RHIANNON SHARKEY asks: ‘Will we ever be able to answer the language acquisition question?’

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


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.

Chomsky, N. (1977) Empiricism and Rationalism. [Accessed 25th February 2015].

Kies, D. (1991) Language Development in Children. [Accessed on 27th February 2015].

Sampson, G. (2005) The ‘Language Instinct’ Debate: Revised Edition. 2nd Edition. London: Continuum.

Stemmer, N. (1987) The Learning of Syntax: An Empiricist Approach. First Language [online], [Accessed on 28th February 2015], pp. 97-120.

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


Nature or nurture in language acquisition? SOPHIE BRODIE explores the views of two heavyweights!

The age old question of how children acquire language is still very much a subject of debate, one for which a definite conclusion has yet to be drawn. At the centre of this debate is the argument between the two opposing theories of Functionalists and Nativists, and boxing it out in the ring are, Michael Tomasello and Noam Chomsky. While they are preparing for the fight, let’s look at what their approaches are all about.

The Formalist/Nativist approach believes that there is an innate predisposition to language, especially grammar, and that our brain has a ready inbuilt function which helps us acquire it. Formalists are more interested in linguistic competence. They believe that children could not possibly process grammatical rules and structures without having an innate predisposition, hence the ‘poverty of the stimulus’ argument.

According to Macwhinney, Bates & Kliegl, the Functionalist theory is the belief that “[t]he forms of natural language are created, governed, constrained, acquired, and used in the service of communicative factors” (2014: 160). In other words, Functionalists focus mainly on the social constructions and the input of parents, and how language is acquired through experiences and reinforced behaviour.

First up, in the red corner, we have…Noam Chomsky fighting for his Nativist approach. Two key components of Chomsky’s approach to language acquisition are ‘the poverty of the stimulus’ and the ‘universal grammar’ theories. The ‘poverty of the stimulus’ theory argues that there are some aspects of grammar that are so abstract, that children could not possibly learn them through association and reinforcement. An example of this abstract grammar is auxiliary fronting in Yes-No questions, so ‘The man who is eating is hungry?’ becomes ‘Is the man who is eating hungry?’. Chomsky claims that there is no reason why children should favour auxiliary fronting, meaning that they do produce the correct form of the sentences and rarely the incorrect form (Heine & Narrog, 2010:686). In addition, Chomsky’s universal grammar theory proposes that language is ‘hardwired’ into the brain, leading to Chomsky (1972) referring to his theory as “[n]othing other than the theory of language structure”.

However Tomasello (2005) argues that there is no poverty of the stimulus since children use their “[s]ophisticated learning skills involving categorization, analogy and distributional learning to cognitively create a structured inventory of meaningful grammatical constructions.”  Tomasello (2009: 470-71) criticizes Chomsky further by saying that the universal grammar theory is ‘outdated’.

So arguing his alternative approach, in the blue corner, we have comparative and developmental psychologist, Michael Tomasello. Tomasello believes that rather than language being hard wired into our brain, children must possess two skills in order to acquire language, thus the Usage Based Approach was born. The first cognitive skill is ‘intention reading’, which is what children must use to realise that mature speakers are trying to communicate with them, and understand what they say and mean in order to gain social benefits. The second skill is the grammatical ‘pattern finding’, which Tomasello states “is what children must do to create abstract linguistic schemas or constructions” (2009: 60).

Tomasello conducted an experiment to prove that despite a lack of verbal communication, children may already possess the cognitive skill of intention reading and as such, can understand when an adult is trying to communicate with them. Warneken and Tomasello (2007) conducted an experiment on 14-month-old babies, which involved presenting them with a stranger participant trying to reach for an object, but was unable to pick it up. The results of the experiment showed that the babies picked the object up without being asked, therefore recognising what the participant wanted and meant through his action of reaching.

In conclusion, I personally agree with the statement of Yang (2004: p. 451-456) who states “[c]onsequently, both must be taken into account, explicitly, in a theory of language acquisition”, meaning that both an innate predisposition and input through learning are required in order for children to acquire a sophisticated level of linguistic knowledge. I believe this is a debate that will go on for quite some time, but until then, in this boxing ring, it is most definitely a tie.

