IAN BAIN considers the plausibility of innateness theories of language acquisition

Noam Chomsky claims that ‘language seems to be best understood as a ‘cognitive system’ ’ (1991: 17). Chomsky is considered to be one of the most, if not the most, important contributors to the ‘nativist’ theory of language acquisition. Nativists and generativists believe that language acquisition is an innate ability, one that we are born with as infants and acquire the structure for the acquisition of language. The ‘nurture’ theory meanwhile does not believe language acquisition is innate, but rather a development of one’s cognitive abilities. This leads us to the question of whether there is a difference between nativists and generativists?
It is possible for a proposal to be nativist but not generativist? A nativist assumes that children have some innate linguistic knowledge, whereas a generativist believes rather that it pertains to an area of language other than grammar. For example, ‘lexical principles account that word learning assumes that children are born with the assumption that new words are most likely to refer to whole objects’. This proposal is nativist in that it assumes innate knowledge but it is not generativist – the knowledge pertains to word meanings and not grammar, (Ambridge, B & Lieven, 2011:2).

Chomsky’s key argument was developed around the concept of  ‘Universal Grammar’, whereby he claims ‘Universal Grammar may be thought of as some system of principles, common to the species and available to each individual prior to experience’ (1993:7). One problem that arises from Chomsky’s definition is that we have many different languages worldwide that are structured differently. An example of this is the Japanese language, in which the verb comes after the object – for example, ‘your apple eat’. This differs to the English language, where the verb comes before the object, such as, ‘eat your apple’. Chomsky suggests that there are principles which are universal. So when a child learns a particular language, for example, they do not learn an extensive list of rules, as they are born knowing a set of ‘super rules’. The child would therefore only need to learn whether their language has the parameter head first as we witnessed above in the English language, or head last as we witnessed in the Japanese language. This is achieved by simply realising where the verb is in the phrase. This will then enable large pieces of grammar to become available, as if the child flipped a switch a couple of times.

If the ‘Universal Grammar theory’ and its principles are true, we could then understand how a child can switch their language to adult-like complexity so soon. However, there are problems with Universal Grammar and the nature theory, due to it being heavily reliant on the factor of not actually knowing what aspects of our linguistic knowledge is innate. The nurture theory and its belief of imitation will always counter the belief that children just flick a switch in the brain. There is however, one thing that we can likely all agree on: there will likely always be two different approaches to language acquisition.

The question is, do you think Mr Chomsky and the nativist theorists are right?

IAN BAIN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Ambridge, B. & Lieven, E.V.M. (2011) Child Language Acquisition: Contrasting Theoretical Approaches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chomsky, N (1993) Lectures on Government and Binding: The Pisa Lectures. Holland: Foris Publications. Reprint. 7th Edition. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Chomsky, N (1991) Linguistics and Adjacent Fields: A Personal View. In A. Kasher (ed.) (1992) The Chomskyan Turn. Oxford; Cambridge University Press.


LOUISE WILLIS questions the nativist approach to language acquisition

Many theorists have sought to explain how children acquire their first language, perhaps because it seems an incredible feat to master the complex structures and rules that govern language. Whilst some do not feel the need to distinguish the learning of a language from any other cognitive developments, others draw upon the theory of an innate language acquisition ability to account for this achievement. Chomsky is the most well-renowned and influential ‘nativist’. He first argued for an innate ability and universal grammar using several observational claims.
One of his main arguments, as discussed by Sampson (2005:30), is that children acquire language with such a speed that would be impossible without an innate ability. He also argues that there is a critical period for language learning, beyond which the child would not be able to acquire language to a normal standard. Chomsky’s theories are supported by fellow nativist Pinker, who also believes there is something innate about language learning. He refers to this innate element as the ‘language instinct’ (Pinker 1994).

