Think back to the last time you wanted to insult somebody. How would you have done this? It is most likely that you would have called them a name that is too obscene to post here, or comment on something they are wearing, their hairstyle, their general appearance or a personality trait. The point is that you probably would have insulted them using language.
We take language for granted. It is something we have been able to do from such a young age that it is difficult to remember what it was like before we could communicate with words. One of the largest debates in linguistics always has been, and probably always will be, focusses on how humans acquire language. It is a topic which has divided linguists, with one camp, the nature camp, believing that ‘linguistic knowledge is not acquired but innate’ (Ambridge & Lieven 2011:1) and the nurture camp believing that humans learn language from their environment just like we learn to walk, swim or play a musical instrument.
The nature side of the debate is heavily supported by Noam Chomsky who suggests that ‘language seems best to be understood as a cognitive system’ (1991:17). It poses that humans learn language because they are born with an innate knowledge that is hardwired into the brain and is ‘a natural object, a component of the human mind, physically represented in the brain and part of the biological endowment of the species’, as Chomsky (2003:1) explains. Guasti in Foster-Cohen states that it is inevitable that humans will learn language because it is ‘part and parcel of our nature’ (2009:87) meaning that they will be able to learn language no matter what their environment.
Chomsky is a hugely influential linguist, particularly in this area of first language acquisition but none of his work is actually backed up with any real, solid evidence. This is clear when looking at his theory of ‘Universal Grammar’ which he describes as follows:
‘One may think of this faculty as a ‘language acquisition device,’ an innate component of the human mind that yields a particular language through interaction with present experience, a device that converts experience into a system of knowledge attained: knowledge of one or another language’ (Chomsky 1986:3).
Similarly Pinker, like Chomsky, believes that language is hard wired into our brains and is ‘a distinct piece of the biological make up of our minds’ (1994:4), though he qualifies this by stating there is not enough evidence and questions ‘what kind of evidence could show that there are genes that build parts of brains that control grammar?’ (1994:299). The only research that can be drawn upon in this area is done when some sort of trauma or brain damage has occurred resulting in language loss and as Pinker rightly points out ‘most people do not want their brains impaled by electrodes, injected with chemicals, rearranged by surgery or removed for slicing and staining’ (1994:299).
There will always be some controversy surrounding the nature/nurture debate and linguists will most likely never reach a conclusion that they can all agree on because of the lack of evidence. But I personally think that humans learn language in a combination of ways. Perhaps we have some sort of innate ability but it is stimulated and enforced through our environment. I may be criticised for saying this as it could be seen as the ‘easy’ way out but maybe that is because it is the most sensible conclusion.
OLIVIA ALLEN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK