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.


2 thoughts on “LOUISE WILLIS questions the nativist approach to language acquisition

  1. Laura Heslop says:

    Although, overall, I find myself leaning towards a more nativist approach to language acquisition, I thought Sampson’s rebuttals of Chomsky’s arguments which lie at the core of nativism were really well made and thought-provoking. Sampson’s refutation of Chomsky’s Speed of Acquisition argument was, in my opinion, a really good example of how many of the claims of nativism are often taken for granted; it is easy to look at the speed at which a child acquires language and be amazed at how young the child is by the time language has been acquired to a sufficient standard, however, Sampson points out that without a basis for comparison it is impossible to determine what we should consider as ‘fast’ or ‘quick’.

    I agree that it is unlikely that one theory of language acquisition could ever entirely explain what is arguably the greatest and most useful accomplishment of a person’s life. To assume that something as complex as language acquisition can eventually be understood in terms of either one theory or another, to me, seems unhelpful to achieving goal of one day understanding how such a complicated system of acquisition takes place.

  2. Clare Louise Smith says:

    In addition to the ‘speed of acquisition’ argument, a study conducted by Lieven, Pine and Baldwin (1997) have found that if a slot-and-frame pattern is attributed to the child, the results can account for 60% of children’s utterances, thus providing evidence against Chomsky’s innateness argument through speed of acquisition (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011).

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