Is language acquired from the people around us or is it all in our ‘-ed’? COURTNEY THOMAS explores the nature / nurture debate

When children are born they are surrounded by sounds such as laughter, crying, music, alarms, sirens, and of course speech. Not only do children have to listen to speech, but they eventually have to use it, and to do this they need to identify different words and parts of speech, then work out their meaning and how to put them together to make clauses, ask questions and construct sentences (O’Grady, 2005, p. 164).

The question is, how do they achieve these complex skills? The simple answer is that we do not fully know. However, academics have proposed theories as to how children acquire language so it would be useful to look at some of them to decide whether one appears more reliable than the rest.

There are two sides to this debate: nature, the idea that language is innate; and nurture, the theory that we acquire language from our environment.

Behaviourist thinkers, such as Skinner, were very much on the nurture side of the debate. He argued in the 1950s that language is acquired in the same way as all other forms of behaviour, by developing habits through imitation. Skinner insisted that children learn to talk by imitating their parents and people around them, proposing that language is acquired by stimulus-response-reinforcement. However, although a level of imitation is probably involved in certain aspects of acquiring a language, this imitation theory cannot fully explain child language acquisition because many parts of language cannot be imitated, such as entire sentences. So, according to O’Grady (2005, p. 165), “unlike words, which are memorized and stored in the brain, sentences are created when the need arises.” Often sentences are produced as specific events that are only spoken once, for children produce unique utterances going “beyond the reach of the behaviourist theory” (Nunan, 2013, p. 129). Also, children’s utterances often differ from those of adults, therefore they could not have been learned through imitation. For example, children often ‘overregularized’ past tense verbs that don’t follow the rule that they end in –ed, e.g. by saying ‘runned’ instead of ‘ran’ (Nunan, 2013, p. 129).

On the nature side of the argument, Noam Chomsky, (who may also be familiar to students of philosophy, psychology and American politics) promoted the innatist view of language acquisition, arguing that language is hard-wired into the human brain and to acquire language you just need to be born and exposed to it. Believing that the brain must contain a built-in set of grammatical structures, Chomsky argues that children are innately equipped with ‘universal grammar’, and as the language they hear from adults “is fragmentary, imprecise, and even ungrammatical”, it is unlikely to lead to language acquisition from imitation alone (Nunan, 2013, p. 130). The idea of ‘universal grammar’, means that children have an innate knowledge of how to use inflections to mark tense, which they then “apply across the board”. For example, when the past tense marker ‘–ed’ is used, ‘play’ becomes ‘played’, ‘walk’ becomes ‘walked’, and so on (Rowland, 2014, p. 122). Similarly, my little cousin changes ‘run’ into ‘runned’ instead of ‘ran’. Nativists would argue that when children start learning language “only some of the important information is available” and other knowledge such as that needed to build inflection systems “matures” later on (Rowland, 2014, p. 122).

Nunan argues however that the “input to babies is much less ‘junky’ than might be imagined” because “[w]hen addressing babies, parents and other adults speak more slowly, enunciate more clearly, and generally speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences” (2013, p. 130).

The functionalist Michael Halliday provides an alternative to Chomsky’s innate universal grammar theory by discussing the social functions which language serves. From studying his son Nigel, Halliday proposed that “children don’t have grammar or words as we know them, only sounds and their meanings” (Nunan, 2013, p. 134). For example, when Nigel said “nanana” it meant ‘give me that thing now’ (Halliday & Webster, 2006, p. 36). Halliday argued that language is used to get things done, as children use several different functions in order to communicate, such as the instrumental function ‘I want’, which Nigel used to try and get something he could not reach (Cattell, 2007, p.137). Halliday’s approach appeals to me because I can relate these language learning functions to my own observations of my nine-month old niece.

Although I feel the functionalist approach to the nurture side of the debate is persuasive, the nature/nurture question remains unanswered until we have better understanding of the brain’s functions.

COURTNEY THOMAS, English Language Undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Cattell, R. (2007). Children’s language: Consensus and controversy. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Halliday, M. A. K., & Webster, J. (2006). The language of early childhood. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Nunan, D. (2013). What is this thing called language? (2nd ed.). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

O’Grady, W. D. (2005). How children learn language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rowland, C. (2014). Understanding child language acquisition. London: Routledge.



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