‘It’s probably a bit of both!’ OLIVIA ALLEN keeps to the centre ground in the language acquisition nature/nurture debate

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


Ambridge, B. & Lieven, E.V.M. (2011) Child language Acquisition: Contrasting Theoretical Approaches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chomsky, N (1986) Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin and Use. Westport: Praeger. 

Chomsky, N (1991) Linguistics and Adjacent Fields: A Personal View. In A. Kasher (ed.) (1992) The Chomskyan Turn. Oxford: Cambridge University Press.

Chomsky, N (2003) On Nature and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Guasti, M (2009) Universal Grammar Approaches to Language Acquisition. In Foster-Cohen, S (ed) (2009). Language Acquisition. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. Chapter four.

Pinker, S (1994) The Language Instinct. St Ives: Penguin Press.



MATTHEW HAWKSWORTH considers the pros and the cons of the nature / nurture language acquisition debate

The process by which we acquire language is a highly debated topic within academia. Linguists such as Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, B.F. Skinner and Halliday have provided  theories and opinions on this subject. These theories fall into two schools of thought. The nature approach proposes that language acquisition is achieved with the help of an innate grammar and syntax which is present at birth. At the forefront of this approach is Chomsky who provides, what I believe, are some of the most compelling ideas in this debate.

Chomsky, as cited in Sampson (2005: 140), refers to language acquisition as something natural, more specifically innate in us all. He explains that first language acquisition is something that ‘must be determined, in most respects, by a genetic program, so that the development of language in an individual’s mind is akin to the growth of a bodily organ’. One of his most convincing claims, as found in (Pinker 1994) is that ‘virtually every sentence that a person utters or understands is a brand new combination of words, appearing for the first time in the history of the Universe’. The implication of this statement is that every utterance a child produces is not simply a repetition of something they have already heard but a creation, a novel utterance, made with the aid of a Universal Grammar and an innate knowledge of syntax. The idea that we possess a sort of Generative Grammar to produce these utterances, as referred to in Ambridge and Lieven (2011:104), is contested by Tomasello. He claims that instead of possessing an innate system, from which we understand and utilise grammar, we learn it through input. This is achieved through a child’s recognition of a correlation between meaning and a pattern within language, and through this they can then learn the constructions of grammar.

Another compelling idea provided by Chomsky relies on the fast rate of first language acquisition children achieve. He suggests that the speed with which a child acquires a complete and proper language could not be facilitated by a child’s exposure to what Chomsky describes as ‘poor data’, usually ‘motherese’. However Sampson (2005) pointed out that without a measurable rate of acquisition this theory cannot be used to prove or disprove this idea.

Within the nurture debate I believe the most important approach is the constructivist approach. Ambridge and Lieven (2011) explain that the constructivist approach believes a child’s language acquisition is something ‘functional and usage based’, being ‘driven by their desire to use language for communicative function’. This approach claims that children utilise their learning ability to acquire language, innate knowledge plays no part in the process. One conceivable idea provided by this approach is the idea of ‘frozen phrases’. Frozen phrases work on a slot and frame basis where a child pairs utterances with their functions. They interchange these utterances based on the context.

Although almost every argument made in favour of a Nature or Nurture approach to language acquisition can be counteracted by an argument from the opposing side. I personally believe there must be an element of language which is innate inside us all. The fact we can produce novel utterances and understand language we have yet to be exposed to, and to achieve all of this in such a small period of time, as we do as children, suggests to me that our minds are somehow engineered to innately accommodate this fantastic gift with which we communicate with. However, as stated by (Cattell, 2007) ‘it’s impossible to demonstrate physically what’s going on inside a child’s brain’.

MATTHEW HAWKSWORTH, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Ambridge, B. & Lieven, V.M. (2011) Child Language Acquisition: Contrasting Theoretical Approaches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cattell, R. (2007) Children’s Language: Consensus and Controversy. 2nd edition. London & New York: Routledge.

Pinker, S. (1994) The Language Instinct. London: Penguin

Sampson, G. (2005) The Language Instinct Debate. 2nd edition. London & New York: Continuum.


