: hypothesis testing, inductive and deductive reasoning, analogy, etc. The Bley-Vroman approach provides an explanation for the “poverty of the stimulus” problem of SLA – the complex L2 knowledge or interlanguage grammar which second language learners develop is (partly) a result of UG’s influence on L1.

Hypothesis 3  The partial access view claims that L2 learners have access to principles but not to the full range of parameters. Schacter (1988) and Clahsen (1987, 1988) have argued this case.  It differs from the “indirect access” position in that it predicts that no evidence of “wild grammars” will be found, and that L2 learners will not reset the values of parameters of the L2 when these differ from the L1 settings.

Hypothesis 4  The full access hypothesis claims that UG is an important causal factor in SLA, although not, of course, the only one. Those adopting the full access view (e.g., Flynn, 1987) claim more than that the L1 UG affects the second language learning process.  They claim that principles not applicable to the second language learner’s L1, but needed for the L2, will constrain the L2 learner’s interlanguage.

The work of the SLA scholars mentioned above indicates the diversity of their views regarding the importance of Chomsky’s work, but we may note that none of them gives any credence to the “milk teeth” view proffered by Thornbury.

When it comes to the issue of the so-called “critical period” in SLA, Long concludes that there are maturational constraints on 1) phonology, 2) lexis and collocation, and 3) morphology and syntax, in that order.

“Research findings suggest closure of sensitive periods for the acquisition of native-like phonology as early as age 4-6 for most people, of the lexicon, somewhere between 6 and 10, and of morphology and syntax by the mid-teens” (Long, 2015, p.39).

Whether or not they’re helped by any special genetic endowment, most children successfully learn their L1 from birth to age 6 incidentally and implicitly, without attention or awareness, suggesting that humans are biologically disposed to learning languages efficiently early in life.  After age 16, let’s say, learning a second language is more difficult; most people don’t reach an advanced level of proficiency, and very few cases (if any) have been found of across-the-board native-like attainment by a late starter. As Long (2015) points out, if there were no maturational constraints, then you’d expect to find very large numbers of adult learners who achieve native-like ability and pass all the tests to which researchers subject them; but you don’t actually find any such thing.

Thornbury misrepresents me, misrepresents Chomsky’s theory, misunderstands work on sensitive periods in SLA, and even misrepresents the views of emergentists.  Taking the view that “general learning capacities” explain language acquisition doesn’t imply, as he claims, that there’s no difference between native and non-native speakers (there manifestly is a difference as I’ve already argued in my 2 posts replying to Marek), or that there are no such thing as sensitive periods in SLA.

To summarise:

  • A body of research over 50 years confirms the view that nativelike ultimate attainment of a second language is rarely, if ever, attained by adult learners. The research doesn’t rely on a commitment to “the Chomskyan project”.
  • There is wide acceptance among SLA scholars that there are maturational constraints on SLA. Again, this doesn’t stem from a commitment to “the Chomskyan project”.

PART 2  

Marek replied to Thornbury’s comment with this:

That would definitely clarify a lot about his insistence that there is a clear, objective and fixed division between the two groups. I have a feeling that this is crucial to the whole SLA enterprise, really, since a lot of it is based on comparing learners’ interlanguage and progress to the ‘native speaker’. Unless you assume that all ‘native speakers’ have one unique proficiency that students’ language should be compared to (and unless you assume that we know exactly who a ‘native speaker’ is), you can’t really do much SLA research. I do find it a bit strange, though, that in SLA the ‘native speaker’ is treated as the ultimate language learning goal (even though that ‘native speaker’ never learned their L1), but at the same time you fiercely defend the proposition that this goal can never be achieved. And as you point out, the ‘native speaker’ as used by many SLA researchers, is really the Chomskean NS, the idealised speaker-hearer. Have you read Evans’ “The language myth. Why language is not an instinct”? Very good book. Quite an eye-opener. Chomsky’s ideas have dominated linguistics for such a long time that it’s quite difficult to hear any voices of dissent, even though there are many. So a very refreshing take. Thanks for commenting!

I was sorry to see how enthusiastically Marek welcomed Thornbury’s “clarification”. There are several points to be made here.

