Language acquisition in the absence of experience

Stephen Crain*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

240 Citations (Scopus)


A fundamental goal of linguistic theory is to explain how natural languages are acquired. This paper describes some recent findings on how learners acquire syntactic knowledge for which there is little, if any, decisive evidence from the environment. The first section presents several general observations about language acquisition that linguistic theory has tried to explain and discusses the thesis that certain linguistic properties are innate because they appear universally and in the absence of corresponding experience. A third diagnostic for innateness, early emergence, is the focus of the second section of the paper, in which linguistic theory is tested against recent experimental evidence on children's acquisition of syntax.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)597-612
Number of pages16
JournalBehavioral and Brain Sciences
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1991
Externally publishedYes


  • acquisition
  • child language development
  • grammar
  • innate competence
  • language learnability
  • maturation
  • parameter theory
  • psycholinguistics
  • syntactic development


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