This paper attempts to make a discussion of the differences
between linguistic and grammatical theories. Although there exist
relationships between grammatical theories and linguistic theories in
their attitudes towards language, their goals, and their methods, they
are both independent of and interacting with each other.
At its most fundamental level, a theory is a set of statements about
natural phenomena that explains why theses phenomenons occur the way
they do. In sciences, theories are used in what Kuhn calls the job of
“puzzle solving”. By this Kuhn means that the scientists look at
observable phenomena as puzzles or questions to be solved. In short, the
first duty of a theory is to account for or expalin observed phenomena.
This paper will examine linguistic and grammatical theories in order to
indicate the differences between them.
2.0 linguistic Theory
Linguistic theory is the scientific study of language, and involves
an analysis of language form, language meaning, and language context.
Linguists traditionally analyze human language by observing an interplay
between sound and meaning. Over the last fifty years, several theories
have been put forward to explain the process by which children learn to
understand and speak a language. They can be summarized as follows:
2.1 The Theory of Innateness
The Innate theory (also known as Innatist theory, Nativist Theory,
Mentalist Theory) of language acquisition was developed in the mid-20th
century (1959) by the renowned American linguist Noam Chomsky. It
emerged as a reaction against the Behaviourist theory, and contradicted
its model at almost every point of basic structure. Chomsky focused
particularly on the impoverished language input children receive.
Chomsky concluded that children must have inborn faculty for language
acquisition. According to this theory, the process is biologically
determined- the human species has evolved a brain whose neural circuits
contain linguistic information at birth. The child’s natural
predisposition to learn language is triggered by hearing speech and the
child’s brain is able to interpret what he or she hears according to the
underlying principles or structure it already contains. This natural
faculty has become known as the Language Acquisition Device (LAD).
Chomsky did not suggest that an English child is born knowing anything
specific about English, of course. He stated that all human languages
share common principles, for example, they all have words for things and
actions - nouns and verbs. It is the child’s task to establish how the
specific language she or he expresses have these underlying principles.
For example, the LAD already contains the concept of verb. By
listening to such forms as “worked”, “played” and “patted”, the child
will form the hypothesis that the past tense of verbs is formed by
adding the sound /d/, /t/ or /id/ to the base form. It hardly needs
saying that the process is unconscious. Chomsky does not envisage the
small child lying in its cot working out grammatical rules consciously.
The theoretical assumptions underlying the innate theory are as follows:
l Language acquisition is innately determined; that is, children are
biologically programmed for language learning. They develop language in
the same way as other biological functions. They start to speak at
roughly the same age and proceed through roughly the same stages.
l Children are born with a special ability to systematically
discover for themselves the underlying rules of a language system. This
special ability enables them to learn the complexities of language in a
relatively short period of time.
l Environmental differences may be associated with some variation in the rate of language acquisition.
Limitations of Theory of Innateness
Although this theory provides what some claim is a reasonable
explanation about acquiring language, this theory lacks sufficient
evidence. Some of the cases against this theory include:
l Firstly, the Language Acquisition Device is an abstract concept and lacks adequate scientific support.
l Secondly, the theory is heavily based on the learner’s linguistic competence which is again abstract phenomenon.
l Thirdly, the theory placed more emphasis on the linguistic
competence of adult native speakers, but not enough on the developmental
aspects of language acquisition.
2.2 The Behaviorist Theory
Behaviorist theory, which is basically a psychological theory in its
essence, founded by J.B. Watson, is actually a theory of native language
learning, advanced in part as a reaction to traditional grammar. the
supporters of this theory are Leonard Bloomfield, O.N. Mower, B.F.
Skinner, and A.W. Staats. The major principle of the behaviorist theory
rests on the analyses of human behavior in observable stimulus-response
interaction and the association between them. According to Wilga, “the
behaviorist theory of stimulus-response learning, particularly as
developed in the operant conditioning model of Skinner,considers all
learning to be the establishment of habits as a result of reinforcement
and reward”(73). According to this category, babies obtain native
language habits via varied babblings which resemble the appropriate
words repeated by a person or object near him. Since for his babblings
and mutterings he is rewarded, this very reward reinforces further
articulations of the same sort into grouping of syllables and words in a
Basic Tenets of Behaviorist Theory
The following principles illustrate the operating principles of behaviorism:
l Behaviorist theory dwells on spoken language. That is, primary
medium of language is oral: speech is language because there are many
languages without written forms, because we learn to speak before we
learn to read and write. Then, language is primarily what is spoken and
secondarily what is written.
l Behaviorist theory is the habit formation theory of language
teaching and learning, reminding us the learning of structural grammar.