‘Are humans no different from spiders as regards acquiring language?’ CLARE SMITH explores the nature / nurture divide

According to Pinker (2003: 18): “[P]eople know how to talk in more or less  the sense that spiders know how to spin webs). This famous, thought-provoking quote forms the basis of the fascinating age old debate surrounding child language acquisition and poses the million-dollar question, nature or nurture?

Pinker is said to be under the umbrella of ‘nature’ with his innatist views that children are born with a predisposed knowledge of language, and believes that “language is a complex, specialised skill, which develops in the child spontaneously without conscious effort or minimal instruction” (Pinker, 2003:18). Sampson (2005:140) claims Pinker’s view is the equivalent of suggesting that “the development of language in an individual’s mind is akin to the growth of a bodily organ”. Pinker’s innatist view, which he refers to as the ‘language instinct’, supports the generative approach of Chomsky with his idea of Universal Grammar whereby he believes that “speakers must possess a system or set rules that is generative, a generative grammar” (Chomsky, 1959). Chomsky’s Universal Grammar approach can be explained as a set of complex syntactical rules, in which Pinker (1994) states we are “innately equipped”, but also with the ‘flicking of switches’ whereby every human has various ‘switches’ in their brains and depending on which language you learn, the ‘switches’ are flicked on or off so that you do not acquire rules that are non-existent in your language.

To support Chomsky’s Universal Grammar approach, he relates this to the ‘speed of acquisition’ which focuses on the ‘impressive speed’ by which children acquire language, deeming it ‘impossible’ without an innate ability, as discussed by Sampson (2005:30). The underlying idea running through these analogies is that language acquisition is not something we are taught and that we utilise language because our brains are human brains.

However, can these innatist and generativist arguments stand up?

Most arguments thus far can be refuted by the nurture approach to language acquisition. Ambridge and Lieven (2011) discuss the claims that children learn a set of constructions rather than generative grammar, and that language learning is ‘a part of a child’s mental development’. Tomasello, amongst other constructivists, assume a construction grammar approach rather than Universal Grammar, by which word order can be learned on the basis of input. For example, the English subject-verb-object word order can be paired with a particular meaning, and when the child is able to notice the correlation between meaning and pattern, they learn the construction (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011).

With regards to Chomsky’s ‘rate of acquisition’, Sampson (2005) states that ‘the observed rate of acquisition does nothing to support either theory, and there have been no studies precise enough to yield concrete figures for a predicted rate of acquisition’, thus taking away support for the idea of Universal Grammar.  Furthermore, using Pinker’s spider metaphor, the language instinct argument cannot stand as humans are not spiders, and in the case of children who have been deprived of linguistic input, they are still able to do innate things such as breathing, swallowing, and usually walking.

So, can we conclude this debate? With all the contrasting theories to language acquisition, I find it difficult to completely side with one over the other, although logically speaking, it is probably a bit of both. As Cattell (2007) says, ‘it is impossible to demonstrate physically what is going on inside a child’s brain’, therefore we may never know.

CLARE SMITH, English Undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Ambridge, B. & Lieven, V.M. (2011) Child Language Acquisition: Contrasting Theoretical Approaches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cattell, R. (2007) Children’s Language: Consensus and Controversy. 2nd edition. London & New York: Routledge.

Pinker, S. (2003) The Language Instinct. London: Penguin.

Sampson, G. (2005) The Language Instinct Debate. 2nd edition.  London & New York: Continuum. 

Is language acquisition down to nature, nurture, or a bit of both? CLAIRE GILDER investigates

The debate into how children acquire language is nearly as old as language itself. Academic debate falls largely into three camps regarding child language acquisition: behaviourists; mentalists; and functionalists.

Behaviourism concerns itself with the notion that the ability to use language is no more remarkable than any other human behaviour such as walking, swimming or riding a bike. Children are taught language by imitating adults and repetition. Their behaviour is then reinforced with negative or positive feedback from the caregiver. The key thinker in the behaviourist camp is psychologist B.F Skinner who in his 1957 book Verbal Behaviour, discusses his findings on experiments conducted into learned behaviour in which he used laboratory animals such as rats and pigeons.

