LORNA CRAVEN outlines a functionalist approach to child language acquisition

Understanding how children learn and use language is still a hot topic in the field of linguistics. It is also still a topic without a definite answer. While this is the case, it does not mean that there has been little research into answering this age old question –  quite the opposite in fact. I will be looking at how functionalists approach this question and look at one of the main theorists behind the approach: Michael Tomasello.

So what is functionalism? Ambridge and Lieven state that “[f]unctionalists assume that children do not have any innate knowledge of grammar […] it assumes that children are not born with grammatical categories such as verb and noun but must acquire them by generalising across the adult speech that they hear, therefore most functionalist approaches are input based” (2011: 2). This approach therefore goes against anything put forward by Chomsky (language being pre-wired in the brain) and instead focuses on the social constructions and experiences children go through while growing up.

Michael Tomasello is one of the main theorists behind the social constructivist approach and argues that “[c]hildren acquire language first and foremost by understanding how others use language” (Tomasello 2009:86). It comes as no surprise then that he puts forward a usage based approach to language acquisition which states that children come to acquiring language at around the age of one equipped with two sets of cognitive and social skills. This enables children to pattern their utterances into the structure of language. The two skills are ‘intention reading’ and pattern finding. Intention reading skills enable children to acquire the appropriate use of communicative symbols which eventually leads to the use of more complex linguistic expressions and constructions. Pattern findings are necessary for children to find patterns in the way adults use linguistic symbols in utterances to construct the grammar of language.

As well has having opposing views to the nativists, functionalists also go about researching this topic differently. Observational studies are used so linguists can actually see what is happening with child speech. It comes down to cause and effect. These studies are all well and good, but how do you carry them out on children who are not yet old enough to speak themselves? To answer this Gertner, Fisher and Eisengart (2006) carried out a preferential looking task on children aged 21-25 months of age to determine whether or not they had the ability to recognise syntactic roles of different characters from a given sentence. Children would look at a screen, and whichever one they looked at for the longest determined their answer. There are major flaws with preferential looking tasks. It is not possible to know for sure whether or not children actually know the correct answer, or whether they just look at a screen longer because they like the picture more. Again, this shows just how complex the question of child language acquisition actually is.

The main focus of the functionalist approach is to look at how social constructions and experience with language shape how our language develops. Observational studies are key when looking for answers but just how early can these studies be carried when we want reliable results? The question is still ongoing, and I think it will be for some time to come.

 LORNA CRAVEN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Ambridge, B. & Lieven, E (2011) Child Language Acquisition; Contrasting Theoretical Approaches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gertner, Y. Fisher, C. & Eisengart, J. (2006). Learning words and rules: abstract knowledge of word order in early sentence comprehension. Psychology Science, 17 (8), 684-691.

Tomasello, M. (2009) Constructing a Language: A Usage Based Theory of Acquisition.  Harvard: Harvard University Press.


AMY KERFOOT discusses to what extent language learning is innate

The question of whether humans possess some kind of innate language instinct has been debated for decades and yet the question still remains, how do we acquire language? Do we learn through experience or is it innate?

The nativist believes that the ability to use language is innate in the human brain before birth, and therefore it cannot be taught. Noam Chomsky (2003: 93),  argued that ‘language is a biological system’ in which your brain grows with exposure to language as a part of our human nature. He claimed that ‘every speaker implicitly masters a very detailed and precise system of formal procedures to assemble and interpret linguistic expressions’ (2003: 5).  In other words, language comes so quickly and effortlessly to children that we must have an innate knowledge of structure before birth. He also believed that a child’s exposure to language is rather limited and qualitatively poor as parents often make slip ups of the tongue. His point is that we do not need the guidance of our elders as everything we need to learn is hard wired into our brains, given to us through universal grammar. Because of this, no other species of animal can use or comprehend language in the same way as humans, as the human brain has been specifically designed to communicate the way that we do.

On the contrary, the empiricist is concerned with experience and evidence rather than reason. They believe that people are born as a blank slate which develops with experience and education. Geoffrey Sampson (2005: 27-69) is an influential thinker in the area of empiricism and he outlines the problems with Chomsky’s work in his book The Language Instinct Debate. Firstly, he argues that Chomsky has no empirical evidence for his claims, therefore they are instantly meaningless. He also argues that the length of time taken for a child to learn their first language is hardly quick. It takes approximately four years for a child to be able to string a grammatical sentence together and usually a lot longer to learn the complexity of the English language. Sampson points out that there are other things a child can learn a lot faster than a language, for example learning to ride a bike or learning to skip; however, this does not mean that it is innate. He uses a similar argument when he states that ‘[t]he set of utterances encountered by a child in the language learning years can hardly be called ‘small’ in any absolute sense’ (2005: 44). Children are always surrounded by language, no matter where they may be.

