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.



One thought on “POLLY-ANN SMITH is in a dilemma in the language acquisition nature/nurture debate

  1. Amy Sargeson says:

    I definitely agree with you when you say that we may be able to reach a conclusion to this ‘nature/nurture debate’ if more case studies are accomplished. In addition, in many years to come and possibly when more technology becomes available a conclusion will hopefully be made.

    In regards to the Genie study, do you believe Genie did have learning disabilities or possibly a brain disorder that she was born with, and this is why she couldn’t fully acquire language? Or do you think it is because she was not exposed to a significant amount of language within the ‘critical period’?

    Also, these studies you have provided are very interesting. I especially enjoyed the way you used an example of your own family to support the ‘nurture’ side of the debate. However, I don’t really agree with the Sleeper and Chudler quote, as I think we must have some form of innate knowledge in order to have the urge to learn language. But not in the way Chomsky describes, as like you said, is it really realistic to believe we are born with an innate knowledge of all the world’s language? I agree with you that the answer to the nature/nature debate is that language is probably acquired in terms of a bit of both of these theories!

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