Global English: who benefits? HOLLY ROYLE explores the celebration and demonisation of the world’s dominant lingua franca

The English language is of significant importance around the globe. Graddol states that “English is seen in many countries, at an individual, institutional or national level, as representing the key to economic opportunity” (2007, p. 258). English is continuing to spread, in part through promotion by organisations such as the British Council. In previous historical periods English has not always been so positively encouraged. The language has been previously forced onto other cultures under the justification of it being superior and more civilised. What damage has this done? The negative enforcement of the language and more modern encouragement create a difficult contrast. With this in mind, is the demonisation of global English justified?

The British Council “is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities […] – changing lives by creating opportunities, building connections and engendering trust” (British Council). The organisation plays an important role in encouraging the learning of English across the globe. In their annual report for 2016/17 they state that the organisation “engaged directly with 65 million people” (p. 6), so they evidently have a wide spread of influence. The British Council organise events such as Shakespeare Lives, the promotion of which involved Sir Ian McKellen visiting China for the event. They claim that the “[s]ocial media content reached 12.5 million people” (2017, p. 12). No doubt the celebrity presence would have contributed to this. These large figures show the extent of the influence the British Council has through social media alone. A significant part of their reasoning for encouraging the learning of English as a second language is that it is a skill that can increase career prospects. The organisation highlights that “English is essential if you want to get ahead in today’s fast-paced global economy” and that with the British Council, “the chances of success are much higher” (British Council). However, it raises the question of what is the benefit for the British Council? The organisation publishes their financial figures in their annual report, showing that the business side to the organisation is significant in their operations. For the year 2016/17 “[t]he British Council achieved almost ten per cent growth in total income to £1,076.9 million” (2017, p. 54). This shows that the expansion of the organisation and English language teaching (ELT) across the globe does ultimately provide a large financial gain. Whether the benefit to the organisation outweighs the good it brings to individuals is not certain.

The English language has not always been so positively presented to other cultures. Issues of English being forced onto populations where English was not the indigenous language cannot be overlooked. For example, according to Martin (2012, p. 249), “[t]hroughout the American colonial period, [American] English was systematically promoted as the language that would ‘civilize’ the Filipinos”. ELT was enforced on the basis that English was essential for learning other subjects. Martin claims that an argument used to justify the enforcement of English is that “English proficiency is critical in learning as other key subjects such as Science and Mathematics use English in textbooks and other reference materials” (2012, p. 258). This suggests that American English was viewed as superior to the Filipino languages and in order to maintain it, falsities were fabricated. This was incredibly detrimental to children in the education system at this time, as they were having to learn all subjects in English which was not their first language. English was, and continues to be presented as a means to guarantee success in order “[t]o be sure, a good command of English is beneficial in employment situations where the language is used. However, language proficiency alone may not ensure economic success.” (p. 256). This idea of learning English, whether it be American English or another variety, as a guarantee of work appears more as a justification for ELT rather than a benefit to those learning English. This also raises the question of whether having English as a skill can truly guarantee better employment opportunities.

It is easy to see why the global spread of the English language is demonised when it is forced onto other populations such as the Filipinos. The current promotion techniques used by the British Council may be harder to categorise. Ultimately the British Council has a high financial gain from ELT and it has a significant influence in countries around the world. However, the organisation could potentially change lives to an extent as learning the English language could increase career opportunities. Is the demonisation of global English justified? This depends on perspective as it can have benefits and be detrimental to other cultures.

HOLLY ROYLE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


British Council. Our organisation.

British Council. English for the workplace. 

British Council. (2017). Annual Report and Accounts 2016-17

Graddol, D. (2007). Global English, global culture? In S. Goodman, D. Graddol, & T. Lillis (Eds), Redesigning English, (pp. 243-279). Abingdon: Taylor & Francis Ltd.

Martin, I. P. (2012). Periphery ELT: The politics and practice of teaching English in the Philippines. In A. Kirkpatrick (Ed) The Routledge handbook of world Englishes (pp. 247-264). Abingdon & New York: Routledge. 


‘Geck’, ‘chom’ & ‘thazz’! TIFFANY WOODWARD asks: ‘Are UK five-year-olds being taught to read through meaningless words?’

