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.


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

  1. Charlotte Hill says:

    Hi Sophie,

    I think that the boxing metaphor you have used throughout this blog has been a really relevant and interesting way of depicting the debate as both sides appear to equal each other in terms of their strengths and weaknesses.

    I also appreciate your conclusion that both approaches need to be taken into account when considering language acquisition as I agree that to rule out one theory entirely would be difficult, especially given that language acquisition is such a problematic issue to prove.

    However I do have a question regarding the ‘innate predisposition’ argument, throughout your research have you encountered any explanation as to how it takes into account the dramatic differences between languages? For example, in regard to structure, whilst in English meaning is carried through auxiliaries and verb inflections, Chinese, an uninflected language, conveys meaning through the likes of word order. (

    Similarly in terms of phonology, there are phonemes in some language that cannot be produced in others, how does universal grammar explain this?

    As languages vary so dramatically, how can ‘universal grammar’ be a legitimate way of describing child language acquisition?

    Many thanks,
    Charlotte Hill

  2. Charlotte Hill says:

    Sorry, *phonetics not phonology

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