‘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.



One thought on “‘Blank slate or full plate?’ EMMA LEE explores the language acquisition debate

  1. Emma,
    I agree entirely with your assumption that language is a product of nature and nurture, however which stance do you personally favour? I believe that the role of input in the acquisition of language is dismissed without fully considering its influence and fundamentality. Whilst I acknowledge that language is indeed complex, I am unsure as to whether an innate capacity can fully account for the acquisition of all language constructions. The idea that the process of language is ‘quick’ is subjective. What are we comparing this time-scale to?

    I cannot, however, dismiss the idea that children are somewhat predisposed to learn language.

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