SOPHIE BRODIE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Chomsky, N. (1972). Language and Mind. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Heine, B. and Narrog, H. (2010). The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

MacWhinney, B. (1987). Mechanisms of Language Acquisition. Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates..

Tomasello, M. (2005). Constructing a Language. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Tomasello, M. (2009). Universal Grammar is Dead. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32(05), p.470.

Warneken, F. and Tomasello, M. (2007). Helping and Cooperation at 14 Months of Age. Infancy, 11(3), pp.271-294.

Yang, C. D. (2004). Universal Grammar, Statistics or Both? Cognitive Sciences, 8(10), 451-456.

Is there universal agreement about universal grammar? AZARIA CROSS investigates

Theories of language acquisition are often be broken down into two sides –  nature versus nurture, and two of the main theorists behind these positions are Noam Chomsky and Michael Tomasello.

Chomsky’s first contributions to the nature debate were made in the 1960s when much of the empiricist work saw the mind as being a ‘blank slate’ upon which we learn language. Chomsky’s ideas, however, proposed just the opposite suggesting that language was ‘hard-wired’ into the brain which introduced a whole new side to the argument and led to Lyons (1970) calling these ideas a ‘Chomsky Revolution’.

The greatest contribution from Chomsky would be his idea of a ‘universal grammar’, which describes the mind as being the ‘linguistic core’ since there are some principles of grammar that are so abstract they would be impossible to learn, therefore, we must be born with them. This is supported by Chomsky’s related ‘poverty of the stimulus’ theory which gives the example of auxiliary fronting and says that children have no reason to favour auxiliary fronting, since they are not explicitly taught it, yet they do use them to produce the correct form. For example ‘the man who is eating is hungry’, becomes ‘is the man who is eating hungry?’ Pinker (1994: 4) supports the universal grammar theory and says “[l]anguage and grammar is a distinct piece of the biological make up of our minds”. Crain and Pietroski (2001) agree claiming every person is born with innately specified linguistic values of grammar formation.

However, there are also many who disagree with the concept of universal grammar. Tomasello (2005: 7), for instance, argues that universal grammar is not sufficient enough to link all the complex elements of a language that is being learnt, and he states that if universal grammar is always the same then how could a child’s language development be measured over time? Crain et al. (2010) also argue that Chomsky has no empirical evidence to support his theories and therefore the ‘language faculty’ part of the brain he describes cannot be located. The features of any given language across the world are also said to be a complex function of history and not due to the simplistic nature of universal grammar (Jackendoff 2002), therefore, Chomsky’s theory would overlook the crucial aspects of language formation over time. Tomasello (2009) sums up the criticisms simply by claiming “[t]he idea of a biologically evolved, universal grammar with linguistic content is a myth”.

Tomasello’s nurture stance involves what is often called the ‘usage-based approach’. This theory has developed from early behaviourist theories, such as those of Skinner (1957), to claim that language is acquired through integration with other cognitive and socio-cognitive skills, and essentially that language acquisition emerges from language use (Tomasello 2009: 85). He suggests that children use both intention reading, to determine what mature speakers say and mean to gain social benefits, and pattern finding, what children do to create their own linguistic schemas and language representations, to gain the skills they need to acquire language. Tomasello also proposed the idea of the ‘verb island hypothesis’ whereby children treat verbs as their own ‘islands’ of organisation from around which they build sentences. However, this view has caused more controversy than the usage-based approach and Ninio (2003) states that instead of an island, which isolates words, developing grammars are formed more like a web since all the items connect to each other.

Although both Chomsky and Tomasello’s approaches have their strengths and weaknesses it is difficult to highlight one as being the single best explanation for how we acquire language. Therefore, it is safer to adapt to an approach such as that of Yang (2004) who argues that both a theory of innate predisposition with learning must contribute to language acquisition, and that by assuming both it presents an extremely sophisticated body of linguistic knowledge. Future research should focus on how the mind integrates language capabilities that are both innate and learnt, and in doing so it could open up a whole new approach to the language acquisition debate.