Conversely the mentalist perspective, spearheaded by linguist Noam Chomsky, argues that ‘linguistic knowledge is not acquired, but innate’ (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011: 1). The ability to learn language is hard wired into the human brain. Chomsky believes that every human has a distinct place in their brain entirely devoted to the ordering and understanding of complex grammar such as word order or morphology. However, unlike Skinner, Chomsky is an ‘armchair linguist’. According to Nunan (2007: 150), Chomsky ‘sees no need to venture forth and study children as they go through the process of actually acquiring language’. The fact that Chomsky himself never attempted any empirical research into language acquisition to prove his theory, has not, for his likeminded linguistic scholars, detracted from the veracity of his work.

The functionalist contribution to language acquisition concentrates not so much on how language is acquired, but more so why it is. The Hallidayan approach argues that children learn language ‘in order to fulfil particular needs such as hunger, emotion or the need to affiliate with other members of the human race’ (Nunan: 2007: 155). The basis of Halliday’s conclusions arise mostly from the longitudinal study of his son Nigel (Halliday: 1978) whose language he observed from birth until puberty.  Although Halliday’s accounts are largely anecdotal and exclusive to one child, they have nonetheless been extrapolated onto children as a whole by other linguists.

When my own children were going through the process of language learning I often marvelled at their ability to create unique, grammatically correct utterances seemingly without, to my knowledge, ever hearing them before (in the case of my two and a half year old son, ‘mummy’s tummy is getting very fat’ when he first noticed I was pregnant with my second child). Is this evidence of Chomskian innateness? Any parent will tell you that they spend most of their time in the early years telling their children how wonderfully clever they are when they produce even the slightest noise, or correcting linguistic mistakes when they slip up (maybe not to the same Dickensian standards Skinner used on this lab animals!). Even so, does this behaviour by parents support Skinner’s positive/ negative reinforcement theory? Do children indeed respond to praise and (mild) castigation as a way of battling their way through the acquisition minefield?  In my experience, children will always be vocal if they want something badly enough, whether that is food, drink or just a chat about what is going on around them. The Hallidayan approach to why children acquire language makes perfect sense to me. However in terms of how it is acquired, I find it difficult to explicitly side with either the mentalist or the behaviourist approaches. Personally, I think it’s probably a bit of both.

CLAIRE GILDER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Ambridge, B. & Lieven, E.V.M. (2011) Child language Acquisition: Contrasting Theoretical Approaches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1978) Language as a Social Semiotic: The Social Interpretation of Language and Meaning. London: Arnold.

Nunan, D. (2007) What is This Thing Called Language? Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Skinner, B. (1957) Verbal Behaviour. New York: Appleton Crofts.

‘Is English a Commodity in Rwanda?’ asks ROB COLEMAN

Many things are bought and sold as commodities – tea, coffee, oil, gold, but how about the prospect of a better future? That’s what is being sold to individuals who are getting English qualifications through ETS, using the TOEFL test – ‘the most widely respected English-language test in the world.’ Despite it never being said explicitly, it is heavily implied through phrases such as ‘go anywhere!’ and ‘your passport to study abroad’ that students can expect more opportunities once they’ve completed the course.

Pierre Bourdieu, in 1991, claimed that ‘language functions as a form of capital in the modern economy’ and he was almost definitely correct in saying this as, according to Gray in 2012, this ‘global service industry’ has expanded rapidly since the 1970s. Whenever political and economic change occurs in a country that isn’t already English-speaking, or doesn’t yet have an infrastructure in place to teach English, a company such as the British Council or ETS are likely to be setting up shop, attempting to generate profits by selling English as a qualification. The British Council are a registered charity in England and Wales that offer a qualification, IELTS, that is very similar to TOEFL, for a very similar price (£130 for IELTS, from $150 for TOEFL in Rwanda).

