Blank slate or language acquisition device. MADDI SYMES explores the language acquisition battleground

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 Worda 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


Ambridge, B., & Lieven, E. V. M. (2011). Child Language Acquisition: Contrasting Theoretical Approaches. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Barry, A. (2002). Linguistic Perspectives on Language and Education. Connecticut, United States of America: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Cacioppo, J., & Freberg, L. (2013). Discovering Psychology: The Science of Mind. Belmont, United States of America: Wadsworth.

Chomsky, N. (1976). On the nature of language. In S. R. Harnad, H. D. Steklis, & J. Lancaster (Eds.), Origins and Evolution of Language and Speech, 280, 46–57.

Davidson, J. P. (2011). Planet Word. London, United Kingdom: Michael Joseph.

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.

Galton, F. (1869). Hereditary Genius. London, United Kingdom: Macmillan and   Co.

Gleason, J. (1958). The child’s learning of English morphology. Word, 14, 150–177.

Hunt, S. (2003). Controversy in Marketing Theory: For Reason, Realism, Truth, and Objectivity. New York, United States of America: M. E. Sharpe.

Kearns, K. (2010). Frameworks for Learning and Development. Australia: Pearson.

Locke, J. (1689). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London, United Kingdom: William Tegg.

Sherman, P. (2012). John Locke: Philosopher of the Enlightenment. California, United States of America: Teacher Created Materials.

Tomasello, M. (2008). Origins of Human Communication. London, United Kingdom: The MIT Press.

Workman, L., & Reader, W. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology (3rd ed.). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.



2 thoughts on “Blank slate or language acquisition device. MADDI SYMES explores the language acquisition battleground

  1. Kim Nguyen says:

    The inclusion of ‘the wug test’ by Gleason (1958; cited by Davidson, 2011, p.47) is great support for Chomsky’s view Maddi (Chomsky, 1976; cited by Kearns, p.201, p.174)! The use of a nonsense word in Gleason’s study reveals that acquisition is not done by simply imitating language forms, but suggests the child could be using the blueprint which Chomsky suggests aids children to analyse the language that they hear (Aitchison, 2011). However, your idea that children could be generalising rules which they have previous acquired is very plausible.

    The argument for the poverty of stimulus is also valuable support for the generativist view. Chomsky (1980, p.40; cited by Tomasello, 2012, p.84) claims that children never hear yes/no questions, yet are able to form correct examples, as Pullum and Schulz (2002; cited by Tomasello, 2012, p.84) found in their study. Contrastingly, Elaman (2011; cited by Tomasello, 2012, p.85) claims that children do not need to experience these sentences, but comprehension that functional units have to stay together aid them to construct questions like these.

    I agree that there is no one theory which has all the correct answers to settle the nature vs. nurture debate. Furthermore, due to the restrictions and difficulties on gaining access into a new-born’s mind, I am unsure whether the debate will ever be truly conclusive.

    Aitchison, J. (2011). The great automatic grammatizator. Need anything be innate? In J. Aithcinson (Eds.) The articulate mammal: An introduction to psycholinguistic. (pp.7-23). London: Routledge.
    Chomsky, N. (1976). On the nature of language. In S. R. Harnad, H. D. Steklis, & J. Lancaster (Eds.), Origins and Evolution of Language and Speech, 280, 46–57.
    Chomsky, N. (1980). In M. Piatelli-Palamarini (Eds.), Language and Learning: The debate between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
    Davidson, J. P. (2011). Planet Word. London, United Kingdom: Michael Joseph.
    Elman, J.L. (2011). Lexical knowledge without a mental lexicon?. The Mental Lexicon, 60, 1-33.
    Gleason, J. (1958). The child’s learning of English morphology. Word, 14, 150–177.
    Kearns, K. (2010). Frameworks for Learning and Development. Australia: Pearson.
    Pullum, G. K., & Scholz, B. C. (2002). Empirical assessment of stimulus poverty arguments. The Linguistic Review, 19, 9-50
    Tomasello, M. (2012). The usage-based theory of language acquisition. In E, Bavin (Eds.)(2012), Cambridge handbook of child language (pp.66-88). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  2. Amani Niaz says:

    Hi Maddi,
    I really enjoyed reading your blog it presented both arguments of the debate extremely well. You stated Chomsky’s argument as somewhat too simple, which is completely understandable. However if more tests similar to the ‘wug’ test were to be conducted could this lead to an answer which could resolve this debate? The ‘wug’ test showed that when dealing with unfamiliar words children knew the suffix that should be added to the word. Surely that does contain some sort of evidence to support Chomksy’s argument? Even in schools, children are not necessarily sat down and taught every single aspect of grammar. Thus does this make Chomsky’s argument extremely significant to the debate? Almost leading us to believe in what he is suggesting?

    However is language acquisition solely based upon his LAD and Universal Gramamar? Surely this cannot be true. There is no actual language involved. It is simply a set of rules what we apply to language, thus as you stated the LAD is activated by exposure to language. This then could be overlapped with the Behaviourist approach. As Behaviorists’ suggest that the more children are exposed to language the better it is for their language acquisition. Could the answer to this debate be a mixture of nature and nurture?

    I think you are right, an investigation and tests on newborn children could potentially solve what aspects of language are actually innate and what we acquire as we grow. The possibility to conduct such investigations is another matter however.

    Amani Niaz

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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