Since 2006, and the publication of the Rose Review on the teaching of reading and writing, the UK government has promoted the use of a literacy method, known as ‘systematic synthetic phonics. This is where children are taught the 44 sounds of English in a specific order – ‘d’ and ‘g’ before ‘ch’ and ‘th’, for example (Jolly Learning; Rose, 2006). Upon learning the sounds, the youngsters then face the challenge of blending them, to pronounce the words of English (Neaum, 2017, p. 2). The majority of educators seemed to understand the reasoning behind the promotion of this method. After all, the Rose Report (2006) was heavily based upon a multitude of research. In an investigation by Johnston and Watson (2005) in Clackmannanshire, children exposed to ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ had a reading age of more than three years above their actual age (Gibb, 2014). Clearly, teachers everywhere wanted their pupils to excel in this way. If the suggested method was to work best for the children, then this was what they would adhere to.

As we might expect, this ceasefire in the so-called ‘Reading Wars’ was relatively short lived. The introduction of a compulsory Phonics Screening Check (test) in 2012, has been strongly opposed by many, not only those teaching phonics (Gibb, 2014). The check assesses the phonic knowledge of children in Year 1, and requires them to read aloud 40 words (Richardson, 2014), which seems like a somewhat straightforward task. However, the checks have been criticised for a variety of reasons, from their extortionate cost (Clark, 2014, p. 13), to the negative influence that they are found to have on the confidence of young and fluent readers (UKLA, 2012).

For many though, the crux of the matter is that half of the words that children are presented with during these checks, are not real words. What are they, if not real words? They are non-words, or ‘pseudo’ words, such as “voo” and “spron” (Richardson, 2014), that children, age five, are expected to be able to break down into sounds, and then blend, to read the word aloud. Spending even a small amount of time in a Year 1 classroom, allowed me to experience the sheer weight that schools place upon learning these non-words. The Year 1 teacher that I observed, spent a significant amount of time practising these non-words with the children. It is difficult to see how rehearsing these non-words, solely in preparation for the checks, helps the children to become better all-round readers.

The check, described by the Department for Education (DfE) as a “short, light touch assessment” (DfE, 2013), is nothing of the sort, according to 87% of teachers questioned, all of whom disagree with their implementation. Ninety-one per cent of teachers questioned, claimed that the checks did not give them any additional insight into the children’s reading abilities (ATL/NAHT/NUT, 2012), which leads many to question whether the checks are fit for purpose. The teachers surveyed claimed that the non-words were a very confusing element for the majority of children, who, in an attempt to make sense of what they were reading, read words like ‘thend’ as ‘the end’ (UKLA, 2012, p. 4). These errors significantly affected their marks in the tests (UKLA, 2012, p. 4).

Of course, avid supporters of the checks refer to a range of advantages associated with their use. Gibb (2014), who claims that phonics should be used as “the sole method for teaching children to decode and identify words”, is one of a number of individuals, who consistently support the use of the checks. The DfE (2013) claim that one of the main benefits of early testing, is that children who might be struggling with reading can be spotted from their cohort at a young age. Teachers and support staff, therefore, will be able to implement the correct support and guidance, to help the child catch up with their peers, and essentially, “close the gap” (Grant, 2014, pp. 22-23).

It is understandable that the early identification of issues in reading, for children is essential to their successful development throughout the key stages. However, it is also important to recognize that the effects of these checks, on teachers, and more importantly, the pupils sitting them, have been negative. If the aim of teaching children to read using a systematic, synthetic phonics method, is to improve the early reading abilities of children, then why are these reading abilities being tested through the reading of words that are not real? Unless five-year-olds request to read Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ (Davis, 2013, 29) every day, then it seems that the checks will not help them become better readers.

TIFFANY WOODWARD, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


ATL/NAHT/NUT (2012, July). Teachers’ and head teachers’ views of the year one phonics screening check.

Clark, M. (2014). Whose knowledge counts in Government literacy policies and at what cost? Education Journal, 186, 13–16.

Davis, A. (2013). To read or not to read; Decoding Synthetic Phonics. Impact: Philosophical Perspectives on Education Policy (No. 20). 

Department for Education. (2013). The phonics screening check.

Gibb, N. (2014, 16 June). Phonics tests show progressive teaching is doomed to failure. Daily Telegraph

Grant, M. (2014). The effects of a systematic synthetic phonics programme on reading, writing and spelling.