  1. I didn’t insist that there is a fixed division between NSs and NNSs.
  2. SLA researchers measure learners’ progress in various ways – as do teachers. I don’t think this is “clarified” by Thornbury’s comments.
  3. You don’t have to assume that “all native speakers have one unique proficiency that students’ language should be compared to” to do SLA research. If Thornbury’s comments led Marek to think so, then here they’ve done less than nothing to clarify the matter.
  4. The ‘native speaker’ as used by many SLA researchers is not the Chomskean NS. Chomsky studies linguistic competence independently of language use by asking native speakers to engage in introspection and make grammaticality judgments.
  5. Evan’s “The Language Myth” has been heavily criticised for its misinterpretation of Chomsky’s work, and not just by “Chomskyans”.

Here’s Scotts reply:

Thanks, Marek. Yes, I have read Evans. I’d also recommend Christiansen & Chater (2016) ‘Creating Language: Integrating Acquisition, evolution and processing’, which offers a coherent and research-informed riposte to what they call ‘Chomsky’s hidden legacy. ’…. Also worth looking at is Diane Larsen-Freeman’s chapter in Han & Tarone (2014) ‘Interlanguage: 40 years later’, in which she quotes Heidi Byrnes (2014) to the effect:  ‘In what has been called the “bilingual turn” in language studies, authors find fault with (1) the undue weight being given to an accident of birth and a concomitant denial of the effects of history, culture and societal use; (2) the undisputed authority and legitimacy in representing and arbitrating standards of form and use enjoyed by native speakers; and (3) the troubling disregard of current social, political and cultural realities of multilingualism and ever-changing forms of hybridity between multiple languages as learners adopt and adapt various identities in diverse circumstances of life’.

‘The undue weight being given to an accident of birth’ would seem to be part and parcel of ‘Chomsky’s hidden legacy’.

And that’s that: Chomsky done and dusted!

Thornbury’s remarks lead me to suspect that he is a fervent – and dare I say uncritical – Chomsky basher, who dismisses Chomsky’s work without having made enough effort to seriously and honestly appraise it. And he’s not alone: there’s a growing band of such Chomsky bashers who reject UG and portray Chomsky as a right-wing establishment figure blocking progress. Comments by Russ Mayne come to mind, as does Silvana Richardson’s suggestion in her much applauded 2016 IATEFL plenary that UG theory is ideologically biased in such a way that it has contributed to discrimination against NNESTs. I should add that Thornbury’s last remark, his sage endorsement of the preposterous assertion about “an accident of birth”, strikes me as particularly shoddy, even if it is second hand.

What has Thornbury actually said about Chomsky and about theories of SLA which reject the poverty of the stimulus argument? In his A to Z of ELT we find P is for Poverty of the Stimulus. Here’s a summary of the main arguments:

  1. The quantity and quality of language input that children get is so great as to question Chomsky’s poverty of the stimulus argument.
  2. An alternative to Chomsky’s view of language and language learning, is that “language is acquired, stored and used as meaningful constructions (or ‘syntax-semantics mappings’).”
  3. Everett is right to point out that since no one has proved that the poverty of the stimulus argument is correct, “talk of a universal grammar or language instinct is no more than speculation”.

Regarding the third point, I pointed out that Everett (in one of the most roundly criticised books on Chomsky published in the last 10 years) demands the impossible: one cannot prove that the poverty of the stimulus argument is correct, so his argument has no force. But Thornbury still didn’t get it.

Anyone who claims that children’s knowledge about an aspect of syntax could not have been acquired from language input has to prove that it couldn’t. Otherwise it remains another empirically-empty assertion, he insisted.

Such ignorance of basic logic and research methods is surely worthy of note.  Another sign of the limitations of Thornbury’s knowledge came when he reacted with total disbelief to my suggestion that Chomsky’s theory of UG had a long and thorough history of empirical research.

What!!? Where? When? Who?, he demanded to know.

Rejecting the poverty of the stimulus argument, Thornbury wrote:

Actually, the stimulus is quite enough to explain everything children know about language. Corpus studies suggest that everything a child needs is in place.

Asked how these corpus studies explain what children know about language, Thornbury replied:

the child’s brain is mightily disposed to mine the input…… a little stimulus goes a long way, especially when the child is so feverishly in need of both communicating and becoming socialized.