Sampson ends his argument to Chomsky’s ‘species specific’ assertion by reminding us of the scientific tests which have been carried out since the 1950s, proving that animals such as chimpanzees have been able to communicate with humans through sign language. This proves that other species are able to comprehend the human language, suggesting that the humans are not unique in this respect.

Personally, I believe that experience is essential for learning. We need interaction and education in order to develop. I am afraid that there is just not enough evidence for me to believe the nativist theory.

AMY KERFOOT, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Chomsky, N (2003) On Nature and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sampson, G. (2005) The Language Instinct Debate. London: Continuum.

RACHEL PENKMAN outlines the differences between empiricist and nativist views on language acquisition

The debate as to how children acquire language is quite a hot topic. Empiricists dispute the nativist/‘Chomskyan’ claims that we have innate linguistic knowledge hardwired in the brain on the premise that there is no empirical evidence and reason alone cannot justify this (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011: 1). For the empiricist, knowledge is the product of experience and children are born with ‘general learning capacities’ which are sufficient to allow them ‘to learn the language of the community, including syntax’ (Stemmer 1987: 97). Exposure to environmental stimuli such as social interactions, observations and schooling provide vital experience, stimulating intellectual development (Tahriri 2013: 677).

The foundations of the empirical approach to language acquisition can be separated into three areas. Firstly there is evolution, as most learning capacities within species are developed gradually, which must also be true for language. Secondly there are methodological implications. Experience within the child’s environment has been shown to be an evident factor which influences language acquisition. Finally, linking to the previous point there are major problems with accepting the idea of a biological instinct. It is difficult to prove that children possess innate linguistic knowledge of language as there is no evidence (Stemmer 1987: 97-98).

Geoffrey Sampson is perhaps the front runner in the empiricist vs nativist battle. In his 2005 book The Language Instinct Debate, Sampson compiled Chomsky’s arguments for why children have innate linguistic knowledge into several sections, providing a somewhat long-winded response as to why each point is invalid. In particular, Chomsky’s argument for poverty of data (discussed over a lengthy nine pages) with regards to the poor quality of utterances children are exposed to within their environment is dismissed by Sampson, on the basis that all exposure of language is a valuable experience. Motherese in particular, regardless of its grammaticality, is significant as it provides the child with language lessons which ‘cannot be called small in any absolute sense’ (Sampson 2005: 44). However as proposed by Wagner (2005: 283) there is no definite guarantee that the child will make appropriate use of data regardless of its quality as the empiricist seems to propose.

When I first read Sampson’s book, my mind was boggled. After sifting through such a detailed critique of Chomsky’s arguments, it seems that Sampson contradicts himself as he fails to provide sufficient empirical based evidence to account for his position. Perhaps this is because he is too preoccupied with insulting Chomsky. However it is clear that Sampson does not want people to reject alternative approaches in favour of nativism for two reasons: firstly because it is nice to visualise children as being ‘brainboxes’; and secondly, because nativists construct new terminologies when children show advancements in language e.g. Universal Grammar. It is almost easier to explain language acquisition using innate reasoning alone in comparison to the challenging demand of finding empirical evidence (Stemmer 1987: 97). Scientific evidence could both prove or disprove innate theory, however currently we cannot demonstrate what happens inside the brain of a child (Cattell, 2007).

The empiricist approach to some extent is nativist in assuming that children are born with the capacity to learn language, but there is no innate knowledge of grammar and word order. I think that the language acquisition debate can be analogously compared to a lion’s instinct to hunt. Are cubs born with an innate knowledge of hunting strategies or do they learn through experience? I think it is a bit of both, largely like the current debate.

RACHEL PENKMAN, English Language Undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Ambridge, B. & Lieven, E.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.

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

Stemmer, N. (1987) The Learning of Syntax: An Empiricist Approach. First Language, 7, pp. 97-120.

Tahriri, A. (2013) Revisiting First Language Acquisition through Empirical and Rational Perspectives. International Journal of Social Science & Education, 3(3), pp.677-682.

Wagner, L. (2005) Defending Nativism in Language Acquisition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5(7), pp.283-284.