Johnston, R., and Watson, J. (2005). The effects of synthetic phonics teaching of reading and spelling attainment: A seven year longitudinal study. The Scottish Executive Central Research Unit.

Jolly Learning Educational Publisher. Teaching literacy with Jolly Phonics.

Neaum, S. (2017). What comes before phonics? London, United Kingdom: Learning Matters.

Richardson, H. (2014, 28 January). Able readers damaged by phonics, academic says. BBC News. 

Rose, J. (2006). Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading (The Rose Report), Nottingham, United Kingdom: DfES.

United Kingdom Literacy Association. (2012). UKLA analysis of schools’ response to the year 1 phonics screening check.

Does global English empower speakers or erase national identity? BRIGITTA KOVACS investigates.

We all know that the English language has a global impact and many people have heard of the British Council, but what is their connection? What impact has the English language had where English is not the indigenous language and what is the role of the British Council?

The British Council is an international organisation with many aims including the promotion of English language education all around the world. They claim to work with over 100 countries, reach over 65 million people directly and even more through the media and publications. They have some charitable status, however they earn over 75% of their annual turnover from services which customers pay for, and less than 25% of their turnover comes from government grants.

The British Council advertises the English language as a product for sale that will make people’s lives better and give them freedom. Many countries in Africa have introduced English as the language of education with the hope of improving the economy and gain advantage of business opportunities. The most recent example is Rwanda, where following devastating civil war and major political upheaval, in 2009  legislation was introduced to anglicise Rwanda. In other countries where there was no common language – for example, in Nigeria – English was introduced as the language of unification. It was not the case in Rwanda where they already had a common language called Kinyarwanda. They introduced English in the hope of development, but they haven’t achieved the expected outcome. Africa is the only continent where the majority of children start school in a foreign language.

Williams (2012) explored the consequences of changing the language of education from Kinyarwandan to English arguing that this language policy contributes to the lack of development and questioning the presence of ‘effective’ education. I have interviewed two people from Nigeria asking them about their native languages and the impact of the English language on their culture. They told me that they can still understand their indigenous language but they can’t speak it anymore as in education and in the workplace only English is used. They expressed their concerns that in one or two generations their indigineous language will disappear and they will permanently lose important parts of their culture and identity. They claimed, that they already have significantly less knowledge about their own culture than their grandparents do, but they also consider speaking English a passport to freedom, and for them personally, speaking English gave the opportunity to study in the UK.

Most of the highest ranking universities of the world are in English speaking countries and English is currently the lingua franca of academia. Students who come to the UK, from all around the world, contribute about £2 billion a year to the economy, through tuition fees and by living here while they form relationships with people and organisations which will continue when they receive leadership positions in their countries. It creates trading opportunities between countries, an easier environment in which the UK can do business, and boosts the English teaching industry, with most of the earning going directly to the UK. It is not a coincidence that from all the world’s ‘Englishes’ British Council promotes British English as the original and natural English from the country with the longest English speaking history. Teaching British English encourages people to visit and study in the UK, although, by now non-native speakers far outnumber native speakers. With regards to the number of people who speak English globally, I would like to point out an interesting thought mentioned in The English Effect published by the British Council. It explores the disadvantage caused by English language becoming a global language, i.e. that “the real casualty from the global spread of English may actually be the native speaker: The rest of the world will have access to everything s/he does, but s/he will have access to little or nothing beyond the edges of his own tongue.” They urge English native speakers to learn a second language in order to keep the linguistic leverage.

Although, the idea of living in a world where everyone can understand each other seems very alluring, with the promise of development, employability, education, freedom, economy and business, speaking English in a country where it is not the indigenous language can erase national identity, decimate the culture, and with ineffective education techniques, slow down development.

