Will we ever solve the language acquisition puzzle? LAURA TALBOT investigates

Language sets us apart. Animals communicate but they do not have anything approaching the sophisticated grammar of human languages. How is it that we learn to speak and think in language so easily? By the time we are five years old we have an, ‘[e]stimated vocabulary of 5,000-10,000 words’ (Anglin, 1993, p.147). But how do we acquire them? Young children become adept in a new language very quickly and since the dawn of philosophy, thinkers have argued about whether or not they are born with innate structures to prepare them for the task. So are children born with blank slates in terms of language or do they have an outline knowledge of how language is structured?

Two key theorists within this debate are nativist Noam Chomsky, who believes that “[c]ertain aspects of our knowledge and understanding are innate, part of our biological endowment, genetically determined, on a par with the elements of our common nature that causes us to grow arms and legs rather than wings” (Chomsky, 1988, p.4). Suggesting that just as children are born ‘innately’ with arms and legs, they are also born with innate structures that allow them to understand and acquire language. The opposing theorist is, constructivist Michael Tomasello, who claims that, “children acquire language first and foremost by understanding how others use language” (Tomasello, 2009, p.86). This posits that children understand and acquire language through the nurturing of the people surrounding them.

Looking firstly at the nativist approach, the key question is whether or not we have ‘innate principles’. Nativists claim that the rules for sentence structure are too complex to be acquired by a learner who comes to the task with no knowledge of the way that language is structured, hence Chomsky’s theory of ‘innate principles’. He believes that “the child is born with some innate principles about language ‘wired in’ to the brain” (Chomsky 1981 as cited in Cattel, 2007, p.82). He posits that this basic innate knowledge of sentence structure and grammar is present in all human children- hence it is a ‘universal grammar’. He states that “[UG] may be thought of as some system of principles, common to the species and available to each individual prior to experience” (Chomsky, 1981, p.7). Could this be possible, when all languages are made up of different grammar rules and structures? Chomsky argues that “individuals in a speech community have developed essentially the same language” (Pinker, 1994, p.23). Nativist Steven Pinker uses the following example to advocate Universal Grammar, claiming “[w]e think children pick up their mother tongue by imitating their mothers, but when a child says Don’t giggle me! or We holded the baby rabbits it cannot be an act of imitation” (Pinker, 1994, p.21). This coincides with the idea that children create their own sentences using their own rules and innate ‘Universal Grammar’ to guide them.

In his book The ‘Language Instinct Debate’ (2005) Geoffrey Sampson directly disputes Chomsky and Pinker’s theory of ‘Language Universals’. He claims that “Nativists have often made authoritative-sounding claims about language universals when it is clear that the claims could not have survived a minimal attempt to check for counter-evidence” (Sampson, 2005, p.138). Sampson believes that nativists, like Chomsky, make claims about language universals and base it on one example, without using further examples or evidence.

So what about the major influence of the child’s surroundings? Surely their environment growing up affects their language?

This takes us to the constructivist approach of language acquisition, which argues that, “[y]oung children must learn during their individual ontogenies the set of linguistic conventions used by those around them” (Tomasello, 2003, p.1). We spend the majority of our first three years of life surrounded by adults, so it makes sense that we are going to pick up their ‘linguistic conventions’ and build upon them. Constructivists fundamentally believe that language develops alongside and in connection with other social and cognitive skills which develop at, “around 9-12months of age” (Tomasello, 2003, p.3). So children will acquire language as they acquire the ability to interact in communication, make gestures, point, share the intentions of others and pursue shared goals. Therefore, language acquisition is part of the development of cognitive abilities and the knowledge of language is arguably derived from experience of the outside world.

After thousands of years of debate, will we ever get a definite answer as to how we acquire language? Aitchison attempts to answer the question by stating that “everyone agrees that human beings bring some innate faculties to the task of learning, and everyone agrees that the mature human’s cognitive world depends in some respect on his experience’ (Aitchison, 2011, p.28). Will theorists like Tomasello and Chomsky eventually join forces and reach a conclusion? The debate continues….

LAURA TALBOT, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Aitchison, J. (2011). The Articulate Mammal: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics. London: Routledge.

Anglin, J.M. (1993). “Vocabulary Development: A Morphological Analysis.” Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 58(10 (238)): 1-166.

Cattell, R. (2007). Children’s Language: Consensus and Controversy. London: Continuum.

Chomsky, N. ‘Review of Verbal Behaviour by B.F. Skinner’. Language 35 (1):26-58.

Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct. London: Penguin.

Sampson, G. (2005). The ‘Language Instinct’ Debate. London: Continuum.

Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing A Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


2 thoughts on “Will we ever solve the language acquisition puzzle? LAURA TALBOT investigates

  1. Megan Armstrong says:

    Hi Laura,
    The on-going debate of nature vs nurture is interesting and I think you have a well-structured argument for both sides. The quote by Chomsky that suggests that our understanding of language is innately similar to how we “grow arms and legs rather than wings” seems a little farfetched. I think this can be debated in the case of a deaf child, they are also innately born without wings, however they are not innately able to communicate/articulate language in the way most children can, so can language knowledge be seen as innate in this case?

    Chomsky shares the nativist opinion that grammar is too “complex” to be learnt so must be innate. I found your comment on this to be interesting and very valid when you stated “could this be possible when all languages are made up of different grammar rules and structures”. It would seem that this ‘innate’ knowledge would have to be different for a child living in the UK compared to a child living in France. Additionally, how would this knowledge be prewired in a child that has for example one French parent, one Spanish parent but is born in the UK, which language and grammar structures would the child be prewired with?

    I side more with constructivist view as I believe children learn from their surroundings. I think that child directed speech would be a main factor to this side of the nature vs nurture debate, however this wasn’t discussed in this particular blog. Although siding with the constructivist view I agree with Pinker’s quote stating “we think children pick up their mother tongue by imitating their mothers, but when a child says don’t giggle me […] it cannot be an act of imitation” . This is an interesting point from Pinker as adults would not use that grammar structure, suggesting children can make up their own structures. This would lead me to believe that the debate is still to be discussed and I would say that your final quote from Aitcheson was very appropriate in concluding that both sides have their valid points and that this debate is ultimately a matter of opinion.


  2. Johanna Boisson says:

    Laura, your blog was a very interesting read in which you discuss this long argued debate.
    You discuss universal grammar, theorised by Chomsky, who acknowledges that “speakers in the same speech community” will develop the same language. However, would you agree that this could suggest support for the constructivist approach? Language acquisition is regarded as an inexplicable phenomenon that children perform but it must be considered that a reason for ease of learning could be because they are immersed in an environment of this particular language. Children do not actively have to fulfil other seemingly ‘distracting’ tasks, such as a full time education or job that will eventually hinder the ability of swift learning. Therefore the gradual comprehension (as acknowledged by Tomasello, 2003, p. 21) and production of the language they are exposed to seems to become an inevitable feat.
    However, I do also appreciate that language may seem too complex to be able to learn, shown through ‘the poverty of stimulus’ hypothesis in the nativist approach. Therefore I agree with your hope that theorists will “join forces”. However, how do you think this would happen: which aspects of each approach do you think would endure the collaboration?

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