Vivian Cook 
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System 1989

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This paper explores the implications of the principles and parameters theory of Universal Grammar for language teaching. Learning the core aspects of a second language means re-setting values for parameters according to the evidence the learner receives, perhaps starting from the L1 setting. Implications for the classroom can only be drawn for core areas of grammatical competence. Classroom acquisition depends crucially on the provision of appropriate syntactic evidence to trigger parameter-setting; certain aspects of vocabulary are also crucial. Variability, interaction, active production or comprehension, consciousness-raising and hypothesis-testing are irrelevant. Existing textbooks already supply appropriate evidence for parameter-setting; the grammatical component of syllabuses may be improved by use of principles and parameters, even if this reveals what does not need to be taught, as may the teacher’s awareness of language.


Given the widely differing interpretations of Universal Grammar, it is necessary to specify that the present article considers Universal Grammar (UG) within the current Chomskyan model, described for instance in Chomsky (1988) and Cook (1988); this is different not only from the type of Universal Grammar studied by those concerned within the implicational universals tradition, such as Hawkins (1983, 1987), but also from much of the L2 discussion of Universal Grammar, which has looked at earlier models of language acquisition with different emphases or has looked at syntactic issues that are not directly relevant to this model. Current UG theory describes the speaker’s knowledge of language in terms of principles and parameters, as captured in the Government/Binding theory of syntax (Chomsky, 1981, 1988; Cook, 1988), not in terms of rules; hence it is sometimes called the “principles and parameters” model. To take an English example sentence “Max played the drums with Charlie Parker”, principles of phrase structure require every phrase in it to have a head of a related syntactic category and permit it to have complements of various types; A Verb Phrase such as “played the drums” must have a head that is a verb, “play”, and may have a complement “the drums”; a Prepositional Phrase such as “with Charlie Parker” must have a head that is a preposition, “with”, and a complement “Charlie Parker”; Noun Phrases such as “Max”, “the drums”, and “Charlie Parker” must have noun heads and may, but in this case do not, have complements. This is not true only of English; the phrases of all languages consist of heads and possible complements - Japanese, Catalan, Gboudi, and so on. The difference between the phrase structures of different languages lies in the order in which head and complement occur within the phrase; in English the head verb comes before the complement, the head preposition comes before its complement, the adjective before its complement (“easy to play”), and the noun before its complement (“belief that he can play well”); Japanese is the opposite in that the head verb comes after the complement in the Verb Phrase, and the preposition comes after its complement (and so is known as a postposition), as in “E wa kabe ni kakatte imasu” (picture wall on is hanging). This variation between languages is captured by the head parameter, which has two settings “head-first” and “head-last” according to whether the head comes before or after the complement in the phrases of the language. So, while all languages have the same principles of phrase structure, they differ in their setting for the head parameter. Principles do not vary from one language to another, because they are built-in to the human mind; no human language breaches them. Parameters confine the variation between languages within circumscribed limits.

Complementary to these phrase structure principles is the Projection Principle which claims that syntax and the lexicon are closely tied together. As well as knowledge of where the complement goes in the phrase, we need to know whether a complement is actually allowed, and this depends upon the lexical item that is used; hence the Projection Principle states that the English verb “play” must be specified as taking a complement (i.e. it is normally transitive); the lexical entry for the verb “faint” must specify it has no complement (i.e. is intransitive), while that for the verb “give” must specify that it has two complements (i.e. direct and indirect objects). The question of whether the phrase structure of a sentence is grammatical is a matter not just of whether it conforms to the overall possible structures in the language but also whether it conforms to the particular structures associated with the lexical items in it; “Max played the drums” is grammatical because the verb occurs in the correct head-first position, compared to “Max the drums played” and because the verb “play” has an Object Noun Phrase following it, compared to “Max played”.

The Universal Grammar theory claims that the speaker’s knowledge of a language such as English consists of several such general principles and of the appropriate parameter settings for that language. Some principles lay down the relationship between items that have been “moved” in the sentence, as in questions and passives (Subjacency Principle); others concern the ways in which words such as “himself” may or may not corefer with the same entity as other words in the sentence (the Binding Principles). This model is not centrally concerned with conventional “rules”; it does not deal with the “passive”, or “relative clauses”, or any particular construction as such; instead rules are seen as the interaction of various principles and settings for parameters; the English passive reflects the combined effects of principles of syntactic movement, of phrase structure, and of case, each of which also applies to other areas of the grammar.