BRIGITTA KOVACS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Who benefits from the global marketing of English. SOPHIE HELPS explores the pros and cons of the domination of one language

The English language has become the world’s most significant lingua franca and in many respects is the language of universal communication. According to some, many of the most celebrated literary texts in the world’s literary canon have been written in English and later translated.  Crystal (1987, p.358) claims that “[o]ver two-thirds of the world’s scientists write in English,” thus making English a global force to be reckoned with, because as medical advancements increase in popularity, so does the expansion of English. So it is often alleged that more and more people are choosing to learn English, as its influence continues to expand.
So is this popularity based on an inherent ‘superiority’? Why is English often considered to be superior to others? Pennycook cites and critiques the triumphalist views early 20th century linguists such as Jespersen who claim “there is perhaps no language in the civilized world that stands so high as English” (1998, p.136). Due to the correlations between English being considered ‘civilized’, it is held in high political, legal and scientific respect.
One of the market forces behind the increasing spread of English, is undoubtedly, the British Council. Their job is to encourage the expansion of English. According to Gray (2012b, p.97), the British Council’s textbook industry is “worth £3-4 billion year to the British economy” and this industry “makes the case for English as a language worth learning in terms of the economic benefits it can bring to countries and to individual speakers” (Gray, 2012b, p.97). Other countries require training in order to teach the English language so they ultimately rely on the council’s services to educate them. Some consider this to be a an example of English being a kind of ‘cultural capital’ which is sold like any other commodity and can lead to a kind of cultural or ‘linguistic imperialism’ whereby ultimately the English economy grows through profiting from the success of English. English is exploited as a marketable commodity which is: “putting a price on things never actually produced as commodities” (Harvey, 2005, p. 166) making English a “killer language” (Price 1984; Nettle & Romaine 2000). As English grows, fewer people choose to learn other languages such as French and German.
English has recently become more firmly established in countries where traditionally it played little role. For instance, in Rwanda, following a devastating civil war which led to a cut in diplomatic ties with France, English replaced French as an institutional lingua franca, including being the language used in schools at quite an early age, replacing the indigenous Kinyarwanda. Some critics argue the British Council are the biggest benefactors.

So, does this mean the spread of English has had a provable, positive effect? Not necessarily. Unfortunately, some Marxist theorists are still able to argue that the financial aspect of English has been exploited, as the richest elite in Rwanda have an unfair advantage. Many Rwandans are still struggling to incorporate English into their vernacular. Families from more affluent backgrounds are able to spend extra money on tutorials and resources which grants them a faster and more in depth knowledge of English. Essentially countries adopt the “neoliberalistic ideology in favour of greater economical advantages” (Gray, 2012a, pp.137-138). But not everybody gains.
Nonetheless the World Bank’s Its Doing Business report 2010 noted that Rwanda is “the world’s top reformer of business regulation” marking “the first time a Sub-Saharan African economy is [in] the top reformer[‘s list]” (The World Bank, 2009). So although there are some who would argue the spread of English only benefits the rich, this report states it is actually easier for the locals to start a successful business.
English is a marketable commodity, and as many of the world’s top businesses communicate through the medium of English, it is understandable that in using English you are more likely to achieve global, financial success. So by exploiting the language, not just the British economy benefits. As the Rwandan case study highlights it can have success elsewhere around the globe. It is safe to say, the discussion of whether or not English currently being the ‘global language’ is a positive phenomenon, is not going to be resolved anytime soon.

SOPHIE HELPS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Gray, J. (2012a). English the industry. In A. Hewings & C. Tagg (Eds.). The Politics of English: Conflict, competition, co-existence (pp.137-163). Abingdon: Routledge. 

Gray, J. (2012b). Neoliberalism, celebrity and aspirational content in English language teaching textbooks for the global market. In D. Block., J. Gray & M. Holborow (Eds.) (2012), Neoliberalism and applied linguistics (pp. 86-113). London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Nettle, D. &  Romaine,S. (2000). Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pennycook, A. (1998). English and the discourses of colonialism. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Chomsky or Tomasello? KATIE O’REGAN tries to avoid sitting on the fence in the language learning debate.

Would you ever think there would be so much controversy on how a child says their first word? Have you ever wondered where the ability to acquire language comes from? Even if you haven’t, Noam Chomsky and Michael Tomasello have done all the wondering for you. They aim to answer the age-old question in regards to language acquisition: ‘nature or nurture?’. Is language part of our genetic make-up, or do we learn it through our observations as children of the speakers around us? Respectively, they each represent the different sides of the nature vs nurture debate. Chomsky spearheaded the ‘mentalist’ theory of language acquisition, which hypothesizes that language is innate to us as human beings; it is as natural to us as breathing. On other side of the argument, or the nurture side, ‘functionalist’ or ‘social constructivist’ are the terms used to describe Tomasello’s theory. These focus on “meaning in use” (Tomasello, 2009, p. 69) and credits the social interaction that we have when we are children as being the main factor in language acquisition.

