Innate or functional? MEGAN BROWN summarises approaches to language acquisition

The idea of language acquisition alone is itself amazing. Some even describe it as “a miracle” (Nunan, 2013, p.127). But how does it occur? After behaviourist theories of how children acquire language was discredited in the 1950s it was time for a different perspective to take the lead in what is often known as the ‘nature’ / ‘nurture’ debate.

Noam Chomsky, an ‘armchair linguist’ according to Nunan, (2013, p.132), opposed behaviourism – the theory that children acquire language merely by responding to adult praise and punishment – by suggesting that language, especially grammar,  is innate (wired into the brain) and that children acquire it because they have to (Nunan, 2013, p.130). However, Chomsky has come in for criticism as he was not interested in researching actual instances of child language hence the ‘armchair’ label (Nunan, 2013, p.132).

On the other hand there is the view that children learn language through social interaction with others and their environment – the functionalist approach  – and therefore more closely related to the ‘nurture’ side of the debate. This has been mainly associated with Halliday, who Nunan (2013, p.133) names as “one of the most influential and important linguists of his generation”.  Halliday, along with other functionalists such as Tomasello, argue that “[c]hildren acquire language first and foremost by understanding how others use language” (Tomasello, 2005, p.86). He proposes a usage-based approach – i.e. that language is acquired through use – to explain how children acquire language.

When discussing grammar, functionalists suggest that children learn via the motivation of meaning (Jordan, 2004). Halliday defines “its scope by reference to usage rather than grammatically” (Jordan, 2004). Halliday gathered his own evidence by collecting data from his son, Nigel. Halliday suggested that a child develops a ‘proto-language’ where there is one to one correspondence present between utterance and meaning. He supported this with his findings that showed Nigel used the utterance ‘nananana’ to mean ‘give me that thing now’ and when he uttered ‘do’ he was referring to ‘look, a dog’. This supports Halliday’s claim as the utterance was understood by both parties (Nunan, 2013, p. 133).

Following this investigation, Halliday came up with seven functions of language:

  1. Instrumental (‘I want’): used by Nigel when he was trying to get something he wanted but could not reach.
  2. Regulatory (‘Do as I tell you’): used if Nigel wanted to get control over people rather by trying to get them to do something.
  3. Interactional (‘me and you’): used when Nigel wanted to be with someone he would try to get their attention.
  4. Personal (‘here I come’): used when Nigel wanted to express opinion.
  5. Imaginative (‘let’s pretend’): used when Nigel began to use meaning for the purposes of playing.
  6. Heuristic (‘tell me why’): used when Nigel would want to seek answers by asking ‘what’ and ‘why’.
  7. Informative (I’ve got something to tell you’): used when Nigel was able to tell people about things around him.

(Halliday, 1975)

Halliday (1975) explains that the first four functions occur at around the age of nine to twelve months and final three occur at the age twelve to seventeen months.

Another major phenomenon of the functionalism (or ‘social constructivism’) proposed by Tomasello (2005) is the presence of two cognitive skills. Tomasello suggests that by the age of one a child is equipped with the skills of intention reading and pattern finding claiming that “[i]ntention reading is what children must do to understand the goals of people around them when they speak” (Tomasello, 2012, p. 69). In other words, intention reading skills allow children to acquire communicative symbols in order to guess whole words or sentences, which ultimately leads to the use of more complex linguistic phrases and constructions (Rowland, 2014, p. 101). Pattern-finding is explained as “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).

In my opinion, functionalists are most definitely leading the debate due to their modern ideas and the approach presents itself as somewhat more realistic than the mentalist view. Unlike Chomsky, functionalists have carried out observations on children, such as Nigel’s study and more. However, if the child cannot yet speak, to what extent are these observations useful?  Therefore, the question still stands, “will it take breakthrough research to end this battle, or is it simply unanswerable?” (Gleason, 1958).

MEGAN BROWN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

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

Halliday, M.A.K. (1975). Learning how to mean: Explorations in the development of language. London, United Kingdom: Edward Arnold.

Jordan, G. (2004). Theory construction in second language acquisition. United States: John Benjamins Publishing.

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

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

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: Cambridge University Press.

 

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