However, Sampson does a good job of showing how all Chomsky’s arguments can be logically refuted, by revealing flaws in his claims. Sampson counters the ‘speed of acquisition’ argument, for example, by stating that it is not possible to say acquisition is fast, as a result of innate knowledge, when there has been no predicted time for acquisition without this inherent ability (Sampson 2005:37).
Some of the claims Chomsky made in the early days of nativist theory have even been proven to be factually untrue. Chomsky claimed that language is impoverished, and then it was proven that language is actually richer than was first thought (Sampson 2005:43). Chomsky claimed that all children acquire the same mastery over their mother tongue, regardless of intelligence. He retracted this argument in 1975 when empirical studies proved this claim to be wrong (Sampson 2005:50).

Many nativist arguments seem to be based upon the theorist’s own intuitions about language, but often these can prove to be incorrect when empirical evidence arises. In Pinker’s work (Pinker 1994), as well as Chomsky’s, there is similarly little evidence to support his claims.

I consider empirical approaches to be more compelling, as people’s perceptions of language are often distorted. Piaget’s constructivist model (Gleason & Ratner 2012:207) for acquisition I find quite convincing. Whilst I do not think any theory will be able to perfectly account for the way we learn language, the evidence that links cognitive development to stages of acquisition is compelling. By revealing the co-occurrence of language learning milestones and sensorimotor stages, Piaget argues that cognitive and language learning developments are intimately linked.
Whether or not the human mind is capable of observing, learning and constructing a language without the help of a genetic ability remains to be seen. At the moment, there doesn’t seem to have been any convincing argument against this as a possibility. Surely the motivation to learn the primary form of communication of the society they are born into is enough for any child to successfully acquire language. And if not, I will not believe it until a theory is developed based on claims that hold up to empirical testing.

LOUISE WILLIS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Gleason, J.B. & Ratner, N.B. (2012) The Development of Language (8th ed.) London: Pearson.

Pinker, S. (1994) The Language Instinct: A New Science of Language and Mind. London: Penguin.

Sampson, G. (2005) The ‘Language Instinct’ Debate. London: Continuum.

AMY COX takes a balanced approach to the ‘language instinct’ debate

This debate is a fascinating one as it has been on-going for some time and so far neither of the opposing theories has been conclusively proven to be correct. There are two main sides to this argument. The nativists, such as Chomsky, believe that infants are born with an innate sense of language and that the human brain is pre-wired to have the ability to acquire language. Pinker, a nativist whose own theory stems from Chomsky’s original theory refers to language as an ‘instinct’, claiming that ‘language is not a cultural artefact that we learn the way we learn to tell time[…] Instead, it is a distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brains. Language is a complex specialised skill, which develops in the child spontaneously[…]’ (1994: 18). The constructivists refute these claims and put forward a differing view of language acquisition, claiming that knowledge of language is derived from the child’s environment. According to Peccei (2006: 3) ‘[e]mpiricist approaches […] see language development as a result of the child’s striving to make sense of the world and to extract meaningful patterns, not just about language, but about all aspects of their environment’.

These two sides hold such opposing views that it would seem difficult to find a ‘middle- ground’ and certainly not a resolution, as each side consistently refutes the others arguments, putting forward their own opposing view. An example of this is shown in Sampson’s (2005) book ‘The Language Instinct Debate. Here, Sampson outlines each of Chomsky’s nativist arguments and systematically refutes them. For the ‘convergence of grammars’ argument Chomsky claimed that ‘the Grammars that are in fact constructed vary only slightly among speakers of the same language, despite wide variations not only in intelligence but also in the conditions under which language is acquired’ (Chomsky in Sampson 2005: 32). Sampson counters this saying that it is not possible to prove that grammars are near identical, nor that the individuals were not exposed to the required evidence for them to come to the same conclusion. This is just an example of the constant back and forth counter arguments shown between the two sides. Whenever a theorist, whether nativist or constructivist, puts forward an argument to support their claim, their evidence is dismissed by the opposition.

This begs the question – is either theory the ‘right’ one? Or could language acquisition be explained using a mixture of elements from both theories? The infant may be born with innate abilities to aid the acquisition of language, which is then developed through using and learning language from the environment. This seems ideal, though not proven. However, with both theories being so opposed to one another could a ‘mixed’ theory actually work? So far neither is willing to incorporate the other’s theory or evidence, even though neither theory has so far conclusively proved that their theory stands alone in explaining language acquisition.