Chomsky is well known outside of his language studies, but he first came to prominence in 1959 when he wrote a damning review of B.F. Skinner’s ‘behaviourist’ language acquisition theory. In a nutshell, behaviourism theorized that language develops in children through copying adults, and in turn the adults would encourage this behaviour through positive reinforcement. Chomsky went on to say that this theory was “far from justified” and even claimed that it was “gross and superficial” (Chomsky, 1959, p. 28). Behaviourism subsequently became discredited and Chomsky’s theory took its place at the forefront of the debate.

One of the key elements of innatism is the theory of the existence of ‘Universal Grammar’, a set of structural rules of grammar that we are all apparently born with. Anderson and Lightfoot (2002, p. 18) claim that, “a grammar arises in each speaker which not only encompasses the actual facts to which they have been exposed, but also permits the production and comprehension of an unlimited range of novel utterances in the language”. We are able to construct sentences that we have never heard before because of this inherent linguistic ability that, according to Pinker –a stout believer in Chomsky’s theory – is a “biological birthright” (Pinker, 1994, p. 19).

On the other side of the debate is Tomasello, whose so-called ‘usage-based’ theory emphasizes the importance of social interaction in the acquisition of language. Children come to learn language by watching and listening the adults around them. Tomasello (2009, p. 69) says that there are two main skills for language acquisition -“intention-reading” and “pattern finding”. As regards intention-reading, children attempt to read the intentions of speakers so they can have some form of limited communication, even if they cannot speak. Pattern-finding is described by Tomasello (2009, p. 70) as, “…what children must do to go productively beyond individual utterances they hear people use around them to create linguistic schemas”. These are the two key main aspects for language acquisition from a functionalist point of view.

We still don’t know how children properly acquire language, and it could be the case that perhaps a mixture of the two theories could best explain it. This could be the most sensible way to put it. However, I personally feel that sitting on the fence is too easy. As Evans (2014, p. 21) puts it, there is “scant empirical evidence” to support Chomsky. The usage based theory looks at real life uses of language, and in actual fact Ibbotson and Tomasello (2016) say, “the idea of universal grammar contradicts evidence showing that children learn language through social interaction…”. I’m sure there is something to be said about children being naturally disposed towards language learning, but the existence of Universal Grammar is something that I’m yet to be convinced of.

KATIE O’REGAN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Anderson, S.R and Lightfoot, D.W. (2002). The language organ: Linguistics as cognitive physiology. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Chomsky, N. (1959). Review of Verbal Behavior, by B.F. Skinner. Language 35, no. 1 (January-March 1959): 26-57

Evans, V. (2014). The language myth: Why language is not an instinct. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press

Ibbotson, P. & Tomasello, M. (2016, October 9). What’s universal grammar? Evidence rebuts Chomsky’s theory of language learning. Salon.  

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: The new science of language and mind. London, United Kingdom: Penguin Books.

Tomasello, M. (2009). The usage-based theory of language acquisition. In The Cambridge handbook of child language, pp. 69-87. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.


Universal Grammar or intention-reading & pattern-finding? EMMA BARRY explores two key theories of language learning.

There are two major contrasting approaches to child language acquisition (CLA). The ‘nativist’ approach encompasses the belief that children are born with innate knowledge of language (Universal Grammar). The opposing usage-based ‘social constructivist’ approach assumes children learn language through the input they receive from an early age (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011). These conflicting views have provoked intense debate for decades within the linguistic community. Do children have nature to thank for their ability to acquire language, or nurture?

The nativist approach was proposed in the 1950s by Noam Chomsky. Chomsky’s theory is that our understanding and knowledge of language is “part of our biological endowment, genetically determined, on par with the elements of our common nature that allow us to grow arms and legs rather than wings” (1988, p. 7). In short, we have an innate knowledge of language (mainly grammatical rules) from the day we are born.

Included in the nativist theory is the idea that all human beings are born with a set of rules – or ‘Universal Grammar’-  that can be applied to any of the world’s languages. Ambridge and Lieven (2011, p. 2) define Universal Grammar as a “formal set of rules that operate on abstract linguistic categories”. Ibbotson & Tomasello offer a simpler definition, that Universal Grammar is the idea that “children are born with the ability to make words conform to a grammatical template” (2016). For example if this theory is correct, children understand that in the phrase ‘John danced’, the noun ‘John’ must appear before the verb ‘danced’ is evidence of the innate rules performing a syntactic operation (creating a grammatically correct phrase) (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011, p. 3).

