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
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.