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.



One thought on “MATTHEW HAWKSWORTH considers the pros and the cons of the nature / nurture language acquisition debate

  1. Eleanor Rose Webster says:

    Many of the points you have made prove that there are strong arguments on both sides of the nature/nurture language acquisition debate.

    As you mentioned, Chomsky has taken into consideration the data children are exposed to. If children copied language from adults around them, then why do some use incorrect plural forms and suffixes? This would support the innatist view that children have in-built syntax structures as opposed to learning language by copying adults through behaviourism.

    Associated with this is the rate at which children acquire language. If language acquisition is independent of intelligence, then why do rates of learning differ so greatly? Obviously education and environment play a huge role in the success of a child’s language acquisition, but if language is innate then surely the majority of children would be at a very similar level, which is not true.

    The point that you have made regarding Sampson (2005) could be true – to an extent – when applied to my response and language acquisition overall. What constitutes a ‘normal’, measurable rate and level of language acquisition, and is there really a ‘one-fits-all’ theory? As we have seen in the phonics debate for example, all children are different and so perhaps there is no correct answer and language acquisition is, as many have suggested, a combination of both.

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

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