Language learning concerns us by “not problem-solving but the
information and performance of habits” (Nelson 46). In other words
language learning is a mechanical process leading the learners to habit
formation whose underlying scheme is the conditioned reflex.
l The stimulus-response chain is a pure case of conditioning.
Behaviorist learning theory “emphasizes conditioning and building form
the simplest conditioned responses to more and more complex behaviors”
(David 19-20). This comes to mean that clauses and sentences are learned
linearly as longer and longer stimulus-response chains, produced in a
left-to right series of sequence like S1 to S2 to S3..., as
probabilistic incidents, which are basically Markov’s processes. Each
stimulus is thus the caser of a response, and each response becomes the
initiator of a stimulus, and this process goes on and on in this way.
l All learning is the establishment of habits as the result of
reinforcement and reward. Positive reinforcements is reward while
negative reinforcement is punishment. In a stimulus situation, a
response is exerted, and if the response is positively augmented by a
reward, then the association between the stimulus and response is itself
reinforced and thus the response will very likely be manipulated by
every appearance of stimulus. The result will yield conditioning. When
responses are coherently reinforced, then habit formation is
established. It is because of this fact that this termed
l The learning, due to its socially-conditioned nature, can be the
same for each individual. In other words, each person can learn equally
if the conditions in which the learning takes place are teh same for
Limitations of Behaviorist Theory
l Language is based on a set of structures or rules, which could not
be worked out simply by imitating individual utterances. The mistakes
made by children reveal that they are not simply imitating but actively
working out and applying rules. For example, a child who says “drinked”
instead of “drank” is not copying an adult but rather over applying a
rule. The child has discovered that past tense verbs are formed by
adding a /d/ or /t/ sound to the base form. The “mistakes” occur because
there are irregular verbs which do not behave in this way. Such forms
are often referred to as intelligent mistakes or virtuous errors.
l It is highly unlikely for learning to be the same for each
individual; that is, each person cannot learn equally well in the same
conditions in which learning takes place, for the background and the
experience of the learners make everybody learn differently. In
addition, according to Chomsky, there must be some innate capacities
which human beings possess that predipose them to look for basic
patterns in language.
l Children are often unable to repeat what an adult says, especially
if the adult utterance contain a structure the child has not yet
started to use.
l Many of the learning processes are mostly too complex, and for
this reason there are intervening variables, which cannot be observed
between stimulus and response. Language acquisition cannot take place
through habit formation, since language learners are thrown between
stimulus and response chain, for language is too far complicated to be
learned in such a matter, especially given the brief time available.
2.3 Cognitive Theory
This theory was proposed by Jean Piaget in 1936. Theory of cognitive
development explains how a child constructs a mental model of the world.
He disagreed with the idea that intelligence was a fixed trait, and
regarded cognitive development as a process which occurs due to
biological maturation and interaction with the environment. To Piaget,
cognitive development was a progressive reorganization of mental
processes as a result of biological maturation and environmental
experience. Children construct an understanding of the world around
them, then experience discrepancies between what they already know and
what they discover in their environment.
Piaget defined a schema as ‘a cohesive, repeatable action sequence
possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and
governed by a core meaning’. A schema can be defined as set of linked
mental representations of the world, which we use both to understand and
to respond to situations. The assumption is that we store these mental
representations and apply them when needed. Piaget’s development of a
person’s mental processes refer to increases in the number and
complexity of the schemata that a person had learned. When a child’s
existing schemas are capable of explaining what it can perceive around
it, it is said to be a state of equilibrium, i.e a state of mental
2. Adaption Processes
Jean Piaget views intellectual growth as a process of adaptation to the world. This happens through:
l Assimilation: this is using an existing schema to deal with a new object or situation.
l Accommodation: this happens when the existing schema (knowledge)
does not work, and needs to be changed to deal with a new object or
l Equilibration: this is the force, which moves development along.
Piaget believed that cognitive deveolopment did not progress at a steady
rate, but rather in leaps and bounds. Eqilibrium occurs when a child’s
schemas can deal with most new information through assimilation.
However, an unpleasant state of disquilibrium occurs when new
information cannot be fitted into existing schemas (assimilation).