The model of acquisition is essentially straightforward. As the principles of UG are built-in to the mind, they do not have to be learnt; the learner automatically applies them to whatever language he or she encounters. It does not matter whether the learner is faced with Japanese or English; the same principles of phrase structure apply. The settings for parameters are not constant but vary from one language to another; the crucial aspects of a language for the learner to master are the appropriate settings for the parameters; since the learner already knows the principles as they are part of his or her mind, all that is needed is sufficient evidence to set the values for the parameters. Given the learner knows the phrase structure principles, all that has to be learnt is whether the setting for the head parameter is head-first or head-last. For this the learner needs linguistic evidence in the form of actual sentences spoken by the people around him or her; hearing “Mukashi mukashi ojihisan to obaasan ga koya ni sunde imashita” (once upon a time an old man and old woman cottage in lived) the child learns that the setting is head-last in Japanese; hearing “John ate an apple” the child learns it is head-first in English. The learner needs to hear relevant evidence for setting the parameters of the grammar.

A simplified picture of acquisition in the UG model is then as shown in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1. Acquisition in the UG model.

Alongside this there is massive learning of vocabulary in a particular form. Due to the Projection Principle the acquisition of vocabulary means not just learning the meanings and pronunciations of words but also learning what structures the words can be used in; thus the crucial point to learn about the verb “play” is that it is used with a following object - “play something”. Since it relies on triggering from evidence, UG does not have a learning theory as such; nothing more than this framework is needed to describe acquisition-no learning strategies, motivations, cognitive or social schemas, or whatever.

The concerns that linguists have within this model relate chiefly to the nature of the evidence that the learner needs to encounter, and to the starting position for- parameters in the learner’s mind. Many arguments have suggested that the learner must be able to learn solely from “positive” evidence, that is to say naturally occurring sentences, rather than from negative evidence such as correction or sentences people do not say. The interpretation of acquisition in which the child creates hypotheses that are modified in the light of feedback is no longer accepted since such appropriate feedback has never been found. In addition the evidence available has to meet the requirements of occurrence (i.e. does it actually happen?) and uniformity (is it available to all children?); since virtually all normal children learn their first language, the crucial evidence must be freely available to all children rather than a select few; Kahuli children for example are not treated as conversational partners for the first few years of life (Schieffelin, 1985) yet acquire language; any theory of language acquisition cannot therefore rely on particularly beneficial conversation with adults. The input to the child is vital for triggering parameter-setting since nothing would happen without it; nevertheless a bare sentence or two may suffice to demonstrate how a parameter should be set; a single sentence such as “Max played the drums with Charlie Parker” may be enough to set the head parameter for English and thus impart a knowledge of how to construct Verb Phrases, Noun Phrases, Adjective Phrases, and Prepositional Phrases; for a fuller discussion see Cook (1989a).

The second issue is the initial setting for parameters. The setting for the parameter might be neutral and so equally settable for any language, or there might be a preferred position (the “unmarked” setting), which has to be set to a different position for certain languages (the “marked” setting) but not for others. Hyams (1986) took the example of the “prodrop” parameter-whether a language permits subjectless declarative sentences, like Chinese and Spanish (“pro-drop” languages) or does not permit them, like English and French (“non-pro-drop” languages). She argued that children start from the pro-drop setting in that their early sentences in all languages omit subjects; consequently pro-drop is the “unmarked” setting, non-pro-drop the marked; children learning English or French have to set the pro-drop parameter away from its first setting while those learning Chinese or Spanish can retain the original setting. (See Cook, 1989b for a different interpretation of pro-drop.)

It is not a tenet of the theory that the whole of Universal Grammar is necessarily present from the start, interesting as this question may be in its own right. Instead it is neutral between “no-growth” models, which maintain that all principles and parameters are equally present at all times, subject to other constraints on the child’s use of language, and “growth” models which hold that principles unfold in a developmental sequence. The fact that something is dictated by our genes does not mean it is necessarily present from the start, as the eyes are present; instead it may reveal itself over time, as milk teeth yield to permanent teeth and finally to wisdom teeth.