So can this debate ever be concluded? If so, which theory could accurately explain how language is acquired? Or will both sides have to open their minds to the possibility of creating a ‘neutral theory’ in order to explain language acquisition?

 AMY COX, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Peccei, J. S. (2006) Child Language: A Resource Book for Students. Oxon: Routledge.

Pinker, S. (1994) The Language Instinct: A New Science of Language and Mind. London: Penguin.

Sampson, G. (2005) The ‘Language Instinct’ Debate. London: Continuum.    

MATTHEW HAMPTON asks ‘Is language innate? Let’s debate!’

Is language natured or nurtured? Is language innate or learnt from the outside world? There has been, and probably always will be two rather different approaches to language acquisition, which while not being entirely separable in practice, help us understand some of the key debates in language acquisition. These debates were instigated by Noam Chomsky who indicates that, ‘we are born with a set of rules about language in our heads,’ (Duttagupta 2013: 47) and B.F Skinner who wanted to ‘provide a way to predict and control verbal behaviour by observing and manipulating the physical environment of the speaker.’  (Lust 2006: 51)  Both of these instigating studies on language acquisition have perfectly logical explanations behind them, forming which is commonly known as the ‘nature vs nurture’ debate.

The heart of the nurture debate was initiated by B.F Skinner in 1957 in his book Verbal Behaviour. Skinner is of the belief that ‘all behaviour is externally controlled and that behaviour is a function of genetic environmental conditions’ (Chomsky 1971: 5). This theory was created as a result of a practical experiment on animals such as rats, dogs, and pigeons. Though fluffy, vibrant and interesting by nature, Chomsky has questioned the practicality of these animals for a science experiment that can account for language learning, labelling the experiment as ‘pure dogmatism’ (Chomsky 1971: 2).

So why was the work of Skinner so harshly criticised by Noam Chomsky? What has Chomsky provided which entitles him to such a brutal attack? The answer is Universal Grammar, which Lust (2006: 53) cites as ‘part of the genotype specifying one aspect of the initial state of the human mind and brain.’ This means that the ability to learn language is innate and hardwired into our brains. This sounds breath-taking in a sense, however even Chomsky has a number of critics. The paradigm has been criticized on the grounds that it cannot account for children acquiring a grammar or a set parameter without having a grammar to process the input data. Lust also claims that ‘if children are to use input, they must be able to parse it’ (2006: 58). A more general criticism could be related to the use of tense, verbs, and objects. How does UG account for a child learning different languages?

In conclusion it could be proposed that the work and findings of Noam Chomsky are seemingly more creditable than those of B.F. Skinner. Maybe this is because B.F. Skinner never wrote a response to Noam Chomsky to defend his findings, or maybe this is the actual case. What can be stated here however is that B.F. Skinner has built solid foundations for a future investigation into the nurture side of the debate. Whether language acquisition is innate, is subject to debate, and an idea on which different views are expressed. Do you think language learning is natured or nurtured? Do you think the mystery will ever be solved? The truth is that it probably won’t in our lifetime!

MATTHEW HAMPTON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Chomsky, N. (1971). The Case Against B.F. Skinner. In: The New York Review of Books, 30 December, p. 1 – 13.

Duttagupta, R. (2013) Leadership: It’s in your DNA. New York: A & C Black Publishers.

Lust, B. (2006) Child Language: Acquisition and Growth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

CHARLOTTE KINOUCHI worries about whether ‘hakuna matata’ is the correct attitude to language death

When we hear the word ‘endangered’ we tend to associate it with wildlife such as the giant panda or the polar bear, but few of us would think to associate it with languages. Perhaps this is partly because languages are not cute and fluffy, though more likely it is because endangered languages and language death are issues far less talked about and therefore far less known about. So what does it mean when a language dies? Crystal (2000 :1) says that ‘a language dies when nobody speaks it anymore’. He explains that a language does not simply die at the same time as its last speaker because language is intended as a tool for communication, therefore if it is not actually being used for this purpose then it is technically already dead. Now that that’s been verified, you may want to know just how many languages in the world are in danger of dying. According to Crystal (2000), the rough estimate is 4,000 which is about two thirds of the world’s languages. This includes about 51 languages with only one speaker remaining.