Equilibrium is the force which drives the learning process as we do not
like to be frustrated and will seek to restore balance by mastering the
new challenge (accommodation).
3. Stages of Development
Piaget proposed four stages of cognitive development which reflect the increasing sophistication of children’s thought:
l Sensorimotor stage (birth to age 2). The main achievement during
this stage is object permanence- knowing that an object still exists,
even if it is hidden.
l Pre-operational stage (from age 2 to age 7). During this stage,
young children are able to think about things symbolically. This is the
ability to make one thing- a word or an object- stand for something
other than itself.
l Concrete operational stage (from age 7 to age 11). This marks the
beginning of logical or operational thought as the child can work things
out internally in their head(rather than physically try things out in
the real world).
l Formal operational stage (age 11+ to adolescence and adulthood).
During this time, people develop the ability to think about abstract
concepts, and logically test hypothesis.
Each child goes through the stages in the same order and the child
development is determined by biological maturation and interaction with
the environment. Although no stage can be missed out, there are
individual differences in the rate at which children progress through
stages, and some individuals may never attain the later stages. Piaget
did not claim that a particular stage was reached at a certain age-
although descriptions of the stages often include an indication of the
age at which the average child would reach each stage.
Criticism of Cognitive Theory
l Piaget concentrated on the universal stages of cognitive
development and biological maturation but failed to consider the effect
that the social setting and culture may have on cognitive and
l Piaget’s methods (observation and clinical interviews) are more
open to biased interpretation than other methods. Piaget made careful,
detailed naturalistic observations of children, and from these he wrote
diary descriptions charting their development. He also used clinical
interviews and observations of older children who were able to
understand questions and hold conversations. Because Piaget conducted
the observations alone, the data collected are based on his own
subjective interpretation of events.
l As several studies have shown Piaget underestimated the abilities
of children because his tests were sometimes confusing or difficult to
understand. Piaget failed to distinguish between competence( what a
child is capable of doing) and performance (what a child can show when
given a particular task).
2.4 Input or Interactionist Theory
In contrast to the work of Chomsky, more recent theorists have
stressed the importance of the language input children receive from
their care-givers. Language existing for the purpose of communication
and can only be learned in the context of interaction with people who
want to communicate with you. Interactionists such as Jerome Bruner
suggest that the language behaviour of adults when talking to children
(known by several names by most easily referred to as child-directed
speech or CDS) is specially adapted to support the acquisition process.
This support is often described to as scaffolding for the child’s
language learning. Bruner also coined the term Language Acquisition
Support System or LASS in response to Chomsky’s LAD. Colwyn Trevarthen
studied the interaction between parents and babies who developed through
games and non-verbal communication long before actual words are
Limitations of Input Theory
This theory serve as a useful corrective to Chomsky’s early position
and it seems likely that a child will learn more quickly with frequent
interaction. However, it has already been noted that children in all
cultures pass through the same stages in acquiring language. We have
also seen that there are cultures in which adults do not adopt special
ways of talking to children, so CDS may be useful but seems not to be
3.0 The Concept of Grammatical Theories
Grammatical theory is a system of rules which governs the production
and use of utterances in a given language. These rules apply to sound as
well as meaning, and include componential sub-sets, such as those
pertaining to phonology, morphology and syntax. The following are the
earliest theories of grammar: Traditional Grammar, Structural Grammar,
Transformational Grammar /Transformational Generative Grammar and
Systemic Functional Grammar. Over the years, new trends have come to be
in the development of grammatical theories such as The Theory of
Markedness, Principles and Parameters, Government and Binding, Chomsky’s
Minimalist Program, Tagmemics, Stratification Grammar, etc. Inspite of
the new modifications to grammar, the new trends are closely related to
the four orthodox theories and they will be discussed one after the
3.1 Traditional Grammar
Traditional grammar refers to the type of grammar study, done prior
to the beginning of modern linguistics. Grammar in this traditional
sense is the study of structure and formation of words and sentences,
usually without reference to sound and meaning. In modern linguistics
sense, grammar is the study of the entire interrelated system of
structures- sounds, words, meanings, and sentences within a language. It
reflects the prescriptive view that one dialect or variety of a
language is to be valued more highly than others and should be the norm
of all speakers of the language. It include prescriptive rules that are
to be followed and prescriptive rules of usage to be avoided. “When
describing an emotion, use of an English word descended from Latin is
preferred over an Anglo-saxon word” is an example of a prescriptive
rule, and “Never split an infinitive” is an example of prescriptive rule
of usage to be avoided.