Second language researchers have had similar concerns, magnified by the problems peculiar to second language learning. The question of evidence is more open since unlike L1 children many L2 learners receive copious correction of their errors and grammatical explanation; it is dubious, however, whether they receive correction of the appropriate errors or grammatical explanations of the right type to learn the types of syntactic knowledge, partly because teachers are unacquainted with the pro-drop and head parameters (see Cook, 1988 for further discussion). The question of parameter-setting in L2 learning is interesting because there is already one setting for the parameters present in the learner’s mind; the question is how much influence this exerts on L2 learning. Does a Japanese learner approach English with a head-last setting for the head parameter or is he or she neutral between settings? This reintroduces the issue of transfer into L2 learning research in a new form; does the L2 learner transfer the L1 setting to the new language or start from scratch?

Research by White (1986) on the pro-drop parameter suggests that the first language setting is carried over to the second; that is to say Spanish learners of English assume it is prodrop, French learners that it is non-pro-drop, rather than both groups starting from the same position. Again an overall question arises, namely the relationship between UG and L2 learning; this can be put as a choice between a “direct access” model that suggests that UG is still available for L2 acquisition, an “indirect access” model that claims it is only available via the mediation of the L1, and a “no access” model in which UG is no longer available for L2 learning (Cook, 1988). The arguments against “no access” are briefly the difference of the language system from other cognitive systems, so that language knowledge would be acquired with difficulty via alternative routes, and the absence in L2 learners, so far as researchers can tell, of grammars that breach principles of UG. Interlanguages seem to stay within the limits of possible human languages rather than to go against the UG principles. The no access model logically leads to treating language like any other area of learning and so in school terms to dealing with it in the same way as say geography and gymnastics.

The picture of L2 learning can be diagrammed as in Fig. 2. The input of language sentences and the output of language knowledge are the same in the L1 and L2 models; the intervening parameter-setting differs according to whether one adopts the direct access model, which treats L1 and L2 entirely differently, or the indirect access model, L1 setting for parameters.

Fig. 2. L2 learning. VP, Verb Phrase; PP, Preposition Phrase; AP, Adjective Phrase; NP, Noun Phrase.

Neither for first nor for second language acquisition can it be said that UG acquisition models are based on extensive empirical research within the principles and parameters framework. Most L1 and L2 research has dealt with “rules” not “principles”; much of it that purports to deal with Universal Grammar is dealing with areas of syntax that are not principle-based or, when they are, not based on the actual principles proposed within the Government/Binding theory. But evidence from actual children is not of prime importance to the theory for two reasons. First of all, the theory claims that acquisition research can establish what must be built-in to the mind without reference to an actual child at all by comparing what the speaker knows with the possible language evidence he or she has encountered; if we can show that a speaker knows something about language, say the phrase structure principles, and that this could not be worked out from the sentences the learner hears, then we can demonstrate it must be part of the speaker’s mind-the “poverty of the stimulus” argument. Secondly the theory separates the idealized picture of acquisition that is its concern from the history of the child’s actual development, in which language acquisition is combined with physical, social and cognitive development; using actual children’s use of language for learning about acquisition necessitates disentangling the thread of language acquisition from all the others with which it is interwoven, something at present impossible. Any sentence from a child we try to study is a product of development, not acquisition, and dependent on the child’s memory capacity, social development, and cognitive stage, all of which have an indirect connection to language acquisition proper. The case of L2 learning may be slightly different in that L2 learners may be more developed in all the aspects except language than the L1 child learner; L2 development is still not, however, immune to the effects of other cognitive deficits in a second language, such as reduced short-term memory capacity.

This article is not the place to survey the contribution of UG theory to L2 learning in general; broadly similar accounts will be found in Cook (1988), Ellis (1985), Flynn (1988), Lightbown and White (1988), and McLaughlin (1987). The present argument presupposes that UG theory is relevant to L2 learning, specifically looking narrowly at the principles and parameters version of UG, as outlined above.