After the genocide in Rwanda, President Kagame, and other government officials, wanted to separate themselves from France as much as possible (due to their role in the genocide), so the language of education was changed from French to English, thus furthering the political distance between Rwanda and France, whilst improving relations with Britain – Rwanda going on to join the Commonwealth in 2009. The change also made sense, as Gray (2012) pointed out, in terms of career prospects for the Rwandan people because if a person can speak English, they can potentially earn a lot more money for doing the same job. For example, a receptionist that can’t speak English would earn $110 per calendar month in Rwanda; however, someone that could speak English, doing the same job, would earn $310 per calendar month, almost three times as much.

In theory at least then, this was a good trade out. However, Williams (2011) found that, in 2004, less than 1% of 251 year 6 students could read adequately for their studies at primary level. This suggests that despite the theory, the actual teaching of English to Rwandan teachers is inadequate, especially for them to be able to pass their skills onto the children that they’re teaching. The teachers in Rwanda are taught English on courses, one of which is offered by the British Council. The cost of an IELTS or a TOEFL test is exorbitant for someone living on a Rwandan wage, so to charge these prices for a terrible standard of English is immoral, especially from a company registered as a charity.

Personally, I feel as though English is now a commodity. It is a skill and skills are taught every day for money – think cookery classes, university lectures, sports coaching, etc. However, like any other skill that is taught, it should be available at a very high standard of teaching, especially if the student is being charged a fee to take the course, the test or both.

ROB COLEMAN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. (trans. G. Raymond and M. Adamson; ed. J.B. Thompson), Cambridge: Polity.

Gray, J (2012), English the Industry. In A. Hewings & C. Tagg (eds.) (2012) The Politics of English: Conflict, Competition, Co-existence. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 137-62.

Williams, E. (2011), Language policy, politics and development in Africa (paper 3). In H. Coleman (ed.) (2011) Drums and Realities: Developing Countries and the English Language. London: British Council, Teaching English Series, pp. 2-18.

JACK THIRLBY asks: ‘Is English a tool of great prosperity or a lucrative commodity?’

Approximately 375 million people in the world speak English as their first language (Curtis: 2006: 192). As speakers of English, what rights do we actually have over this globally shared resource? Surely it should be the case that no one speaker has any more or less ownership of a language than any other speaker. However, vast amounts of money are being made from the commercial sale of English on a daily basis.

Gray (2012: 137) introduces the ‘concept of English as a commodity – a term which is normally applied to products that can be bought and sold in the marketplace’. This can be seen as a kind of ‘neoliberalism’, which is based on ‘the belief that an unfettered market economy is the best guarantor of human freedom’ (Gray, 2012: 138). Harvey (2005: 166) explains this as ‘putting a price on things that were never actually produced as commodities’, for example culture, history, heritage and in this case, language. So within this capitalist society, language and language learning are also being viewed in largely economic terms. Heller (2002 cited in Gray, 2012: 13) suggests that because of this, ‘some languages come to be seen as worth more than others’.

Gray (2012) identifies three key areas in which English is operating as a commodity: Commercial English Language Teaching (ELT), English Language Testing and Academic Publishing. Commercial ELT is spread globally via teaching programs and various companies offering educational services. The British Council, a government funded registered charity, also plays a key role in this by offering ‘help’ to struggling countries. English was implemented into Rwanda as the official language of education with the help of the British Council. Many Rwandans welcomed this because of the prestige status of English and the belief that speaking English would lead to better employment opportunities for their children (Gray, 2012: 146). This was heavily criticised as many children failed to grasp teaching in English and teachers did not have adequate English skills to deliver it well. Interestingly, Gray cites the annual turnover of the British Council as £705 million for 2009-10 (2012: 141), which raises questions of the motivations behind these large organisations.

English is marketed globally as being able to offer better job prospects and therefore the chance of earning a better wage. This is evident when looking at the English Language Tests available today. Tests such as the Anglo-Australian International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) often come with high price tags (between $160-£250), which place them firmly out of the reach of many test takers. Despite the high prices, Gray cites figures from the British Council report, which states that over 1.4 million people took the IELTS alone in 2010; an increase from the previous year (2012: 155). This is obviously a very lucrative section of the market.