The nativist approach is backed up by Chomsky’s claim of a ‘poverty of stimulus’. The poverty of stimulus idea is that “the linguistic environment is too impoverished for a child learner to achieve full adult competence” (Reali & Christiansen, 2004). In short children can generally produce sentences they haven’t been exposed to before (Toppleberg, Collins & Martin, 2004). In the eyes of the nativists, this supports their views and the argument for nature over nurture as it implies that there must be a faculty inside a child’s brain allowing them to create and produce utterances previously unheard.

However, none of the data used in the nativist theory is empirical, meaning that none of the examples used in support of this theory are based on real evidence. This is because Chomsky believes that the number of performance errors means it is impossible to gain an accurate representation of a person’s grammatical competence based on recorded data. But does this compromise the validity of his theories?

The social constructivists hold an opposing view claiming that the only innate knowledge children possess is the ability to learn language because of other more general cognitive skills rather than any inbuilt rules of grammar. This approach analyses empirical data from “actual communicative events” (Ibbotson & Tomasello, 2016). They believe that children use ‘intention reading’ and ‘pattern finding’ to generalise from examples to understand language and create new utterances, refuting the nativist’s poverty of stimulus theory.

Michael Tomasello, the main driving force behind the social constructivist approach, explains that “a child must work out the intentions of the mature speaker to achieve social ends” and they do this through a process called ‘intention reading’. Ibbotson & Tomasello (2016) give the example of the question “can you open the door for me?”. In this situation the child must work out that the question is a request for help not a request into their door opening abilities.  ‘Pattern finding’ works alongside ‘intention reading’ in the constructivist approach. ‘Pattern finding’ involves the realisation of patterns in language from the child to create linguistic schemas and constructions. For example, in English a child should come to realise the pattern of noun-verb-noun in utterances such as “Jane kicks the ball” and be able to generalise this pattern into their own speech (Rowland, 2014, p.100). Ibbotson and Tomasello (2016) use the sentences “the dog wants the ball” and “the dog wants food” as an example for pattern finding with the idea that after hearing this similar structure time after time the child will be able to adopt the framework and create their own novel sentences, such as, “the dog wants the bowl”.

In short, on one hand we have the rather convincing innateness theory proposed by nativists, with the poverty of stimulus argument there to deter any doubt. On the other hand there is the social constructivist theory, all based on concrete evidence. So, nature or nurture, or maybe even a little bit of both, where do you stand?

EMMA BARRY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Ambridge, B., & Lieven, E. (2011). Child Language Acquisition. Cambridge University Press Textbooks.

Chomsky, N. (1996). Language and problems of knowledge. Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press.

Ibbotson, P., & Tomasello, M. (2016). What’s universal grammar? Evidence rebuts Chomsky’s theory of language learningSalon

Reali, F., & Christiansen, M. H. (2004). Structure dependence in language acquisition: Uncovering the statistical richness of the stimulus. In Proceedings of the Cognitive Science Society (Vol. 26, No. 26).

Toppelberg, C., Collins, B., & Martin, A. (2004). Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition. Journal Of The American Academy Of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry43(10), 1305-1306.



How do children really acquire language? Is it in their nature or do they need to be nurtured along the way? KATIE ROBERTS investigates.

Do you have a burning desire to know how you started talking and forming grammatical sentences? This may not be at the top of your priority list but there has been a debate in this linguistic field for decades.  Are we any closer to an answer?

One viewpoint that has been very popular since the early 1960s is the ‘innatist’ approach to child language acquisition. Noam Chomsky is most closely associated with this. As the term suggests, innatists believe our ability to learn and use language is innate and “encoded in our genes” (Rowland, 2014, p. 15). This seems rational because children appear to learn language very rapidly. Pinker (1994) even refers to them as “lexical vacuum cleaners” (p. 151). He claims that language is a manifestation of a natural pre-wired “Language Instinct” (Pinker, 1994) which is triggered when a child is exposed to language output.