The UG model is primarily about language knowledge, not language use, or language development; indeed strictly speaking it is about grammar rather than about language. Furthermore it is concerned with the abstract central areas of syntax rather than with broader aspects of language; its interests lie in what the speaker knows about language, grammatical competence, rather than in how the speaker uses language, pragmatic competence. The UG theory is arguably of minor importance in dealing with how people communicate, or how they meet and understand other people, or how their language behaviour varies from one situation to another. Classroom second language learning and teaching is made up of many components-psychological, social, and linguistic; UG theory can play only one part in this framework. When looking at the relevance of UG theory to classroom learning we need to remember its restricted scope-general principles of syntax such as the phrase structure principles and precise areas of variation such as the pro-drop or head parameters. It would be misleading to attempt to draw conclusions from UG theory for anything other than the central area that is its proper domain; much of the ensuing discussion will be concerned with reminding the reader that UG theory is neutral about many of the issues that arise in the classroom.

UG theory does not regard language acquisition as depending upon particular circumstances; the uniformity and occurrence requirements mean that it deals with features that can be learnt regardless of situation, regardless of variation between learners, and regardless of types of input, provided the learner has sufficient examples of appropriate sentences to trigger the settings for the various parameters; in L2 learning this may be modified by any transfer of parameter setting from the L1 . If UG is involved in L2 learning, there should be no intrinsic difference between classroom acquisition and any other form of involved in UG theory. However important the concepts of variability and the context of language acquisition with respect to the type of language knowledge language learning may be to other areas of L2 learning research (Ellis and Roberts, 1987), they have no relevance to UG related areas. The classroom learner is setting values for parameters from positive evidence; so long as the classroom provides appropriate evidence, parameter setting will take place.

What would such appropriate evidence consist of? On the one hand there is the extreme case where it is believed that learning may take place on the basis of one sentence or a small set of sentences, as with the head parameter example, called in Cook (1989b) “onetime setting”; indeed experiments with Micro Artificial Languages have shown that learners can choose appropriate settings for the head parameter from around 30 sentences, even if these appear to be not quite the settings that UG theory utilizes (Cook, 1989a). On the other hand some of the necessary evidence may be indirect; Hyams (1986) believes that the crucial element in the English child’s switching to non-pro-drop is not the absence of subjectless declarative sentences themselves, a form of negative evidence, but the presence of the “expletive” subjects “there” and “it”, which is a by-product of the non-pro-drop setting and absent from pro-drop languages - a form of positive evidence. To set the parameter correctly sometimes requires a range of syntactic forms rather than just one paradigm sentence. Furthermore L2 learners may be exposed to forms of evidence such as explanation or correction which are rare in L1 acquisition. While the effects of this on the knowledge of parameters appear minimal, since teachers do not have the academic knowledge to correct errors or make explanations on the basis of such syntactic principles and parameters, they cannot be entirely dismissed. On the whole then the well-established features of teacher-talk-shorter utterances (Wesche and Ready, 1985), less subordination (Ishiguro, 1986), slower speed (Mannon, 1986), and so on-have nothing to do with the desirable properties of input for a UG model, except in so far as they segment the input more readily into grammatical constituents, as UG theory implies (Cook, in progress; Morgan, 1986).

Nor can L2 knowledge be derived from particular types of interaction or behaviour by the learner, say, understanding the “message” in the sentence or taking part in a mutually constructed dialogue: hearing the sentence is enough. It is not necessary for the learner to do anything in particular; hence work with learners strategies in the classroom such as those enumerated by O’Malley et al. (1985) is beside the point, as it does not reflect acquisition of any of the core areas of syntax. The learner’s grammar will conform in one way or another to the principles of UG, even if not in the same way as in the first language or the second language or in either of them, since the only type of grammar that may be entertained by the language faculty of the human mind must conform to the principles of UG. At all stages the learner’s interlanguage will reflect UG principles, regardless of its wild deviancy from the L1 or the L2. Thus Error Analysis misses the point if it emphasises the self-contained internal system of the learner’s language rather than seeing it as one of the possible instantiations of human language; learner languages vary within the finite possibilities set by UG, always provided that UG is in fact available to the L2 learner.