AZARIA CROSS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Crain, S., Khlentzos, D., & Thornton, R. (2010). Universal Grammar versus Language Diversity. Lingua, 120(12). 2668–2672.

Crain, S., & Pietroski, P. (2001). Nature, Nurture and Universal Grammar. Linguistics and Philosophy, 24(2)

Jackendoff, R. (2002). Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. London: Oxford University Press

Lyons, J. (1970). Chomsky. United Kingdom: Harper Collins

Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind. London: Penguin Books

Tomasello, M. (2005). Constructing a Language: A Usage Based Theory of Language Acquisition. United States of America: Harvard University Press

Tomasello, M. (2009). Universal Grammar is Dead. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 32(5), 470-471.

Yang, C. D. (2004). Universal Grammar, Statistics or Both? Cognitive Sciences, 8(10), 451-456.

Nature v nurture: Is the Genie Wiley study a reliable source for the language acquisition debate? BETHAN WINNER explores the case

The language acquisition question is one of the oldest linguistic debates in the discipline that still has no simple answer. So many people have voiced their opinions on whether they think it is nature or nurture that helps us to acquire language, and equally, many have failed in their process to actually prove anything despite how much research, time and effort has been put in.

One study that is consistently referred to in the past 45 years is that of the feral child Genie Wiley. Linguists, scientists and psychologists have all used Genie as a primary case study in the language acquisition debate since she was taken from an abusive father by child welfare authorities in Los Angeles in 1970 (Dowling 2004: 64) and subsequently the subject of studies into brain and language development. On the surface Genie seems to provide evidence for both nativist and constructivist sides of the debate, but a closer look at her unique case leads us to rethink if she is actually a reliable source to use at all, or if there ever will be someone we could study instead of her.

Genie was found in a small, dark room where she had been tied to a potty from the age of just a few months old.  When she was discovered, Genie was 13 ½ and was mute due to her lack of communications with the outside world. The only interactions she had with other humans was with her father and brother who simply grunted at her when they tied her up or needed her to move. She seemed like the ideal candidate to test the debate on.

The first issue that people encountered with Genie was her mental state. Although it has been suggested that Genie had normal cognitive function at the time of birth, there is no denying that Genie turned into a “highly abnormal adult” (Harris & Pinker 2009: 147). We will never know whether her subsequent retardation was a result of her traumatic upbringing or if she was born with an initial problem from birth. Like similar cases (such as Victor the Wild Child of Aveyron), this raises the issue of how reliable the study really is as the brain capacity of these individuals differs from someone who would have a normal upbringing with a normal brain capacity. Rolls (2015: 131) discusses many of the methodological problems with Genie’s case and suggests her lack of interaction and social development was inevitable given her circumstances. It is unlikely you would find someone who had a normal upbringing with a normal brain capacity that wasn’t exposed to any language, so although this could be as close as we could ever get, it is still not considered reliable data for many people.

Fortunately there aren’t many cases like Genie, but the results from studying her have coincided with similar studies in the past. Her quick discovery and swift arrest of her father meant that scientists were eager to study her every move. Benzaquen describes this as, “for people in general, Genie was an object of pity; for the scientists, she was an object of knowledge” (2006: 245). Although Genie was a great case to study, many people who cared for her failed her and this is something we have to consider when thinking about the validity of the results. Her care is another issue that people have used to challenge the validity of her study because Genie was constantly moved to and from different people and even moved back to the house where the abuse took place. There was confusion about the funding behind her study which meant she was constantly being moved between specialists who all wanted to learn from her. Rolls provides a detailed account of Genie’s story and describes it as a “catalogue of unfortunate or misguided mistakes” (2015: 132), leaving us to consider the ethics of Genie’s case and as a result of this, if we can even take anything from it at all.

The ethics behind this study mean that it could never be recreated, as abuse of a child is involved. Due to this, Genie’s case is the closest we are ever going to get to a child being brought up in these circumstances. Although there were many mistakes made, within her case the chances something like this happening again are extremely rare. Due to this we may have to accept that though the study may not have been completely ethical or carried out how we would do now, the results are the closest thing we will ever get to studying a child that has never been exposed to language.

