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.


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

  1. Georgie says:

    I am in complete agreement with your conclusion that the functionalist approach to language acquisition is most applicable in terms of why children learn language, and the reasons behind how is probably a mix of both Chomsky’s and Skinner’s theories. My view on how language is acquired is that there probably is an innate function within the brain that aids language acquisition; conversely, without the environment’s influence, the innate aspect would be lost. However, as Pinker highlights in The Language instinct (1994), most people do not want their brains probed whilst active, in turn meaning the evidence to back up this innate element within the brain is scarce.

    The insight given into your experiences with your own children aided a reflection upon my own experiences with young children through both family and work. Your view that children are vocal if they want something badly enough are well mirrored in my own knowledge. Additionally, I have found that children, no matter how much effort you put into working with them, will not produce anything until they are ready, no sooner or later. This runs parallel to Tomasello’s stage theory (2003) which corresponds to a child’s mental development and states that when child is mentally ready, they are able to develop through the stages of language acquisition. Consequently, I believe that the ability to learn language in innate rather than language itself being innate.

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

    Tomasello, M. & Haberl, K. (2003) Understanding attention: 12 and 18 month olds know what is new for other persons. Developmental Psychology, 39 (5): 906-12.

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