This builds on Chomsky’s proposition that humans have an innate grammatical capability, based on Universal Grammar (UG). Essentially, UG is the “properties of language that are mentally represented by an internal linguistic system (a grammar)” (White, 2003, p. 2). Where is the support for this? Consider the input that children receive around them. Is it a perfect model to emulate and learn from? The answer, according to Chomsky is ‘no’. Natural spoken language is full of performance errors, false starts, hesitations and fillers like “err”. Chomsky called this the ‘Poverty of Stimulus’. Our experience cannot account for our ability to generate novel sentences and so innateness must accountable for the resulting production of language (Lasnik & Lidz, 2017, p. 1).

This is admittedly a captivating attempt to explain child language acquisition. But can this be tested and proven empirically? Akhtar claims there is no way of providing watertight evidence to support this so-called ‘nature’ (as opposed to ‘nurture’) approach to language learning (2004, p. 460). So is the concept of Universal Grammar just a “Language Myth” (Evans, 2014)?  Your guess is as good as mine.

Critics of innatism propose an alternative explanation for the way children learn to speak, often called ‘Social Constructivism’. Michael Tomasello is the theorist often associated with this. Social constructivists believe that children have a natural intuition and certain cognitive abilities that help with the acquisition of language but the focus is shifted to “meaning in use” (Tomasello, 2012, p. 69). In sunning theories of innate mechanisms and language modules in the brain (Evans, 2014, pp. 96- 7) children are believed to develop language skills as a result of social and cultural environments – a desire to communicate. If anything, it serves a purpose for them.

The notion of an inbuilt pre-existing mechanism is discarded in a usage-based focus. Instead, function in use is the driving force for acquisition. Two skill sets form the fundamental components of this approach – ‘intention-reading’ and ‘pattern-finding’.

These two terms are best taken as a bottom-up interpretation, whereby grammatical “categories and rules [for language] are built up gradually” (Rowland, 2014, p. 96). Rather than being inborn, basic categories and acquisition of language are “facilitated by parents, peers, teachers, and others” (Kaufman, 2004, p. 304). Constructivists rely heavily on the notion of caregiver assistance and the input from others (‘nurture’). This might be right; language after all is a social phenomenon.

It is undoubtedly important for a child to “work out what message a speaker intends to convey” (Rowland, 2014, p. 101). Ibbotston and Tomasello provide an example from a recent article in the Scientific American. In an utterance such as “can you open the door for me?” (2016), a child would need to follow the attention of the speaker – i.e. intention reading – and realize that this is a request, understanding specified interactive goals. The next level moves from this functional base and progresses to the grammatical dimension – ‘pattern-finding’. A child needs to move “beyond individual utterances they hear people using […] and create abstract linguistic schemas” (Tomasello, 2012, p. 70). The example of “want + desired object” (Rowland, 2014, p. 101) illustrates this, for instance ‘I want drink’ or ‘I want ball’ from an ‘I want X’ pattern. Basic schemas can assist with language and sentence development. Social constructivists think children use these to slot new words into a frame.

So, does one approach have more value than the other? Many academics have latched onto one theory and have only “discussed research conducted within the relevant paradigm of interest” (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011, p. 13). There is a danger that scholars cherry-pick examples to suit their pre-existing ideas. The so-called ‘nature versus nurture’ debate is likely to continue for now. At the end of the day we can’t ask a baby how it learns to speak!

KATIE ROBERTS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Akhtar, N. (2004). Nativist versus constructivist goals in studying child language. Journal of Child Language, 31(2), 459-462.

Ambridge, B., & Lieven, E. V. M. (2011). Child language acquisition: Contrasting theoretical approaches. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.  

Evans, V. (2014). The language myth: Why language is not an instinct. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ibbotston, P., & Tomasello, M. (2016, October 9). What’s universal grammar? Evidence rebuts Chomsky’s theory of language learning. Scientific American. 

Kaufman, D. (2004). Constructivist issues in language learning and teaching. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 24, 303-319.

Lasnik, H., & Lidz, L. J. (2017). The argument from the poverty of stimulus. In I. Roberts (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of universal grammar (pp. 221-249). Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: The new science of language and mind. London, United Kingdom: Penguin Books.

Rowland, C. (2014). Understanding child language acquisition. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Tomasello, M. (2012). The usage-based theory of language acquisition. In E. Bavin, (Ed), Cambridge handbook of child language (pp. 69-88). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

White, L. (2003). Second language acquisition and universal grammar. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.


