‘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

References

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. 

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

  1. Megan Irvine says:

    Hi Clare,
    Thank you for this interesting, well written blog on such a complex topic! You present both sides of the debate in a structured and accessible way, providing good evidence and support throughout.
    I can see where Pinker is coming from with his proposed similarity between humans acquiring language and spiders spinning webs. To me it is at first useful as a way of understanding the nativist point of view in the simplest sense. I would suggest however that the way humans and spiders use their ‘capability’ are different, which is possibly what you are referring to when you say ‘humans are not spiders’. Most spiders spin webs as a way of gathering food, therefore a survival technique. Although language for humans has evolved to increase survival among us, humans also use language to express emotions, ask questions, make orders, perform actions and so on. It can also be said to be part of ones identity. The point that you make about children without language who still possess other innate abilities is useful here. Perhaps it is wiser to draw similarities between breathing and swallowing with spinning webs, rather than the ability to use language, which evidently is a very difficult phenomenon to explain. Of course though, this still leaves us with the problem, how do we acquire language?
    It seems that whatever claims are made in support of one side of the argument, there is always evidence which supports the other. Because of this I am in agreement with you; it seems most likely that both theories are at work. Simply, I would say that we are born with some innate knowledge, but it is necessary to be exposed to language to use and become fully competent in that language.

    Megan Irvine

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