Pressed to say a bit more about this process, Thornbury said:

If we generalize the findings (of corpus studies) beyond the single word level to constructions….. and then..… generalize from constructions to grammar…, hey presto, the grammar emerges on the back of the frequent constructions.

He didn’t explain what grammar he was referring to; or what findings beyond the single word level he was talking about; or how you generalise these findings to “constructions”; or how you generalise from constructions to grammar.

Thornbury’s view of language learning leans on various emergentist sources, including Larsen-Freeman, whose work I’ve discussed elsewhere. While he now refers to the more respectable works of Tomasello and Nick Ellis, Thornbury’s attempts to explain his own view remain vague and unconvincing, never rising much above the level of the claim that “general learning processes” going on inside “feverish young brains” that are “mightily disposed to mine the input” are enough to provide a theory of language acquisition.

In a 2009 article called “Slow Release Grammar”, Thornbury argues that emergence improves on Darwin as an explanation of natural development, that it explains language, language learning, the failure of classroom-based adult ELT, and the deficiencies of current syllabus design. In relation to language learning, he adopts Stuart Kauffman’s claim that the phenomenon whereby certain natural systems display complexity at a global level which is not specified at a local level is evidence of emergence and “order for free”. This highly-controversial view is then used to support the suggestion that lexical chunks provide “grammar for free”. But, hold on; Thornbury had previously told  us that many formulaic chunks

yield little or no generalisable grammar.

This must surely impede their wonderous ability to

slowly release their internal structure like slow-release pain-killers release aspirin.

Or does their magic extend to releasing qualities which they don’t possess? The article goes on to misrepresent emergentism by using Michael Hoey as its spokesman and making unwarranted claims about how lexical chunks explain English grammar.

Thornbury often says that emergentism gets crucial support from the study of corpora, but he fails to explain how we can infer from patterns found in corpora to how people think and learn. The assertion that language learning can be explained as the detection and memorisation of “frequently-occurring sequences in the sensory data we are exposed to” must be supported by arguments about the learning process and by empirical evidence of such learning. There’s lots of work in progress (although Thornbury has never given a clear account of any of it), but to date it seems that the assertion is probably wrong and certainly not the whole story. At the very least, Thornbury should give a more measured description and discussion of emergentist views of language learning and acknowledge that emergentism faces severe challenges as a theory. Among them are these:

  • General conceptual representations acting on stimuli from the environment don’t explain the representational system of language that children demonstrate.
  • Emergentists can’t explain cases of instantaneous learning, or knowledge that comes about in the absence of exposure, including knowledge of what is not possible.
  • As Gregg points out, the claim that language is a complex dynamical system makes no sense.

Simply put, there is no such entity as language such that it could be a system, dynamical or otherwise……. Terms like ‘language’ and ‘English’ are abstractions; abstract terms, like metaphors, are essential for normal communication and expression of ideas, but that does not mean they refer to actual entities. English speakers exist, and (I think) English grammars come to exist in the minds/brains of those speakers, so it remains within the realm of possibility that a set of speakers is a dynamical system, or that the acquisition process is; but not language, and not a language (Gregg, 2010).


Thornbury teaches an SLA course in an MA programme at a New York university. One can only hope that during the course his pronouncements on Chomsky and on emergentism  are better-informed and more critically acute than those found in his conference talks, contributions to blogs, and published work. Thousands of fervent followers, committed to his view of ELT, deserve better.


For more discussion of Thornbury’s view of language learning, see

Bley-Vroman, R. (1989a) What is the logical problem of foreign language learning?  In  Gass, S. and Schachter, J. (eds.), Linguistic perspectives on second language acquisition, 41-48. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bley-Vroman, R. (1989b) The logical problem of foreign language learning. Linguistic Analysis  20:1-2; 3-49.

Clahsen, H. (1987) Connecting theories of language processing and (second) language acquisition. In Pfaff, C. (ed.) First and second language acquisition processes. 103-116. Newbury House, Cambridge, Mass.

Clahsen, H. (1988) Critical phases of grammar development: a study of the acquisition of negation in children and adults.  In Jordens, P and Lalleman, J. (eds.) Language development. 123-48. Foris, Dordrecht.