The UG model is then neutral so far as the interaction in the classroom is concerned; whether teachers vary the types of question (Long and Sato, 1983), or provide corrective feedback of various types (Day et al.,1984), or engage in the three-fold classroom moves of Sinclair and Coulthard (1975) is irrelevant so far as the UG areas of syntax are concerned as these are not acquirable by such means. The uniformity requirement of the UG model insists in addition that whatever it is that fosters acquisition in the input is freely available in all L1 situations; generalized to the L2 situation, this suggests that an L2 learning theory cannot depend solely on a particular type of interaction that is highly idiosyncratic and does not occur in situations where some L2 learners have been shown to be successful.

The UG theory has nothing in common with models that stress amount of practice, or active production by the learners, common for instance in language teaching methods from the audiolingual to the communicative; so far as the active comprehension advocated by supporters of “Listening First” methodologies (Cook, 1986), there is indeed the necessity for the learner to be aware of syntactic categories and of vocabulary “meanings” but there seems no particular need for the depth of semantic processing suggested by such models; triggering implies no deeper processing than syntactic and lexical codebreaking. A few sentences are all that is needed to set parameters; practice or production is neither good nor bad as the parameter is either set or it isn’t; a parameter is a switch with two or more discrete positions rather than a steadily increasing response strength. Some research has shown that a minimal amount of data may turn the switch for the learner; Cromer (1987) for example showed that giving children 10 examples of sentences illustrating the “eager/easy to please” construction every three months without telling them if they were right or wrong brought them way ahead of their peers. Though not couched in terms of the current UC theory, this shows how linguistic evidence supplied at the right time may facilitate acquisition of syntax. The crucial point so far as UG is concerned is that the appropriate input for triggering particular parameters be available to the learner, not the amount of input in terms of quantity, nor the properties of the input in other syntactic terms, nor whether it conveys a message. The provision of input is crucial to acquisition, but the necessary input may consist of a handful of sentences.

We come then to the question of sequence of development. Much L2 learning research has prided itself on discovering sequences of acquisition, as if a sequence were itself an explanation rather than a fact that needed to be explained. The main UG theory is neutral about L1 sequence; there might be a tendency to start with “unmarked” settings (in so far as these are not in any case synonymous with “learnt earlier”). But this tendency is likely to be obscured in the L1 by the gross developmental changes in the child’s other attributes, in the L2 by the more subtle deficiencies in the learner’s other cognitive systems when using the L2. If the “growth” model of UG is accepted, there may be a difference between older L2 learners and younger L2 learners or L1 learners, in that all the principles are present in the minds of the older L2 learners. Far from the claim of the standard Critical Period Hypothesis that there is a cut-off point for language acquisition, and far from the usual claim of the Monitor Model that acquisition can take place at any time while conscious learning may occur only after a certain age (Krashen, 1982), if a growth model of UG is correct and UG is still available, the acquisition of older L2 learners will reflect UG better than that of younger L1 or L2 learners since they would have all the principles simultaneously present.

Like other contemporary linguistic theories, UG also emphasizes the importance of vocabulary. The L2 learner needs to spend comparatively little effort on phrase structure,  since it results from the setting of a handful of parameters. He or she needs however to acquire an immense amount of detail about how individual words are used. The comparative simplicity of syntax learning is achieved by increasing the burden of vocabulary learning, where the learner needs to acquire masses of words, not just in the conventional way of knowing their dictionary meaning or pronunciation but also in knowing the way they behave in sentences; it is not just a matter of the beginner in English learning the syntax, function, and meaning of “He plays football”, it is learning that in English the verb “play” needs to be followed by a Noun Phrase. It has often been reported that learners feel vocabulary to be particularly important (Hatch, 1978); a questionnaire I administered to 351 students of English found that they placed the statement “I want to learn more English words and phrases” second out of 10 possible aims for their English course, after “I want to practice English so that I can use it outside the classroom”, and some way above structures, functions, or life in England. A major learning component according to the UG theory will indeed be vocabulary, if not perhaps in the way that either learners or teachers presently conceive of it.

