The University of Reading invited Professor Noam Chomsky to give the annual lecture in honour of Albert Wolters, the first professor of Psychology at the University, who was appointed in 1908. The lecture is organised by the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, and it is held publicly. The visiting scholars invited are generally of great relevance, and this year’s was no exception. Due to the great excitement of many students, University staff, and people from Reading, the lecture was celebrated in the Concert Hall at the Town Hall.
Noam Chomsky is arguably the most prominent figure in the field of Linguistics: he developed the revolutionary theory of the ‘Universal Grammar’, which (to put it plainly) argues that the basic structures of any language are not learnt, but are innate to everyone. These principles, basic rules to the acquisition of a language, do not differ from one language to another, nor from one culture to another. We are all, at least in this basic sense, equal. Does this not sound political?
His theory, which cannot be even grasped in this short piece, goes on to analyse the extent to which our inborn ‘Universal Grammar’ meets the cognitive processes that surround us. To sum this up, Chomsky argues that our in the process of learning our mother tongue we ‘select’ some of these structures instead of others, and from that, we learn to speak our language. Children listen to the adults speaking, and they generate hypotheses about how that language works, and they apply them to the systems they have already in their brains, basic structures that are the same for everyone. This is, roughly, the process they follow to develop their grammar.
This all sounds very intelligent of Chomsky; but, then, why did he stand for an hour discussing the role of humanity in this world? He discussed the recent elections in the U.S.A., as well as mentioning the effect of neoliberalism in our political system. He argued that neoliberalism is collapsing not only the Welfare State, but rather, it is arguing for a unity of perspective that makes societies blind to other threats, such as climate change.
The link between this critique of neoliberalism and linguistics is to be found, as I understand it, in a misunderstanding of Universal Grammar theory. One could say, mistakenly, that if we are all equal in our basic structures of language, we should then come to the same conclusions, as part of an equal deductive process. If we think that way, we could also infer that this process is teleological (that is, it aims at an end from its very beginning), and that this end must be the same in everyone in order to be correct. However contrary to Noam Chomsky’s theory, which allows for a greater deal of creativity and difference, this is also the conclusion of neoliberalism: by considering the pursuit of the individual economic success as the only possibility for the success of a capitalist system, it aims at convincing society that there is no other option. People are presented with an unilateral view of success, and they are expected to take it as an obvious truth, which is disguised by power structures as ‘natural’ or inborn.
Chomsky, in many of his works and at the lecture, proposed different ways of seeing political structures and social constructions, which cannot be disguised as part of an innate process that has nothing to do with human decisions. His call against neoliberalism, and his arguments against the far-right campaigns which argue that the way politics works cannot be changed, was a reminder to those who do not want to differentiate between what is given by nature and what it is not. Of course, the limits are sometimes blurry, but Chomsky’s approach, which differentiates our knowledge of the world from our linguistic acquisition, is definitely a very good starting point.