 BETHAN WINNER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Benzaquen, A. (2006) Encounters with Wild Children: Temptation and Disappointment in the History of Human Sciences. Canada: McGill-Queens University Press.

Dowling, J. (2004) The Great Brain Debate. Nature or Nurture? USA: Joseph Henry Press.

Harris, J. R and Pinker, S. (2009) The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. United States: Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group.

Rolls, G. (2015) Classic Case Studies in Psychology: Third Edition. United Kingdom: Routledge.

POLLY-ANN SMITH is in a dilemma in the language acquisition nature/nurture debate

The debate about how we acquire language as children is one which is still ongoing and remains unanswered. This reason for this could be because of the lack of case studies in this area. It would be impossible to control the amount of social interaction and input a child receives in an ethical manner. There are a few famous case studies such as the feral child ‘Genie’, however it is difficult to determine exactly what such case studies prove. I would be sceptical when trying to align the evidence found in such case studies with either a nature or nurture perspective as there are factors which may have not been considered. It cannot be determined why these children were neglected in the first place, they may have had learning disabilities which may have affected the way in which they would have acquired language. The evidence therefore cannot be conclusive. As a result we are encouraged to form our opinions from the theories available.

When discussing the nativist approach to language acquisition it is very hard not to mention Noam Chomsky. He famously aligns himself with the nature side of this debate and puts forward the idea we have a ‘universal grammar’ built into our brains from birth. This theory claims children are born with an innate knowledge of the rules regarding grammar and this “distinguishes us from non-human animals” (Gusati 2009: 87). Chomsky (1960) believes the rules of syntax are too complex to acquire at the speed in which we do (Clark 2009: 369). Gusati argues that children’s “output surpasses [their] input” (2009: 99). This view is in accord with Chomsky’s claim that adults provide distorted data (Clark 2009: 369). Gusati presents Singleton and Newport’s 2004 case study of a deaf child named Simon as an attempt to provide some evidence for the presence of a universal grammar. This study finds that by the age of seven, Simon is able to use American Sign Language at a level equivalent to that of his peers who have been exposed to native ASL from birth. Interestingly Simon was exposed to three different levels of ASL. His parents learned ASL after the age of 15, his teacher used a manual version of ASL and his classmates knew no ASL at all (Gusati 2009: 100). Even though Simon’s input was inconsistent he was able to ‘regularise’ it and communicate without any errors. Gusati claims this could be evidence for the presence of a universal grammar as Simon was able to enrich his input by applying the knowledge of the guidelines we are born with (Gusati 2009: 105).

Contrastingly people who support the nurture side of this debate argue it is through experience we learn language. Sleeper and Chudler go as far as to say we do not need “any innate brain attributes” (2007: 15). Sampson and Poston highlight the fact there are no connections between genetics and language (2005: 9). A child will automatically acquire the language they are exposed to regardless of which ethnic group they belong to. An example of this is my very own cousin. He was born to Turkish parents in Istanbul and was adopted as a baby by my aunty and uncle. He was then moved to Belgium where he lived until the age of 18. As my aunty is German and my uncle is English my cousin is able to speak both of these languages fluently with the addition of Flemish! He cannot however utter a single word in Turkish! This example supports Sampson’s claim that language cannot be innate as it does not link to genetics at all (2005: 9). This point also highlights issues with the universal grammar argument as all language have different rules regarding grammar. Before we are born we cannot predetermine which language it is we will be exposed to. This raises the question of whether it is realistic to believe we are born with the innate knowledge of the underlying grammatical structures of all the world’s languages? Also if we are born with an innate knowledge of grammar, why are our early sentences not formed properly (Evans 2014: 109)?

I find it very difficult to reach a conclusion to this dilemma. During my research it became evident every argument in favour of one side or the other could be counteracted. An example of this is Aitchison’s claim that Chomsky tends to exaggerate the speed in which we acquire language (2011: 14). I am afraid I will have to sit on the fence with this one and say I can understand the validity of each side of the argument. I personally believe we must be born with an innate ability to acquire language however we must be exposed to language to stimulate acquisition.

 POLLY-ANN SMITH, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Aitchison, J. (2011) The Articulate Mammal: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics. London: Routledge.

