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.


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

  1. Helen Smith says:

    Rhiannon –

    I definitely agree with your claim that the functionalist and nativist approaches ‘do not deny the importance of each other’. I think it’s a common misconception – especially when presented as a topic of public interest – that these two opposing stances belong to a binary distinction, without any scope for entwinement of the two. It’s undeniable that some elements of language acquisition – like the fact that children can’t learn conversational elements like adjacency pairs without exposure to ‘real-life’ discourse – are explained by BOTH sides of this ongoing debate.

    Could you expand on the difference between Stemmer’s and Chomsky’s stance on nativism? Stemmer’s view seems clear; we are born with a pre-implanted ability to learn a language, but are a ‘blank slate’ with regards to the patterns of the individual language we are about to be exposed to. This implanted acquisition device uses ‘parameters’ – like the order in which we place subjects, verbs and objects – in order to ‘set a language’s patterns in place’.

    Chomsky’s view, to me, seems almost identical to Stemmer’s – Chomsky’s concept of the Language Acquisition Device (a ‘black box’ concept that he claims that all children are born with, primarily reinforced by his ‘poverty of the stimulus’ argument) appears to coincide with Stemmer’s claim of nativism in language learning.

    So, if Chomsky thinks that Stemmer’s theory ‘represents humans as empty organisms that are easily manipulated’, isn’t he technically branding his own theory with the same criticism?

  2. Rhiannon Sharkey says:

    Helen –

    You have some very interesting observations. I would agree with you that the theories seem similar because Stemmer proposes this ‘innate’ capacity to learn language. However there are some slight technicalities which make a big difference. Stemmer claims that empiricists believe children are born with a ‘blank slate’ and general learning capacities. This basically means that children are born with the ability to learn language but there is no prior knowledge there; this is the key difference. Chomsky’s theory proposes that we already have the knowledge required to learn language; it just needs to be triggered.

    Empiricists claim that the language of children relies heavily on the environment whereas, as you rightly stated, this is not possible for Chomsky’s theory because of the poverty of stimuli argument. The general learning capacities that children are born with seem to also rely heavily on experience from the environment and input from their caregivers. It relates back to the metaphor of language being a door to be unlocked by a child. Empiricists would claim that the child must make the key through effort, the environment and influence from caregivers. Whereas nativists, such as Chomsky, would claim that the child already has the keys.

    Furthermore I agree that the point about ’empty organisms’ could be quite contradictory to Chomsky’s own theory. However I would think that Chomsky would defend his theory through previous arguments he has made. Chomsky claims that humans are this unique form who are the only ones with the skill to master language and they have this inbuilt knowledge from birth. Perhaps he would say that because we already have this information it is harder to be manipulated by ‘deviant and fragmented’ sources of information, which is what the environment contains in his eyes.

    It is quite confusing because nature and nurture theories do intertwine and this makes it very hard to judge what the actual answer is. However I am unsure if we will ever actually find the answer.

  3. Natalie says:

    Rihannon –

    I found your blog both informative and thought provoking. I think you’re right to suggest language is a product of functionalist and nativist approaches combined.

    I think your critique of Sampson and Popper’s views that language is developed through a ‘testing’ and ‘guessing’ system is true. How can this method contemplate the complexity of syntactic structures and the formation of word clusters to understand contexts in which the word is presented? If we relate this to the phonics debate, it is apparent that children have different learning styles and preferences and so could it not be that children acquire language skills through their own learning style preferences?

    I agree with you that Chomsky provides a useful insight when considering Universal Grammar, however as you quite rightly point out the lack of empirical evidence invites questioning into its accuracy. The nurture approach does provide more evidence. B.F. Skinner’s experiment suggests that with the correct stimulation and reinforcement behavioural traits can be acquired. We acquire accent and dialect features. Would this not suggest that the environment, stimulus and also perhaps imitation affect the language traits we acquire?

    I find your analogy towards the existence of the human race interesting. Personally, I favour one view rather than the other in relation to this. However, when it comes to language acquisition I cannot separate the arguments simply because of the complexity of our language. Therefore particular language abilities must be genetically inherent and then stimulated by the environment.

    Skinner, B.F. (1957) Verbal Behaviour. United States of America: Copely Publishing Group.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s