Here’s a short post linking to what I think is a very accessible summary of Chomsky’s current views about language and its biological basis. The discussion is not extended and the cognoscenti will not likely learn anything new (though I did). Here are some points he touches on:
1. Distinction between generalizations about language and UG, which is “the genetic basis for language.
2. That there are no real group differences (vs individual differences) between humans as regards FL/UG, implying that there has been no significant change in FL for a very long time.
3. Early theories of UG allowed for a huge amount of variation between languages. Over the last 40 years, theory has narrowed the range of this difference.
4. A simple statement of the goals of a useful theory: “A plausible theory has to account for the variety of languages and the detail that you see in the surface study of languages – and, at the same time, be simple enough to explain how language could have emerged quickly, through some small mutation of the brain, or something like that.”
5. Analogy between UG and Jacob’s Universal Genome hypothesis.
6. Argument for species specific native capacity for language starts from the simple observation that humans alone can “pick out anything that is relevant to language” from the “great blooming, buzzing confusion” that is the stimulus input.
7. Fast mapping of words to meanings indicating taht Quine’s “museum myth” is in fact reality.
8. Pattern recognition insufficient for language acquisition.
9. Theory of Mind orthogonal to language acquisition problem.
10. Linguistic interests are different from Languistic ones.
11. Is the idea that culture influences language meaningful?
The distinction in (1) is particularly important to reiterate as there has been rampant confusion on this point. Chomsky’s views are not Greenberg’s and a lot of the criticism of Universals has come from running the two together. I also liked the observations concerning the implications of research on autism for what look like Tomasello-like views about language development. The remarks are blunt, but raise a relevant point.
I also found the observations concerning how little UG has apparently changed over the last 30,000 years important to stress (2). Recall the Papuans (and the Piraha?) who were very isolated until recently are all capable of learning the same languages in the same way as anyone else. In fact, I know of no group of people whose kids suitably located cannot learn any language, on contrast to any other animal. Why? because humans have essentially the same UG and other animal's don't have one. This is sufficient to raise the generative research question: what do we have that they don't and how did it get there?
Similarly culture changes have left UG pretty much intact (11), so far as we can tell. Older varieties of English, Icelandic, Japanese look from a UG vantage point pretty much like their contemporary counterparts, indicating that the same UG operated then as does now. Chomsky develops these points more elaborately elsewhere, but if you are like me and people ask what you do then this is something short and readable to give them, if, of course, these are the questions you are interested in.