Evans, V. (2014) The Language Myth: Why Language is Not an Instinct. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Flynn, S. (1987) A parameter-setting model of L2 acquisition. Dordecht: Reidel.

Gregg, K.R. (2010) Shallow draughts: Larsen-Freeman and Cameron on complexity. Second Language Research, 26(4), 549 – 560.

Jordan, G. (2004) Theory Construction in SLA. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Lenneberg, E.H. (1967) Biological Foundations of Language. Wiley.

Long, M. (2015) Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Wiley.

O’Grady, W. (2011) How Children Learn Language. CUP.

Pope, A.  (17o9) An Essay on Criticism. 

Thornbury, S. (2009) Slow Release Grammar. English Teaching Professional.



9 thoughts on “A little knowledge ……..

  1. Bravo, Geoff! I’m glad someone has your energy to combat the sort of alternative facts espoused by Marek and Thornbury (and a host of others). I’ll try to add some comments tomorrow, but one thing I have to say now: It’s a little LEARNING, not a little knowledge! Nothing wrong with a little knowledge, although one always hopes for more. What Pope said was that it was a little learning that was dangerous (hence my ‘Shallow Draughts’ title). Drink deep, or not at all, of the Pierian spring!


    • Thanks for this, Kevin. I look forward to further comments.

      I knew that your “Shallow draughts” title came from Pope’s verse, where he says “A little learning is a dangerous thing”, but preferred “A little knowledge…”. I take your point tho.


  2. Pingback: What Chomsky said about “native speakers” in 1985 | EFL Notes

  3. Glad you looked at this Geoff : )
    To keep to the initial debate about native speakers your readers may be interested in what Chomsky said about native speakers in 1985 [https://eflnotes.wordpress.com/2017/06/17/what-chomsky-said-about-native-speakers-in-1985/]


  4. hi Geoff
    have you read this state of the art piece on generative grammar and sla? [https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317585842_THE_GENERATIVE_APPROACH_TO_SLA_AND_ITS_PLACE_IN_MODERN_SECOND_LANGUAGE_STUDIES]


  5. Thornbury says (I’ve inserted numbers for reference):

    I suspect that Geoff insists on the NS-NNS distinction because (1) it is absolutely central to the Chomskyan project (to which he is fervently – dare I say uncritically – committed) which presupposes an innately determined (hence genetic) language learning device which, like milk teeth, (2) can only be available for a very limited period, whereafter general (i.e. non-language specific) learning abilities kick-in, accounting for the less than ‘native-like’ proficiency levels attained by late-starters. If, on the other hand, you take the perfectly plausible view (e.g. argued by Michael Tomasello, Nick Ellis, and many others) that general (i.e. non-language specific) learning capacities (3)are implicated in language acquisition from the get-go, and (4) hence that there is no need to hypothesise either a genetically-programmed language acquisition device nor a qualitative difference between native and non-native speakers, then the whole Chomskyan enterprise collapses, taking with it the distinction between man and beasts, and leading to the end of civilization as we know it.

    *****Leaving aside the silliness at the end, (1) Thornbury doesn’t bother to say what the ‘Chomskyan project’ is. What Chomsky and others are trying to do is to characterize the human language faculty, the cognitive system that enables humans to acquire and use language. The NS-NNS distinction–which Chomsky seldom makes–is tangential to this project. If we all could acquire L2s with the same ease, and to the same degree of completeness, with which we acquire our native language, the project would still have the same goal. Ditto if L2 acquisition were totally impossible.

    (2) Thornbury of course does not bother to say where in the literature Chomsky claims that the ‘language learning device’ ‘can only be available for a very limited period’; in fact it has been noted by e.g. Kenneth Hale (commentary on Epstein et al., I forget when, 1995?) that the idea of UG as becoming unavailable is inconsistent with current conceptions of UG.

    (3) I know of no one who denies that ‘general (i.e. non-language specific) learning capacities are implicated in language acquisition from the get-go’; the claim–backed up by a lot of evidence–is that such capacities are insufficient, and Tomasello, Ellis, et al., have done nothing to show that they suffice. (4) is thus a simple non sequitur.

    I was going to go on to Marek, but I can’t take any more this evening.

    Liked by 1 person

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