The question I would like to focus on here is whether language death should be a global cause for concern or should we just adopt the ‘hakuna matata’ attitude and not worry about it?

It can be argued that language death has been occurring throughout history and therefore worrying about it now is pointless (Hale et al., 1992). Some have also argued that languages die because their speakers choose to let them die in favour of learning more prestigious languages like English to give them better future prospects (Malik, 2000). Most linguists, however, strongly disagree with these apathetic attitudes. They believe that the death of any language is a detrimental loss to humanity (e.g. Crystal, 2000, Hale et al., 1992, Maffi, 2002) and one of the foremost of these linguists is Crystal (2000). He argues: that languages are needed for diversity; that they are an integral part of our identity; that they contain a nation’s history;  increase human knowledge; and are just generally fascinating to study. His reasons are very convincing and I do agree with them,  However I also have my own opinions on the matter. Whilst I do believe that language preservation is of great importance and that we should care when a language is lost, I also acknowledge that there are human resources which are of even greater importance. For instance, if you had to choose between funding efforts to provide food and clean water to third world countries or efforts to preserve the languages of those third world countries which would you choose? For me personally, I would have to say the former. It is an unfortunate truth that sometimes, in a world overburdened by problems, priorities have to be made and this inevitably leads to compromises and sacrifices. But wherever and whenever possible, I encourage efforts to preserve the world’s languages whole-heartedly.

 CHARLOTTE KINOUCHI, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


 Crystal, D. (2000) Language Death. London: Routledge.

Hale, K., Krauss, M., Watahomigie, L. J., Yamamoto, A. Y., Craig, C., Jeanne, L. M. and England, N. C. (1992) Endangered languages. Language, 68(1), pp. 1.

Maffi, L. (2002) Endangered languages, endangered knowledge. International Social Science Journal, 54, pp. 385–393.

Malik, K. (2000) Let them die. Prospect. Available at: http://www.kenanmalik.com/essays/die.html

LEWIS CARTER discusses ‘Language for Sale: English the Industry’

The phrase ‘English the industry’ might conjure up the mental image of a huge factory somewhere, full of uniformed  workers at assembly lines, fixing together letters and words, bagging them up, and shipping them out as ‘100% genuine English – suitable for ages one and up’. While it’s not quite that fantastically literal, it does mean that English is operating in the same way a business would: something is being supplied in exchange for cash. That this ‘something’ isn’t assembled and packaged doesn’t stop it being treated in the same way as something else that is.

Taking the Neoliberal view that anything can be sold, and should be, as ‘an unfettered market economy is the best guarantor of human freedom’ (Gray 2012:138), everything can be seen as a commodity. That includes putting prices on intangible things like heritage, culture and, of course, language. As the OED defines a commodity as ‘a thing of use or advantage to mankind’ (OED, 2012), language surely fits the term. However, treating languages as such can mean that ‘some languages come to be seen as worth more than others’ (Heller, 2002, cited by Gray, 2012). And just how is the cost of a language calculated anyway?

As in business, it seems to be a case of supply and demand. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu had the view that ‘language functions as a form of capital in the modern economy’ (1991, cited by Gray, 2012). Since English has such a high status as a language, it has a large capital and high demand, and so the prices to learn it reflect this. Just considering the area of English Language testing, it’s obviously a very lucrative business. IELTS (Anglo-Australian International English Language Testing System) had a set fee of £125 for its 2012 test, while the North American equivalent, TOEFL (Test of English for International Communication), had a varying fee, dependent on location, ranging from £100 – £160 (figures cited by Gray, 2012:156).  It is fair to say those prices are not exactly cheap. Consider then how expensive someone from a developing country such as Rwanda might find them, and with failing meaning re-paying to re-take, how much pressure they must feel to pass.

