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