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Noam Chomsky Recognized by Frontiers of Knowledge Award for His Contributions to the Study of Human Language

The BBVA Foundation has recognized the U.S. linguist with the Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Humanities and Social Sciences Category, a new category included in this year’s edition for the first time ever. Chomsky’s research opened up new paths in multiple fields of humanities, especially in the study of the human mind and the cognitive systems that comprise it.

Noam Chomsky, BBVA FoundationBBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Humanities and Social Sciences - Luis Astudillo C. / Cancillería/ C.C/
Noam Chomsky, BBVA FoundationBBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Humanities and Social Sciences - Luis Astudillo C. / Cancillería/ C.C/

With his body of work from the late 1950s into the 1980s, Noam Chomsky (Philadelphia, 1928) showed that language acquisition relies on an innate faculty of the human mind that enables us to understand and generate sentences based on the formal rules of “universal grammar.” He proposed that the human brain possesses an innate knowledge enabling it to learn and develop language; a groundbreaking and now commonly accepted theory whose implications have driven for new research efforts in diverse fields of science and the humanities “on a new and productive path encompassing theoretical linguistics, psycholinguistics, cognitive science, the philosophies of language and mind, and cognitive psychology,” according to the jury’s citation

Through his view of language as something the human mind is innately able to produce by calling on predefined structures, Chomsky made “humanity’s most distinctive cognitive product understandable from both a scientific and humanistic point of view,” the citation continues. Language thus becomes not just an instrument of communication, but a cognitive-biological object born out of the human mind, and therefore providing a window onto the workings of the human brain.

Although Chomskyan theory proposes a general, abstract model of the structure of human languages, this model that has informed detailed studies of the formal properties of many individual languages, fueling the rise of the new comparative linguistics and laying the foundations for a scientific understanding of language learning and development.

Learning to talk

In the first half of the 20th century, behaviorist theory explained that children acquired their mother tongue by repeating what they hear and correcting their mistakes. But Chomsky thought differently. For him, a mere stimulus-response could not account for children’s ability to come up with entirely new sentences. The capacity to produce an infinite number of structures – sentences – out of a finite number of elements – words – implies that the human brain comes prewired with the rules of universal grammar that underlie each language. So the learning process is not confined  to a child repeating what is said by other speakers.

“The fact that any speaker can construct expressions that have never been uttered, and understand others they have never heard cannot be a mere product of imitation,” says Ignacio Bosque, Professor of Spanish at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and member of the Real Academia Española who nominated Chomsky for the Frontiers of Knowledge Award. “We humans possess a language faculty that rests on linguistic principles of considerable complexity, a kind of template into which any human language fits. And Chomsky has studied the structure of this template in painstaking detail for more than seventy years.”

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