Acquiring language: inbuilt or learnt? ALICE LEATHER explores two competing theories

Have you ever wondered what gave you the urge to start talking? Do you know why you began to order words in the correct grammatical pattern? These are questions that have baffled linguists for many years and has led to what is often labelled the ‘nature versus nurture debate’ of language acquisition. Nunan (2013) states that the acquisition of language children is often described as miraculous. By the age of four most children have their first language pretty well acquired and know over ten thousand words (Nunan, p. 127). But how do they get to this point? Are children born with language or does it take time and experiences for them to learn? Two opposing theorists in this debate are Noam Chomsky and Michael Tomasello.

Chomsky developed the mentalist approach to language acquisition which underpins the nature side of the debate. Chomsky (1988, p. 4) states “certain aspects of our knowledge and understanding are innate, part of our biological endowment, genetically determined […]”. In other words he believes that language is hard wired into the human brain and to acquire it all you need to do is to be born human and be exposed to it. He named this innate knowledge ‘universal grammar’ which is said to “contain a set of grammatical principles that are shared by all languages universally” (Rowland, 2014, p. 235).  Pinker (1994, p. 18), one of Chomsky’s former students, also describes language as an ‘instinct’ because language develops in a child spontaneously, without conscious effort or instruction. This reinforces the idea that mentalists believe language is a distinct piece of biological makeup of the brain and therefore it is their only explanation needed for the acquisition of language.

Although many aspects of Chomsky’s theory are compelling, there are holes in the argument. Linguists like Sampson believes that mentalists make claims about language universals and base it on only one example, without using further examples or evidence (Sampson, 2005, p. 138). This suggests the mentalist theory relates only to a subjective view and has no scientific proof. Nunan (2013) states that “input to babies is a lot less ‘junky’ than may be imagined”. He explains that when adults talk to babies they do so slowly, enunciate more and speak in proper sentences. Parents direct their children to aspects of language by correcting and repeating things which disagrees with the mentalist approach (p. 131). Nunan (2013, p. 132) also discusses that children suffer from limits on their communicative competence, meaning they have something to say but do not have the linguistic means to do so. This can be a source of frustration but also a powerful stimulus for acquisition that is not explained by the mentalist theory.

If there are flaws to Chomsky’s theory and the nature debate then what is the alternative? Are there other ways we learn language?

Social constructivist, Tomasello, promotes the nurture side of the debate by taking more of a functionalist view on acquisition. Tomasello (2005) dismisses the idea that children are born with an innate knowledge of grammar and argues that children acquire language by firstly understanding how others around them use it (p. 4). He developed the usage-based approach, which is perhaps one of the most modern approaches to language acquisition. According to this theory, learning constructions and their meanings can be accomplished using general cognitive and social abilities. At around the age of one children come to acquire language equipped with two sets of skills which are ‘intention reading’ and ‘pattern finding’ (Rowland, 2014, p. 100). Tomasello (2012, p. 69) claims “[i]ntention reading is what children must do to understand the goals of people around them when they speak”.

“Pattern-finding is what children must do to go productively beyond the individual utterances they hear people using around them to create abstract linguistic schemas” (Tomasello, 2012, p. 70). These skills are key in the functionalist approach in order to explain how we participate in a successful conversation.

There really is no concrete conclusion to this on-going debate and I believe this is because it is unethical to conduct experiments on new born babies’ brains in order to provide substantial scientific evidence on how language is acquired. We must have some form of innate knowledge in order to explain why we can begin to speak at such a young age, however, it cannot be the only answer. Functionalism must also play its part because input seems crucial to a child’s language development. We need to be exposed to language in order to find use for it and through teaching we can expand our vocabulary. Will the followers of Tomasello and Chomsky eventually join forces and reach a conclusion?  The battle continues…

ALICE LEATHER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Chomsky, N. (1988). Language and problems of knowledge: The Managua lectures. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Nunan, D. (2013). What is this thing called language?. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pinker, S. (1995). The language instinct: The new science of language and mind. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Penguin.

Rowland, C. (2014). Understanding child language acquisition. Abingdon, United Kindgom: Routledge.

Sampson, G. (2005). The language instinct debate. London, United Kingdom: Continuum.

