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.


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

  1. Rebekah Dewhurst says:

    Hi Rachel, I really enjoyed your blog and found some of the points you made to be quite interesting. I agree with the comment you made at the end, in which you suggested that a child’s acquisition of language stems from an innate instinct, but also from learning through experience and their environment.

    Your critique of Sampson’s ‘The Language Instinct Debate’ is interesting, particularly as you have observed that Sampson’s theories are also not supported by fact- a criticism he makes of both Chomsky and Pinker. This is most notable within Sampson’s work when he immediately states in the first sentence that ‘human beings have no language instinct’ (Sampson 2005:1).

    Your review (based on Sampson’s views) that nativists construct new terminologies when children show advances in language (e.g. Universal Grammar) is an interesting concept to point out, but I can agree. Chomsky’s field-specific jargon such as ‘Language Faculty’ and ‘Language Acquisition Device’ suggest that humans have an encoded set of ‘specific language grammars’ (Lust 2006:53). According to Sampson, nativist’s feel the diversity of the world’s languages mask an underlying unity in which all humans are biologically encoded with an innate ‘shared language’.

    The debate of nature v nurture will most likely remain ongoing, simply because neither empiricists nor nativists have solid evidence to back up their theories. I believe humans do have a level of innateness when acquiring language, however the value of learning, experience and ‘motherese’ is also paramount (made evident in the case of the feral child Genie: http://psychology.about.com/od/historyofpsychology/a/genie.htm).

  2. jochesh00 says:

    That is true, there is NO innate grammar or knowledge built into the brain. But the capacity for knowledge and PROCESSING language is built into the brain’s cortical cell column, in the invariant 6 layers located in all cortex, but for the motor cortex.

    A simple process, the COMParison process can mediate all knowledge and language and buill it up using the recognition process and the long term memory. It can also CREATE new knowledge and discover new words.This is explained in detail.

    and here

    Herb Wiggins, MD., Diplomat, Am. Board of Psychiatry/Neuro

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