Perhaps given the role of economic power in maintaining a dominant language (Crystal, 2003), it is not surprising that English itself has become the ultimate commodity. But is English a powerful tool offering great prospects and opportunity to everybody who speaks it? Or is it a highly marketable industry presenting a lot of potential to make money? The answer to these questions is largely dependent on who is answering them, but it would be fair to conclude that it is a combination of both!

 JACK THIRLBY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Crystal, D. (2003) English as a Global Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Curtis, A. (2006) Color, Race, And English Language Teaching: Shades of Meaning, Oxon: Routledge.

Gray, J (2012), English the Industry. In A. Hewings & C. Tagg (eds.) (2012) The Politics of English: Conflict, Competition, Co-existence. Abingdon: Routledge.

Harvey, D. (2005) A brief history of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

KATHRYN HOLDEN asks: ‘Is it right to promote English as a global product?’

In the current phase of globalisation, according to Gray (in Hewings and Tagg 2012: 138-139), languages which provide their speakers with a competitive edge are promoted in terms of the opportunities that they can bring.

The British Council is one of the main bodies in control of the promotion and distribution of the English Language globally. Gray states that it ‘is government funded’, is a ‘registered charity’ and ‘functions as a business’, its key remit being ‘to promote English Language globally’ often as a form of ‘‘help’ or as a response to a request for ‘help’’ (Hewings and Tagg 2012: 141-142).

Rwanda is a good case study for the pressure for underdeveloped countries to adopt English because of its global status and the role of the ‘help’ provided by institutions such as the British Council.

English replaced French as the medium of education in 2008 after much unrest in the country which would prove problematic as with English having no colonial roots, the majority of teachers and students had little knowledge of it.

So why are the British Council so successful in their remit?

  • Much worldwide trade and Commerce is taking place in English.
  • English = Education. Families want their children to learn English from an early age. English is seen as ‘strong’ and ‘the first step towards a […] white-collar job’ (Williams in Hewings and Tagg 2012: 165).
  • Unifying – in many African countries which have multiple languages, English is deployed as a national language with a one language one nation mentality (Hewings and Tagg 2012: 166).

In Rwanda, the majority of children start school using a foreign language. Children who do not understand teacher and textbook ‘fail to achieve command of English adequate for academic purposes’ (Williams in Hewings and Tagg 2012: 164).

Williams tested 251 year 6 students on their English skills and only two of the 251 (0.77 per cent) ‘could read adequately for their studies’ (Hewings and Tagg 2012: 164). However, Williams found that when a local language is used, students display substantial aptitude. The same 251 students were tested in KinyaRwanda and over 90 per cent of the students ‘could read independently’ (Hewings and Tagg 2012: 165).

There are fears that the ‘English equals education’ sentiment is causing a great ‘under-estimation of African languages’ and is creating a negative impact ‘on national self-esteem’ (Williams in Hewings and Tagg 2012: 168).

Pennycook (1998: 129) uses the idea of ‘self’ and ‘other’ to exemplify this. The colonizer language, culture and political structure are seen as all things positive and the other language is seen as everything otherwise.

Williams suggests that in fact English is not unifying and is acting as a divide. There are those from reasonably well off groups who have good access to it and those poorer communities who do not. This obviously has caused elite groups to form (Hewings and Tagg 2012: 166).

Educationalists have argued over the past hundred years that educating children in a familiar language is key to development and Williams argues that development in these countries is always going to be stunted while current practises are taking place with suggestions that African countries would be much better off with a national language ‘closely related to those spoken by all the learners’ (Hewings and Tagg 2012: 170).

So therefore, I question the British Council’s claim that it provides ‘help’ to countries such as Rwanda and yet ignore the experts who give this advice. Surely the best way to help these countries would be by doing what is best for their language, their development and their future, not trying to make money from families wanting to further their children.

KATHRYN HOLDEN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Gray, J. (2012) English the Industry. In A, Hewings & C, Tagg The Politics of English: Conflict, Competition, Co-existence. Abingdon: Routledge.

Pennycook, A. (1998) English and The Discourses of Colonialism. Oxon: Routledge.