Tomasello, M. (2005). Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tomasello, M. (2012). The usage-based theory of language acquisition. In E. Bavin, (Ed.), Cambridge handbook of child language (pp. 69-88). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

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2 thoughts on “Acquiring language: inbuilt or learnt? ALICE LEATHER explores two competing theories

  1. Vicki says:

    A great read Alice which begins to nicely introduce the concepts of the ‘Nature vs Nurture’ debate, in a way that prompts more thought into the topic and yet is still approachable to those who have little knowledge in the subject area. I like how you have brought in all the major theorists to the blog with a comprehensive description of them all and prompted readers to contemplate these theories.
    I have a few questions regarding Chomsky’s theory which I hope you might be able to help me in answering. In your blog, you note that Chomsky states that in order for a child to acquire a language, they first need to be exposed to it (which makes complete sense), which would therefore suggest that if a child were never exposed to language, then they would never acquire it. If this were to be the case, then surely his theory is not wholly nativist? Where do you stand on this? Are you aware of any evidence that Chomsky uses to counteract this challenge? However, on the flip side of the coin, the Mentalist approach does appear to make sense as most children do acquire language with little effort and therefore this seems to be a rather promising theory, albeit perhaps a little more outdated than some of the other more recent theories. I am also acutely aware that Chomsky based much of his work on ‘figurative’ language, i.e. that he never went out and actually recorded children speaking and then analysed it, is this what you are referring to when you cite Sampson (2005, p. 138) “base it on only one example”? Do you believe this to be another flaw in the theory, and therefore more credence should be given to other theories which use language in use as evidence?
    Tomasello’s theory also proves quite compelling, the idea that we acquire language through the actual use of it and observing how others around us use it appears to be a more ‘common sense’ approach, although could you possibly clarify by what is meant by intention reading and pattern finding? By goals, do you mean in the sense of Brown’s (1973) sentence types i.e. “jump daddy” [Action + Agent] and what does Tomasello mean by linguistic schema’s? And if Tomasello claims that children have these capabilities, then surely he is claiming that we are born with them, and this to some extent also makes his theory partly nativisits? So I would assume that the theories have some sort of cross over?
    I completely agree with you that, at present, there appears to be no solid conclusion that we might draw from the question of ‘how do we acquire language’ and that it is possibly a mixture of both innate qualities and exposure to language as well as use of language which helps us to become such competent users. Do you think that linguists might ever come together and accept one theory (or possibly a mixture) and what kind of evidence do you think it would take for them to realise this?
    References:
    Brown, R. (1973). A first language: The early stages. London: George Allen & Unwin.
    Chomsky, N. (1988). Language and problems of knowledge: The Managua lectures. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
    Sampson, G. (2005). The language instinct debate. London, United Kingdom: Continuum.
    Tomasello, M. (2005). Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
    Tomasello, M. (2012). The usage-based theory of language acquisition. In E. Bavin, (Ed.), Cambridge handbook of child language (pp. 69-88). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

  2. Vicki says:

    A great read Alice which begins to nicely introduce the concepts of the ‘Nature vs Nurture’ debate, in a way that prompts more thought into the topic and yet is still approachable to those who have little knowledge in the subject area. I like how you have brought in all the major theorists to the blog with a comprehensive description of them all and prompted readers to contemplate these theories.
    You note that Chomsky states that in order for a child to acquire a language, they first need to be exposed to it (which makes complete sense), and therefore suggests that if a child were never exposed to language, they would never acquire it. If this were the case, then surely his theory is not wholly nativist? Where do you stand on this? Are you aware of any evidence that Chomsky uses to counteract this challenge? On the flip side of the coin, the Mentalist approach does appear to make sense as most children acquire language with little effort and seems to be a rather promising theory, albeit perhaps a little more outdated than some more recent theories. I am also acutely aware that Chomsky based much of his work on ‘figurative’ language, i.e. that he never actually recorded children speaking and then analysed it, is this what you are referring to when you cite Sampson (2005, p. 138) “base it on only one example”? Do you believe this to be another flaw in the theory, and therefore more credence should be given to other theories which use language in use as evidence?
    Tomasello’s theory also proves quite compelling, the idea that we acquire language through the use and observation of how others use it appears to be a more ‘common sense’ approach, although could you possibly clarify by what is meant by intention reading and pattern finding? By goals, do you mean in the sense of Brown’s (1973) sentence types and what does Tomasello mean by linguistic schema’s? If Tomasello claims that children have these capabilities, then surely he is claiming that we are born with them, and this to some extent also makes his theory partly Nativisits? So I would assume that the theories have some sort of cross over?
    I completely agree with you that, at present, there appears to be no solid conclusion that we might draw from the question posed in your blog and that it is possibly a mixture of both innate qualities and exposure to language which helps us to become such competent users. Do you think that linguists might ever come together and accept one theory (or possibly a mixture) and what kind of evidence do you think it would take for them to realise this?

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