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

References

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

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One thought on “AMY KERFOOT discusses to what extent language learning is innate

  1. Rosie Brown says:

    Hello Amy!

    Thanks for this article, I think you provide some interesting points showing two extreme views on the issue of acquiring language. I completely agree with your closing statement that this area still needs more evidence to conclude an answer. I too agree that experience is essential in the learning of language and classic case studies such as the child ‘Genie’ provides evidence of this. Despite this, I am still in the middle of the road about which theory is most accurate.

    A little off topic, but do you have any views on children who are exposed to multiple languages from birth? Different languages tend to have different grammatical structures yet children seem to have the ability to acquire more than language at once. Do you think this supports the nativist or empiricist view?

    All the best,

    Rosie

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