From hair colour to height, gender to complexion – we all have characteristics which have been determined biologically. Whilst these characteristics are undeniably innate, there are many human traits which are not quite so straightforward; aggression, intelligence, our unique ability to communicate through language. This longstanding debate had existed since Francis Galton coined the phrase ‘nature versus nurture’ in 1869 (Cacioppo & Freberg, 2013, p. 90). Human beings have come so far in scientific discoveries, from black holes to cancer treatments, so why is it we still don’t know whether language is innate or learnt? Well, allow me to break it all down for you!
Rationalist René Descartes (1641; cited by Hunt, 2003, p. 32) argued that we have ‘innate ideas’ whilst empiricist John Locke (1689; cited by Sherman, 2013, p. 26) famously attacked Descartes claim, stating that the human mind ‘begins’ or enters the world in a blank state (tabula rasa) – knowledge being acquired through posteriori – through experience and observations. From an epistemological point of view, we have capacities to acquire language but clearly have no ability to develop it as we do this in early in life. Tabula rasa, although tenable in this sense, is simply not true. In the light of contemporary science it is evident that we begin life with certain characteristics that characterise ‘human nature’. Evolutionary, biological instincts and that are studied within the discipline of ‘evolutionary psychology’.
When exploring this debate with regards to language we find there are two major schools of thought – nativists and functionalists. Nativists believe that some aspects of linguistic knowledge are innate, meaning they are present at birth (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011, p. 1-3). Holding up a fight for nativism is generativist Noam Chomsky (1976). Generativists believe knowledge of grammar consists of formal ‘rules’ that operate on abstract linguistic categories. Chomsky (1976; cited by Kearns, 2010, p. 174) argues that these rules are innate and that we all have inbuilt, instinctive ‘universal principles’ and rules for grammar. He calls this our ‘Language Acquisition Device’ (LAD) which is activated when children are exposed to language (Chomsky, 1976; cited by Kearns, 2010, p. 174). If only it was that simple, Chomsky!
On the other side of the battle ring is Tomasello (2005; cited by Workman and Reader, 2014, p. 303), a leading figure in the functionalist camp. Functionalists argue that the ability to learn language is innate, but there is no innate knowledge of grammar, and grammatical categories are not a priori. Tomasello, a bit like Locke, believes we learn through exposure to adult speech. A quote by Tomasello (2008) that I came across reading his chapter, ‘The Grammatical Dimension’ In Origins of Human Communication reads, “[a]lthough many aspects of human linguistic competence have indeed evolved biologically, specific grammatical principles and constructions have not” (p. 313) which I feel summarises the functionalist view well.
So far it seems to be a tie between the two contenders, so let’s step out of the battle ring and look at an experiment famously known as ‘the wug test’. I first came across the research a number of years ago when I was reading Davidson’s (2011) book Planet Word – a great read by the way! Jean Berko Gleason (1958; cited by Davidson, 2011, p. 47) presented children with a picture of a ‘wug’, a nonsense word describing the creature in the picture to see whether the children made ‘wug’ into the plural ‘wugs’. The results suggested children’s ability to form such grammatical structures is varied and depends on the individual’s development (1958; cited by Davidson, 2011, p. 49). Nativists argue that this shows children do not simply imitate language as they can produce the correct grammatical forms for nonsense words they have not heard before (Barry, 2002, p. 184). However, there have been many criticisms of the ‘wug’ test, and could it be possible that children have actually acquired these grammatical rules and have learnt to generalise them?
Gleason has quite a middle ground opinion in believing that there are areas of the brain which are specialised for language and through hearing and experiencing language and by interacting with language users, coupled with the capacity for language, language is built in the brain (1958; cited by Davidson, 2011, p 49). Personally, I have to agree with Gleason’s (1958) view. I believe that the difficulty in concluding the on-going debate lies in the fact we cannot (yet) conduct experiments on new-born babies that would provide substantial evidence to prove which aspects of language are innate and which are acquired. Will it take breakthrough research to end this battle, or is it simply unanswerable?
MADDI SYMES, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Descartes, R. (1641). Meditations on first philosophies. In J. Cottingham, R.Stoothoff, & D. Murdoch (Eds.), The Principle Writings of Descartes. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.