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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.

1.0 Introduction

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 similar situation.

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 habit-formation-by-reinforcement theory.

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 each person.

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.

Basic Components

1. Schemas

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 balance.

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 situation.

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 development.

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 uttered.

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 essential.

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 other.

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.

Works Cited

Brooks, N. Language and language learning. New York: Harcourt, Brace and world, 1960.

Clark, H. and Eve C. Psychology and Language: An Introduction to Psychology. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.

Hughes, M. Egocentrism in preschool children. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Edinburgh university, 1979.

Kuhn, T. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (3rd. ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Palermo, D. Psychology of language. Dallas: Scott, Foresman and co, 1978.

Piaget, J. Origins of intelligence in the child. London: Routledge& Kegan, 1936.

Rivers, M.. Teaching foreign langauge skills. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1968.

VanPatten, Bill et .al. Theories in Second language Acqusition: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2014.

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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... Click here for more


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and materials, Sociology Project Topics and materials, Tourism project topics and materials, Vocational education project topics and materials THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN LINGUISTIC AND GRAMMATICAL THEORIES -language- that- theory- Research Journals and Thesis |