Children should learn grammar but are the SPaG tests really the way forward? CHLOE BLAKE investigates

Grammar, it is claimed, is classed as being one of the things needed to know to succeed in English. If you have good grammar you can go far in life and reach your potential (Espinoza, 2016). But do we really need to put children through the new rigorous SPaG tests to prove that they know how to label the function of individual words in sentences?

SPaG tests (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) were introduced into the UK primary school curriculum in 2013. They assess children, aged seven and eleven, in an hour long spelling and grammar test.

The tests and associated learning are clearly being promoted by the UK government as beneficial to children’s writing skills. But they have left many teachers and parents very worried about their children’s wellbeing. Espinoza, 2016 (Education Editor for Daily Telegraph) claims that the tests have left even the bright children struggling and they are very demoralizing for the children.

Children are asked to point out the subordinate clauses, the adverbials, conjunctions, relative clauses etc., potentially quite tricky at that age when they haven’t been learning grammar for very long. Children are already able to use these grammatical constructions in their day to day life so what are the benefits of being able to point them out in a sentence?

Grammar can be very difficult to define. The linguist David Crystal (2017) defines grammar as “the study of how sentences work”. This is very similar to the UKLA’s (United Kingdom Literacy Association) definition –  “[g]rammar is the study of how we make sense in speaking or writing so that we can understand people who speak the same language as we do” (Reedy & Bearne, 2013). So grammar, in essence, is referring to the structure of sentences.

When children are using language in formal contexts in schools they are expected to use standard grammar. Standard English is classed as a dialect and is one of the many varieties used in English (Trudgill, 2000). There will be dialect variation across the UK but each child will be expected to use standard English when completing the test, putting pressure on children to know when to use their regional dialect and when to use standard English.

The government argue that because grammar involves the basic building blocks of language, being taught grammar in the classroom will mean children can reach their full potential in life because without it they will fall behind (Hudson, 2016).  Letts (2013) supports the explicit teaching of grammar in schools  stating that “[g]rammar is the coat hanger on which language can hang [meaning] – [i]t provides structure for sentences”. They support the government’s stance claiming that not only will children learning grammar help with job applicants but it will train their minds. Children learning grammar is important but is going to the extent of testing them via SPaG tests really necessary? Is there not a way of making it more fun for children?

According to Myhill (2010) there is little evidence to prove that teaching grammar to children helps their writing. Children learn grammar better and find it more exciting by writing stories. Not only does it help their writing skills but it helps develop a wide variety of others such as making sense of the world, understanding emotion and sequencing time (Bousted, 2016). This then helps their development of grammar by exploring other ways of writing. Surely learning through this way is more enjoyable for not only the children but the teachers as well? Can children not be tested on their grammar through their stories rather than through SPaG tests?

The government are setting the children up to fail in a sense. When it comes to grammar there isn’t always one correct answer. The SPaG tests don’t make this clear, for each question there is only one answer. This may leave children more confused later in life because they are having to be untaught something they have previously learnt (Rosen, 2015).

So, do children really need the extra stress of having these long and difficult, potentially demoralizing tests, when they can lean grammar in more of a fun and interesting way?

CHLOE BLAKE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Bousted, M. (2016, January 19). Take this absurdly difficult English test – and see why this generation of students will be alienated by education. Times Educational Supplement

Crystal, D. (2017). Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Espinoza, J. (2016, May 9). Students reduced to tears over ‘hardest’ tests, Daily Telegraph

Letts, Q. (2013, May 12). Is good grammar still important? The Guardian.

Hudson, R. (2016). SPaG, a brief history of the teaching of spelling, punctuation and        grammar and the SATs tests.

Myhill, D. (2010). Living language, live debates: Grammar and Standard English. In J.   Davison, C. Daly, & J. Moss (Eds.), Debates in English teaching (pp.63-77). London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Rosen, M. (2015, November 3). Dear Ms Morgan: in grammar there isn’t always one         right answer. The Guardian.

Reedy, D., & Bearne, E. (2013). Teaching Grammar Effectively in  Primary Schools.       United Kingdom: UKLA.

Trudgill, P. (2000). Sociolinguistics: An introduction to language and society. United         Kingdom: Penguin.

UKLA. (2013). UKLA statement on teaching grammar