Clark, E. (2009) First Language Acquisition. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, V. (2014) The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gusati, M. T. (2009) Universal grammar approaches to language acquisition. In: Foster–Cohen, S. (ed.) Language Acquisition. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, Ch.4.

Sampson, G. (2005) The ‘Language Instinct’ Debate. Revised Edition.United Kingdom: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.

Sleeper, A. And Chudler, E. (2007) Speech and Language (Gray Matter). United States: Facts on File, Incorporated.


‘Blank slate or full plate?’ EMMA LEE explores the language acquisition debate

What is language? Pretty much everybody in the world uses it but how many of us can define it and have actually thought about what an amazing phenomenon it is? Some may perceive it as a form of code or as the systematic use of sounds, signs and symbols for the purpose of communication. Either way, it is an amazing thing. Pinker points out that “our thoughts come out of our mouths so effortlessly that they often embarrass us, having eluded our mental censors” (Pinker 1994: 21) and that “when we are comprehending sentences, the stream of words is transparent; we see through to the meaning so automatically that we can forget that a movie is in a foreign language and subtitled”. Language is so natural to us and our speech separates us from all other animals. It is humans’ most important tool.

This makes the debate about how we acquire language particularly intriguing. Is it a construct of nature or nurture?

The nativist side of the debate is based on Chomsky’s theories. Chomsky (1959 cited by Stilwell Peccei 2006: 3) claims that children actively construct the rule systems of their native language aided by a brain already pre-wired with a special language capacity that is separate from other types of mental abilities. In other words, we are born with an innate, inborn, grammar. He defines this as a Universal Grammar. Chomsky proposes that there is a fair amount of inborn knowledge in children in his ‘principles and parameters’ theory (Stilwell Peccei 2006: 3). He presupposes that such knowledge revolves around the general rules that all human languages obey, i.e. the principles, and knowledge about the ‘permitted’ ways that languages can vary from one another, i.e. the parameters. During the act of language acquisition, children are said to identify the correct grammatical rules (the parameter) and apply this to the speech heard from adults (Stilwell Peccei 2006).

On the other hand, the nurture side of the debate claims that children are born ‘tabula rasa’, i.e. a blank slate, with no innate knowledge. Therefore, language acquisition is part of the development of our general cognitive abilities and knowledge of language is derived from experience of the outside world. An initial supporter of this theory was the behaviourist, Skinner (1957 cited by Ambridge & Lieven 2011: 104), who viewed language acquisition as a passive process of conditioning via association, imitation, and reinforcement. Skinner argued that children learn language through ‘fine-grained selective reinforcement by parents or caregivers’ (1957 cited by Ambridge & Lieven 2011: 104), in the same way that a rat might learn to press a particular combination of levers to receive a food reward.

Chomsky argued against this, with his ‘poverty of the stimulus’ theory (Smith 2004: 38). He claimed that if a child learned in the behaviourist way, their knowledge of language would consist of nothing more than “a repertoire of rote-learned phrases” (1957 cited by Ambridge & Lieven 2011: 104). Furthermore, the fact that real speech contains hesitations, false starts, grammatical errors, etc. makes it impossible for children to acquire a system as abstract and complex as the human language without some prior, inborn knowledge about the way it works (Stilwell Peccei 2006: 3).

I personally feel that we must have some form of inborn knowledge that enables us to learn and understand language so quickly as a child. The fact that we are able to produce language that we have never been exposed to also suggests that we have some kind of innate capacity to construct and develop language. However, I also remember being taught through positive and negative reinforcement by my parents and teachers whilst growing up which resulted in me successfully developing language. Therefore, I can only assume that language acquisition is not a result of either nature or nurture, rather a combination of the two.

EMMA LEE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


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

Stilwell Peccei, J. (2006) Child Language: A Resource Book for Students. Oxon: Routledge.

Pinker, S. (1994) The Language Instinct. London: Penguin Books.