UG theory clearly has little to say about many of the controversies about classroom language learning; it cannot be taken to support or deny various positions that are outside its remit. Thus for instance it is unjustifiable to invoke UG theory or indeed any Chomskyan view of language acquisition as supporting the provision of explicit rules to the learner. “It must be recognized that one does not learn the grammatical structure of a second language through ‘explanation and instruction’ beyond the most rudimentary level for the simple reason that no one has enough explicit knowledge about this structure to provide explanation and instruction” (Chomsky, 1969). If such evidence were to help learners to set parameters in L2 acquisition, it would suggest that L2 learning were taking place through some faculty other than the language faculty, a possibility denied by the current theory, and that the resulting knowledge acquired was “language-like” rather than true grammatical competence. “Proper” language knowledge must be derivable via triggering from positive input. Needless to say, grammatical explanation may work for aspects of grammar that are not the central factors of UG; such peripheral areas as the acquisition of closed-class grammatical morphemes may well yield to such treatment. There is no warrant for seeing “consciousness-raising” in the form of explicit statements of grammatical rules to learners as having anything to do with UG theory, whatever its merits on other grounds (Rutherford, 1987). Knowledge of language is not conscious; the model has no way for conscious knowledge to become unconscious. And of course whatever explanations were vouchsafed to learners would need to be in terms of principles (which they already possess unconsciously anyway) rather than of construction-specific rules. Again this is not to say that such explanations would not work for aspects of grammar or of language outside the UG purview. But such views cannot be accommodated within the areas of language acquisition covered by the UG theory itself.

Nor is it possible to interpret UG theory as supporting the hypothesis-testing theory in the form in which it became familiar in L2 research and language teaching - the learner makes a hypothesis about the grammar, tries it out and modifies it in the light of how successful it is. Such a process requires feedback to the learner concerning the correctness of his or her temporary hypothesis, as first argued by Braine (1971); without such feedback the learner would never know whether the hypothesis were correct. But in first language acquisition correction of the appropriate syntax is not universally provided, and so cannot be an essential component of L1 acquisition.

So far as the learning of other aspects of language than the syntactic core, UG theory is simply neutral; perhaps these are precisely the parts of language that have to be learnt, since the rest is innate. It may be that communicative goals imply other forms of learning; pragmatic competence is multi-functional and includes a communicative function as well as others; such uses are not part of UG which is concerned with knowledge of language grammatical competence.

The argument here has implied that UG is only one component out of many in L2 learning. The UG approach may indeed tackle the most profound areas of L2 acquisition, those that are central to language and to the human mind. But, once these are established, there may be rather little to say about them; the UG principles are not learnt, the parameter settings probably need rather little attention. On the one hand this is indeed proof of their central importance to language learning; UG is proof against situation and against learner variation because of its central importance. On the other hand the complexity, the difficulty, and indeed much of the interest, in L2 learning may be the aspects that are not predictable from UG theory-learner variation, situational purpose, foreign accent, motivation, and an endless list. The study of classroom L2 learning needs to operate within a framework that includes not only a linguistic model of acquisition such as UG but also psychological models of speech processing, language development, and cognitive development, a sociolinguistic model of discourse interaction, and an educational model of the values and purposes of language teaching.

Having produced so many caveats, is it possible to venture some simple concrete applications to language teaching? So far as classroom interaction is concerned we have seen that the most that the UG theory would recommend is the provision of adequate language samples for parameter setting to take place. Let us take a modern beginners course The Cambridge English Course (Swan and Walters, 1984) to see what linguistic evidence it provides the students. The evidence for setting the head parameter needs to be sentences showing Object complements following verbs rather than preceding them; Unit 1 of the course concentrates on “My name’s . . .“; the first conversation the students hear has two examples of Object Noun Phrases following “is”; the first practice for the students is “Say your name. ‘Hello my name’s . . .“‘. In other words in the first minutes of the course the student is given sufficient information for setting the head parameter, one of the major aspects of the phrase structure of English; the only possible confusion is the use of questions such as “Is your name Mark Perkins?” in the same context where the Object is separated from the verb by the Subject. Furthermore the student is learning properties of the verb “is”, namely that it has to be followed by a complement, except in short answers “No, it isn’t”. Turning to the pro-drop parameter the evidence needs to be the absence of null subject sentences, something eschewed by all EFL course books, even if they are not infrequent in ordinary spoken English for performance reasons, and, according to Hyams, the presence of expletive subjects such as “it” and “there”; Unit 5 of the Cambridge course introduces existential “there” in such sentences as “There’s an armchair in the living room”, Unit 7 in such sentences as “There’s some water in the big field”; Unit 9 introduces “weather report”, “it” in “It rains from January to March” and “It’ll cloud over tomorrow”, together with “there”, “There will be snow”; Unit 10 teaches dummy “it” in “It’s a man”. Again everything necessary to set the parameter is introduced within the first few weeks of the course. And it would be surprising if it weren’t; any small sample of English sentences must reflect this basic fact, just as it is hard for any small sample not to use all the phonemes of English.

