The way children acquire language is a heavily debated topic in linguistics. However is it doomed to be a never-ending battle in which an answer is never found? As Cattell, (2007) states, we cannot begin to know what happens inside a child’s brain and there is no concrete evidence to say which approach pips the other to the finish line.
The empiricist approach emphasises the need for concrete evidence to support theories, which is why empiricists such as Geoffrey Sampson have problems with nativists such as Chomsky. Chomsky’s theories are notorious for only being hypotheses with no evidence to support them. Empiricists seem to contradict themselves because Stemmer, (1987: 100-105) states that they believe we are born with an innate capacity to learn language, but there is no prior knowledge there; we are a blank slate. Chomsky (1977) retaliated with the controversial view that this theory is dangerous, because it represents humans as empty organisms that are easily manipulated. Perhaps this is taking matters to the extreme, and to discuss this theory as being ‘useful’ from a left wing perspective is going off on a tangent.
Sampson (2005: 1-7) supports Karl Popper’s theory that we learn language through a guess and test technique. He uses the metaphor of a baby being a research scientist who accumulates creative ideas from their environment. The baby then sends them into the world to test them out, and this is how they become aware of guesses which are correct. However is this reducing the complex skill of language to basic trial and error? Perhaps it would be better to believe in theories such as Chomsky’s – that humans are unique with this inbuilt knowledge of language locked in our brain until it is triggered. Throughout my research I could not help but compare it to the debate between creation and evolution. Some people are able to have faith in certain ideals without the need for evidence, whereas others are the opposite. Does this determine whether you believe the nativist or empiricist side of this debate?
Furthermore at the forefront of the functionalist approach is the social constructivist, Michael Tomasello. This approach emphasises that “[c]hildren acquire language first and foremost by understanding how others use language” (Tomasello 2009: 86). It states that children learn a set of constructions from their caregiver called ‘frozen phrases’, such as ‘I’m eating it’ and pair it with a function such as ‘performing an action on something’. Over time they start to find patterns, which enable them to develop more complex and abstract constructions, for example ‘I’m ACTIONing it’ and ‘SUBJECT VERB OBJECT’ (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011: 125).
I agree that input is crucial to a child’s language development. Sampson (2005:1-22) sums it up for me in saying that we are able to learn language if we are born into the appropriate environment. There is a substantial difference in language development between children who are born into a normal socially stimulated environment and feral children such as Genie, who unfortunately do not have this opportunity. This also supports the need for communication by caregivers, and is further supported in a study by Moskowitz. He studied a boy who had deaf parents, but he was not deaf. Up until three years old, the only way of learning English that he had was the television, as he was confined to his house due to severe asthma. It was found that by three years old he could not understand or speak English because this communicative element was missing (Kies, 1991). However the functionalist approach cannot explain everything, such as how organs develop. Nativists believe in the ‘language organ’ and Chomsky, (1977) states that organs develop due to a genetic program not to serve a function, for example the heart.
The two sides do not deny the importance of one another, they just argue over which is weighted more. The question is: will there come a time when both sides are so exhausted they will give in? This may leave the language acquisition question unanswered, much like questions such as the origins of human existence.
RHIANNON SHARKEY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Kies, D. (1991) Language Development in Children. [Accessed on 27th February 2015].
Stemmer, N. (1987) The Learning of Syntax: An Empiricist Approach. First Language [online], [Accessed on 28th February 2015], pp. 97-120.