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.



One thought on “IAN BAIN considers the plausibility of innateness theories of language acquisition

  1. Katherine Nicholls says:

    Whilst there may be two leading language acquisition theories, this shouldn’t cancel out the ideas of other s such as the ‘Social Interactionist Theory’ (SIT) and the ‘Cognitive Theory’ when they pose suggestions not answered by the Nature/Nurture debate when we only take into account Chomsky and Skinner.
    It cannot be denied that Chomsky has done much research into this area but many of his supporting points are general observations of language acquisition rather than contributory evidence. Children learning language quickly is neither here nor there when it comes to aiding Nativism. That said it also doesn’t support Behaviourism. Age of acquisitional ease is also irrelevant for second languages but Lennerburg’s study and feral children provides evidence that youth is key for acquisition. This not only supports Nativism but also the SIT by Brunner.
    He also suggested that is innate however coins the term Language Acquisition Support System (LASS). This system not only covers ideas relating to grammar such as the SVO word order but also the importance of Parentese and links Semantics and Lexical Development; the idea of understanding.
    Piaget’s Cognitive study also runs on the principle that true acquisition not only involves knowing a word but also knowing its meaning. On the other hand this is mainly in relation to Seriation and Object Permanence rather than specific word definitions.
    Virtuous Errors show how, whilst highlighting the significance of environmental input, Skinner has been updated, not only by Chomsky but also Brunner. These word formations cannot be learnt through mimicking adults and so show children using their LAD or LASS by applying grammatical rules to irregular words. This demonstrates that whilst Chomsky’s ideas can be applied to acquisition, he isn’t the only researcher to have original ideas and so perhaps it is time others were given the floor.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s