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.


4 thoughts on “MATTHEW HAMPTON asks ‘Is language innate? Let’s debate!’

  1. Danielle Curran says:

    The mystery behind the ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate may be solved sooner than you think. Recent technological advances in equipment that can measure the biological activity of babies brains, indicate, that in fact both Skinner and Chomsky have made valid points in each of their arguments. According to these new findings the brain is hardwired to Universal Grammar, but without nurture this ability is lost forever. Feral children rescued after the infant deadline required for human acquisition, can never be taught to use language to communicate effectively. Recent research by linguist Professor Patricia Kuhl (linguistic genius of babies) states; – “The modern tools of neuroscience show what’s going on in a babies mind is rocket science” (
    The development of the magnetoencephalography machine and experiments conducted with it also illustrate that if babies are communicated in a number of languages during the first eight months of life, then the hard wiring of their brain is sufficiently developed. This enables them to become multi-linguistic with a significant advantage over non-stimulate new-born’s. This evidence indicates that it is both nature and nurture that aids children to acquire language. In the light of this debate it seems that both Skinner and Chomsky have made drawn upon some vital information. However, in terms of their credibility it seems that one cannot be thoroughly explained without the other.

    Patricia Kuhl, International Conference on Bilingualism and Comparative Linguistics: The Linguistic Genius of Babies (Hong King: The Chinese University, 2012) < [accessed 28 February 2013]

  2. Paul Barron says:

    Skinner did not immediately respond to Chomsky’s criticism because after reading the first 6 pages of the initial +50 page review he considered Chomsky had clearly not understood his argument. Skiinner’s stance is represented in the title of his book: Verbal Behavior, grammar really isn’t an issue. Kenneth MacCorquodale, 1970, ripped Chomsky’s review apart, noting in particular that he was taking issue with a Stimulus-Response (S-R) psychology. Skinner’s focus is Operant Conditioning, which is a R-S psychology. A common view held within the field of behaviorism/Applied Behavior Analysis is that Chomsky didn’t even read the book and he certainly didn’t read the prerequisite book Science and Human Behavior (1953) by Skinner. When Skinner offered to debate the issue with Chomsky, a proposal presented by the BBC, Chomsky declined. Contrary to popular psychology Skinner fully appreciated the role of biology/nature in determining behavior, he was a Darwinian and Selectionist. To Darwin there were contingencies of survival for Skinner there was the parallel contingencies of reinforcement, having an evolutionary component! The only thing you can say about Chomsky is that he is in good company as much that is written about Skinner and his work is clearly wrong!

  3. sarah says:

    what empirical evidence is there that language is learned?

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