Smith, N. (2004) Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Language Acquisition – nature or nurture? ASHLIEGH GEORGE explores both views

Language – how is it that such a familiar and naturally occurring phenomenon is acquired? We seem to know how certain complex aspects of our body work, like the human respiratory system, the human reproductive system and the human digestive system. However, how is it that we do not have a better understanding of how humans acquire language? Even through extensive questioning, linguists, cognitive scientists and psychologists, still have not reached a conclusive answer. Bloomfield, an influential US linguist, was amongst many who attempted to solve this baffling, yet intriguing question. He believed that “language learning is doubtless the greatest intellectual feat any of us is ever required to perform” (1933: 29). More recently, Aitchison claimed that “if an animal is innately programmed for some type of behaviour then there are likely to be biological clues” (2008: 40). In short, the mouth, tongue, lips and vocal chords make it evident that we are biologically equipped to produce language, but the difficult question is determining what exactly is innate (Aitchison 2008). This leads us to the discussion of the individuals who have attempted to produce a finite theory on how it is we, as humans, acquire such an art. The nature/nurture debate, as it is commonly known, has become a matter of much controversy in the study of linguistics.

The present debate concerns itself with two very different theories surrounding how it is we acquire language. Nativist thinkers – those who stand on the ‘nature’ side of the fence –  suggest that the property of language is inborn and genetically determined (Saxton 2010), and that we have an internal structure, or separate module in the brain, that specifically enables us to acquire language, especially grammatical rules (Lust 2006). The most significant proponent of the nature argument is Noam Chomsky. Chomsky proposed that “children actively construct the rule systems of their native language aided by a brain already pre-wired with a special language capacity” (Stilwell Peccei 2006: 3). He also feels that because children appear to acquire language with great ease, and go through stages of development roughly at the same time that, this must be due to the fact languages have “a set of core linguistic properties that are common to all human languages” (Saxton 2010: 191). Furthermore, these properties are mapped out by the child as they match what “they hear with the internal grammatical structures they already possess” (Peccei 2006:114). Nativists claim that there must be an internal mechanism present as children cannot simply acquire language via their surrounding environment due to the fact it is impoverished.

On the other hand, the nurture side of the debate presents us with the behaviourist and functionalist thinkers. Behaviourists, such as B. F. Skinner, concern themselves with the idea that language acquisition is a “passive process of imitating the speech they […] [hear] from adults” (Peccei 2006: 2). Skinner proposed that this process of imitation was “accompanied by positive reinforcement when […] [a child got something right] and negative reinforcement when they got […] [something] wrong” (Peccei 2006: 2). Skinner also proposed that all we need to acquire language are “controlling variables” that would “enable us to predict specific utterances” (Aitchison 2008: 3). However, it is evident that children do a lot more than imitation and prediction. The functionalist thinkers feel that there must be another explanation that ultimately shows children acquire language via input, from caregivers, that will eventually result in them cracking the code to language in order for them to make sense of the world (Bates & MacWhinney 1989). The claim is that “the forms of natural languages are created, governed, constrained, acquired and used in the service of communicative functions” (Bates & MacWhinney 1989: 3). That is, in order for a child to use their native language, they must first understand the correlation between what it is they are experiencing and what this means in order to use language.

Even after exploring both possibilities, it is hard to come to a definitive conclusion when there is so little proof supporting either theory. Do we as humans acquire language because we are born with the ability to do so? Or is it that we are able to learn this highly complex language system because we are “highly intelligent animals” (Aitchison 2008: xvi). Or could it be that we have lost sight of an explanation, due to the familiarity of language, and have failed to question the most obvious aspects?  (Aitchison 2008). Will the puzzle, that is language acquisition, ever be solved?

ASHLIEGH GEORGE,  English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Aitchison, J. (2008) The Articulate Mammal. Oxon: Routledge.

Bates, E. A. & MacWhinney, B. (1989) Functionalism and the Competition Model. In: MacWhinney, B. and Bates, E. A. (eds.), The cross- linguistic study of sentence processing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bloomfield, L. (1933) Language. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Lust, B. (2006) Child Language: Acquisition and Growth. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Stilwell Peccei, J.S. (2006) Child Language: A resource book for students. Oxon: Routledge.

Saxton, M. (2010) Child Language: Acquisition and Development. London: Sage Publications.