‘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.



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

  1. Anna Johnson says:

    Hi Olivia,

    You have raised some interesting points regarding the continuing debate of language being learnt due to nature or nurture. I agree with the view that language is probably learnt in a combination of ways. Some basic language may be genetically pre-disposed in our brains, but also, environmental factors can assist and stimulate language acquisition.

    I agree with your point regarding Chomsky being influential in his theory of Universal Grammar, yet not enough solid evidence supports his claims. Chomsky’s Universal Grammar theory fascinates me; it strongly highlights grammar as the ‘“initial stage” of the language faculty, prior to any linguistic knowledge’ (Chomsky 1986: 4). This suggests that we are all born with some sort of grammar in our brains, so everybody will possess it universally. You rightly point out that it is impossible to obtain sufficient evidence in this field, as it requires examination into the human brain that many would refuse to take part in. You use Pinker as a reliable example for this, who supports this side of the argument and clearly indicates why there is not enough evidence to support this.

    Despite this, B.F. Skinner provides a strong argument towards the nurture side of the debate, showing how language can be learnt through imitation and environmental forces. He proposed that language is behaviour that is acquired through responses of other human behaviour and observing the language of others stimulates imitation, as Arnold & Yeomans (2005: 56) point out. From my own experience of learning to read as a child, this viewpoint seems rational, as I imitated the ways family members pronounced words and used this as a stimulus in reading myself.

    However, I agree with your overall viewpoint that both nature and nurture arguments play an equal role in language and one does not assist language acquisition more than the other. It is a combination of particular language abilities that are genetically inbuilt being reinforced and encouraged by the environment.

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

    Arnold, C. Yeomans, J. (2005) Psychology for Teaching Assistants. Great Britain: Cromwell Press Ltd.

  2. jochesh00 says:

    Yes, Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device” appears to be the COMParison Process. This system is simply based upon comparing words to each other and creating language. The COMP works in the cortex of brain, and works in higher primates tho not as well s ours as we heave 100K’s of cortical cell columns with their characteristic 6 layers.
    Using the COMP, it’s been possible to explain context.
    Here is a salient example.
    “I can do it.” The beans were in a can.” I had to hit the can” “He saw the can can in Paris.”
    4 different “cans’, 4 different meanings by context. Meaning is by context, NOT by grammar of verb/noun, etc. There are word clusters which are allowed, as we can see in any travel guide. “I want …” Where is…?, How much…? etc.This is language, and it’s not logical, but it’s consistent with comparison processing. There is NO absolute value to any word. No word is an island. NO word stands alone. Context determines meaning, and we read using context alone. Nouns/verbs, adjectives, etc. are not necessary for meaning. Word clusters are.

    That is the LAD, the COMP. It creates recognition and the rules are the same for any child or adult. Language is acquired by this simple process, which creates enormous complexity, which we call language.


    Herb Wiggins, MD., Ret., clinical neurosciences.

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