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.    


One thought on “AMY COX takes a balanced approach to the ‘language instinct’ debate

  1. Laura Webb says:

    As stated, the debate surrounding the differing opinions of the constructivists and the nativists is one which is regularly contested; their paths only crossing to dispute arguments. However, your questions of ‘is either theory the ‘right’ one? Or could language acquisition be explained using a mixture of elements from both theories?’ gives us food for thought.

    Intensive research has proven that the framework of the human vocal tract is unique, allowing us the ability to modify and produce distinctive sounds used for communication. Does this anatomic composition demonstrate a natural innate ability for the acquisition of language within humans? In contrast to this however, we could take the case studies in which children have been exposed to debilitated language thus resulting in a deficiency in language acquisition; for example, the case of the feral child, Genie. Surely this demonstrates the need for children to be surrounded and nurtured with adequate language to absorb and interact with when acquiring language.

    Referring back to the question posed; I think that combining both sides of the debate could aid clarity surrounding the discussion. It can be stated that language acquisition develops despite a lack of specific instruction for children to put their vocal tract to use or the correction of their error. However, we cannot ignore the notion that language is viewed as verbal behaviour. It is believed that behaviour is learnt through imitation, reinforcement and structure; influenced by our environment and surroundings.

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