Is grammar squished into our head from birth or built up slowly from usage? HANNAH SADLER gets cerebral

Whether infants learn language from absorbing the chit-chat of their caregivers or from an innate mechanism in those complicated, squishy things in our heads has been an ongoing and baffling debate for centuries. If you take this question to the internet or to the books, they will both come back at you with ample theories and theorists. But before I try to steer you to the empiricist side of the debate, I feel that it is only fair I give you an overview of what the other side is saying about language learning.

Ambridge and Lieven (2011, p. 1) explain that whilst there are many competing proposals, each will generally be aligned with one of two major theoretical approaches. These are: (a) the nativist, generativist, Universal Grammar (UG) approach and; (b) the empiricist, constructivist, usage-based approach. The most appropriate term to use will depend on the precise nature of the proposal.

The (a) approaches are associated with likes of Chomsky who argued that speakers must possess a system or set of rules that allows them to understand and use grammar correctly (1959, cited by; Ambridge and Lieven, 2011, p. 105). He famously illustrated this point with the following pair of sentences:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
* Sleep green colorless furiously ideas.

Although you have probably never been exposed to either of these sentences before due to their nonsensical nature (unless you are already familiar with this example), your knowledge of English still allows you to determine that the first sentence is grammatical (it is a possible sentence in English despite how bizarre it may sound), whereas the second is not (Ambridge and Lieven, 2011, pp. 104-105). However, I couldn’t agree more with Saxton’s view that ‘[i]f your eyebrows shoot up at this idea, you are not alone.’ He claims that there are many who find this notion deeply implausible (2010, p. 187).

Those in favour of the (b) approaches are not fond of grammar being innate. Instead they believe that it is possible to learn grammar. Ambridge and Lieven (2011, p. 126) explain that learning construction grammar is a gradual process. They propose that the SUBJECT VERB OBJECT transitive constructions do not need to be learned all in one go. The child will learn phrases such as ‘I’m kicking it’, ‘I’m hitting it’ and ‘I’m eating it’  directly from the input and will then schematize to form an ‘I’m ACTIONing it’ schema. Theorists refer to this notion as a lexically specific or item-based construction (Ambridge and Lieven, 2011, p. 126).

This takes me on to my favourite guy in the area of language acquisition, Tomasello. Tomasello is a key thinker when it comes to the usage-based approach to language acquisition. Saxton explains that within the usage-based approach, three stages of early multi-word construction are recognized: word combinations, pivot schemas and item-based constructions (2010, pp. 213-215). Tomasello explains these in detail in his book Constructing a Language: A Usage-based Theory of Language Acquisition (2003). Unlike Chomsky, Tomasello has put his ideas in writing in a fashion that has a fighting chance of keeping you awake.

So what is Tomasello saying about grammar? In terms of item-based constructions he explains the what and the why. What are infants doing? They are producing transitive utterances around their second birthdays which are verb specific. He claims that there is abundant evidence to support this and even refers to his own daughter, explaining that all of her early multi-word utterances revolved around specific verbs (2003, p. 117). However, some verbs were used in quite simple constructions (‘cut’____) and some in more complex frames of different types (‘Draw ____ ‘, ‘Draw ____ on ____’ , Draw ____ for ____’ , ‘____ draw on ____’) (Tomasello, 2003, p. 117). Why do infants do this? Because of what they are exposed to linguistically. The usage-based approach assumes that infants will most easily acquire the words and constructions that they hear most frequently (Ambridge and Lieven, 2011, pp. 2-3).

Unfortunately we may never have a certain, flawless answer to how we acquire language. However, to put language learning “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 cited by; Saxton, 2010, p. 187) seems a less logical, small-minded and archaic view to have in terms of language acquisition.

HANNAH SADLER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Ambridge, B., & Lieven, E. V. M. (2011). Child language acquisition: contrasting theoretical approaches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Saxton, M. (2010). Child language: acquisition and development. London: SAGE.
Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition. London: Harvard University Press.


One thought on “Is grammar squished into our head from birth or built up slowly from usage? HANNAH SADLER gets cerebral

  1. Dominique Hitchen says:

    Hannah, your blog is a very interesting read which gives detailed accounts of both the generativist and usage-based approaches. The nativist/generativist/Universal Grammar approach (a) explains the reason why children can pick up the complex grammar rules, of our language, so quickly. However, like you, I do agree with Saxton (2010, p. 187) who suggests that the example Chomsky uses is implausible. Despite ‘colorless green ideas sleep furiously’ being grammatically correct, this grammar structure is only visible in the later stages of language acquisition; so if the (a) approaches are true, why do children not acquire such complex grammar (for example; extended noun phrases and adverbs) at an earlier age?

    It is clear that the empiricist/constructivist/usage-based approach (b) is much more realistic due to the gradual process of using word combinations, pivot schemas and eventually, item-based constructions, which are mentioned in your blog. The usage-based approach constructs such a theory that is simple to understand due to the assumption that children acquire words and constructions that they hear most frequently thus draw upon these constructions to form ‘grammar rules’.

    It is apparent that the acquisition debate will, as you concluded, will never have a crystal clear answer which everyone agrees with. Although you dismiss the generativist argument, I believe that language acquisition is probably a mix of both innate ability and language use as the rate in which children do acquire language is remarkable without any innate ability.

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