You might think that would result in not many being willing to sit them, yet there has been a huge rise in the amount of people taking tests: from 800,000 in 2008, to 1.4 million in 2010 – an increase of 75% (figures cited by Gray, 2012:155) Why? As Gray puts it, there is a ‘pressure to adopt English because of its global status’ (Gray, 2012:142).

However, don’t forget, these tests are enabling takers the ability to communicate in the most widely spoken language in the world, and with that, access to a huge range of potential careers and business opportunities, meaning much higher wages. So, while they are expensive, the tests basically act as an investment, a one-off payment in exchange for a revered commodity that creates a realm of possibility.
It is all about perspective: language learning can be seen as an invaluable, enriching enterprise; or it can be seen as a valuable enterprise for people to get rich. Or, perhaps, it can be viewed as both these things.

Either way, they should really put a ‘CAUTION’ label on the packaging.

LEWIS CARTER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity.

“commodity, n.”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/37205?redirectedFrom=commodity [ACCESSED: 28th January 2013]

Gray, J. (2012) ‘English the industry’. In: Hewings, A & Tagg, C (eds.) (2012) The Politics of English: Conflict, Competition and Co-existence. Milton Keynes: The Open University/Routledge.
Heller, M. (2002) ‘Globalization and the commodification of bilingualism on Canada’. In: Block, D. & Cameron, D. (eds.) Globalization and Language Teaching. London: Routledge.

LISA KIRBY considers whether we should be concerned by language death

Imagine a world where no matter what corner of the globe a person travels to, they would be able to communicate with the natives in a tongue that is familiar to both of them. No more raised voices, as if by shouting you will miraculously become legible. No more quickly checking through your phrase book to find the word that you need, only to have the person opposite looking at you with a blank expression.

As English is spoken in all corners of the world, perhaps it is inevitable that as more and more people choose to speak this global language, they will turn their backs on their native tongue in favour of this ‘superior’ language. After all, English is already the official lingua franca of commerce, air traffic control and science. In fact, it could be argued that any individual in the world who does not have a grasp of the English language is at a significant disadvantage if they want to make an impact in this era of globalisation.

The number of languages dying out around the world is increasing at a considerable pace. David Crystal (2000), estimates that this is happening at a rate of one language being lost at least once every two weeks. For him this is akin to an ecological disaster and something that should concern not just linguists but governments and world leaders too. He is not alone in despairing at the impact the loss of these languages is having on the world. During the 2008 conference held in Ostrava in the Czech Republic titled Globalisation and its impacts on localities, Miroslav Černý ‘discussed the importance of languages for preserving the identity and integrity of nations in multiethnic regions’ (Černý, 2010, 51).

In spite of all these concerns, I can’t help feeling that all this anxiety regarding language loss is more concerned with the language itself, rather than the people who speak it. If an individual chooses to speak in a language that is not the language of their birth, surely we should respect their choice? Whilst it may have been common practice to punish people for speaking their native language in lands where colonialisation took place in previous centuries, this is now a practice which is virtually unheard of (Černý, 2010).  The fact that a person either no longer speaks a particular language or chooses not to pass it on to their children is surely a choice taken because they no longer see the value in that language.

As Kenan Malik (2000) points out, the whole purpose of language is to enable communication. If a language is no longer spoken by enough people to render it viable, if its native speakers no longer see the value in keeping it alive, who are we to insist that they should continue to use it?

LISA KIRBY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Černý, M. (2010) Language Death versus Language Survival: A Global Perspective. In. Beyond Globalisation: Exploring the Limits of Globalisation in the Regional Context (conference proceedings), 51-56. Ostrava: University of Ostrava Czech Republic, 2010. retrieved 12.1.13 from: http://conference.osu.eu/globalization/publ/06-cerny.pdf

Crystal, D. (2000) Language Death. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Malik, K. 2000. Let them die in peace. Retrieved 12.1.13 from: http://www.kenanmalik.com/essays/die.html