2. Structural Grammar
This grammar is concerned with how elements of a sentence such as
morphemes, phonology, clauses, phrases and parts of speech are put
together. Structural Grammar deals with how these elements work together
to have greater meaning than any of the single elements. S.G. Assumes
that what is seen on the surface is also straight forward meaning behind
the words of a sentence. It is accepted literally on the surface level
and no attempt to identify the implied meanings made.
Structural Grammar grows from Sausurre’s work in ‘langue versus parole’ and diachronic language versus synchronic expressions of ‘parole’ in
order to find the abstract diachronic universalities of ‘langue’. It is
also characterized by the procedures known as substitution; by which
word class membership is established and through which smaller
structures are expanded to larger ones.
E.g. The boy is crying → NP/ VP
3. Transformational Grammar
This grammar is also known as Transformational Generative Grammar.
This is a system of language analysis that recognizes the relationship
among various elements of sentences and among the possible sentences of a
language and uses processes or rules (some of which are
transfromations) to express these relationship. The most widely
discussed theory of Transformational Grammar was proposed by U.S.
Linguist Noam Chomsky in 1957. His work contradicted earlier tenets of
structuralism by rejecting the notion that every language is unique.
For example, Transformational Grammar relates the active
sentence “Kate read the book” with its corresponding passive, “The book
was read by Kate”. The statement “Steven saw Mary” is related to the
corresponding questions, “whom [or who] did Steven see? And who saw
Mary?. These active and passive sentences appear to be very different on
the surface (i.e in such things as word order). Transformational
Grammar tries to show that in the ‘underlying structure’ (i.e in their
deeper relations to one another), the sentences are very similar.
T.G is achieved through the following:
u Movement: can be described as the major syntactic process in
transformation. Items are moved from its original site or extraction
site to landing site. For example,
a) The student entered the class quickly. (Sentence)
b) The student quickly entered the class (Movement)
u Insertion : it is a linguistic operation by which an element is attached to its original from in a sentence. For example,
a) The girl ate the apple. (Active)
b) The apple was eaten by the girl. (Passive)
u Deletion: in the passive deletion transformation, Chomsky argued
that all we need do is delete the semantic object that is found in the
sentence. For example,
a) The apple was eaten by the girl. (Passive)
b) The apple was eaten.
u Substitution: an element is replaced by another one which performs the same function as the former. For example,
a) The girl ate [ the apple]
b) The girl ate [it]
4. Systemic Functional Grammar
This is a grammar that is based on the view that language is a system of making meaning. Systemic refers to the fact that when we use language language, we make choices from sets of available options. Functional
assumes that every time we make a choice for the available options, we
are doing so in order to fulfill a communicative purpose. Grammar refers to the fact that there is an overall organization to all of these options.
Structural Functional Grammar originated from the work of
Micheal Halliday. It has helped teachers and learners work with whole
stretches of language in order to develop their potential to communicate
in the target language. This is made possible by the linguist theory
underpinning S.F.G, known as Systemic Functional Grammar. (Halliday and
Mathiessen) also pays great attention to how the speaker generate
utterances to convey their intended meaning.
4.0 Differences Between Linguistic Theories and Grammatical Theories
Grammatical theories are set of rules that describe how one specific
language delivers a message via text, and also prescribe how a message
must be delivered if you want it to be understood correctly while
linguistic theories study language (not just one langauge) in a broader
aspect: how language develop, where they come from, how they are
interconnected, where they are used (everyday speech, literature, art,
translation, specific fields) how they are produced in human mind, how
they can be deconstructed and their principles understood to create
artificial languages, what role they play and what effect they have on
people, their lives and behaviour, etc.
Linguistic theory is descriptive (to describe the way people speak),
whilst grammatical theory like traditional grammar is prescriptive (to
prescribe the way people speak, or simply, to tell people how to speak
and let people know the correct way of their speaking).
Grammatical theory has majorly been restricted to mainly syntax, that
is, the way of words making patterns to form sentences, while
linguistic theory has a broader scope for researching, e.g. Pragmatics,
psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, etc. Which, accordingly, are out of
the scope of grammatical theories.
Grammatical theories teaches a language while linguistic theories explains the nature of a language.
This paper looked at the difference between linguistic and
grammatical theories. In summary, linguistic theories and grammatical
theories are two independent fields which are also interacting with each
other in many respects.
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