A traditional interpretation of Chomskyan thinking to the classroom is what I have termed elsewhere “laissez-faire”(Cook, 1988): leave the student alone so that the natural processes of his or her mind can get to grips with language. The argument in favour of this originally was that our ignorance of language acquisition meant we interfered with it at our peril. This is no longer the case so far as current UG theory is concerned: the contents of the speaker’s mind and the evidence necessary for acquisition are known, both at the general level of the need for positive evidence, and at the specific level of the need for “expletive” subjects, say, for setting the pro-drop parameter. Laissez-faireworks because of the accidental reason that the necessary evidence is simple and common, and so bound to be present in the input.

Behind the classroom stands the syllabus. In so far as grammar forms part of contemporary syllabuses, one consequence of UG might be that the division of what needs and doesn’t need to be taught can be based on a notion of principles and parameters. Facts that are part of general principles don’t need to be taught. A student does not need to learn that a phrase always has a head of a related syntactic category because, quite literally, everyone knows that. A glance at current syllabuses may disclose areas which can be eliminated for these reasons. Above all we need to reinterpret the grammatical syllabus in terms of principles rather than separate rules or “structures”; the syllabus often gives the impression of consisting of discrete grammatical items - the present tense, the definite article - rather than the interlinked knowledge that the UG theory suggests. Constellations of syntactic structures might be combined that so far have been widely separated; for instance suppose that we wanted to teach “movement”; this would involve at least wh-questions, yes/no questions, relative clauses, the passive, and the use of “seem’‘-grammatical topics whose common factor almost certainly has never been emphasized in teaching! The use of the concept of parameters by teachers depends upon a decision whether L1 parameter-settings are transferred or not.

Finally as a slightly tangential point, there is the teacher’s awareness of language and of syntax. Firstly, being aware of what is taken care of by UG can free the teacher to pay attention to other things that actually need teaching; to some extent this already takes place since the teacher is not aware of the general principles or specific parameters that he or she has been covering: ignorance is bliss. But secondly the use of the Government/ Binding model of syntax associated with UG theory can provide insights to the teacher confined to the traditional models of grammar used in language teaching. Take the case of prodrop. One volume of the Cambridge Handbooks for language teachers is Learner English(Swan and Smith, 1987), which collects information on the English spoken by 19 different groups of learners; for Italian we learn “use of the subject pronoun is not obligatory” and “the order of subject and predicate is freer than in English” (p. 66), for Spanish “subject personal pronouns are largely unnecessary” (p. 85) and “subject-verb and verb-subject do not regularly correspond to statement and question respectively” (p. 79), for Chinese “English uses pronouns much more than Chinese, which tends to drop them when they may be understood” (p. 232) and “Not only interrogatives but also other sentences with inverted word order are also error-prone” (p. 232); similar comments are made about Greek, Portuguese, and Thai, together with remarks about missing “it” in Portuguese (p. 99), and Spanish (p. 85). To a UG theorist these all reflect the pro-drop parameter; a crucial generalization is being overlooked. Teachers are missing an important insight if they see these as separate bits of information about different languages rather than as a two-way variation in languages. Teachers I have spoken to have indeed found the two examples of the head parameter and the pro-drop parameter useful insights that help them to understand their students. UG may be of help at one stage removed from the student.


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