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