Internal or innate, the great language acquisition debate. LUCY HANCOCK investigates

Will there ever be an end to the controversy about how children manage to acquire language seemingly so easily? According to Cacioppo & Freberg (2013), Francis Galton was the first to coin the phrase ‘nature versus nurture’. He was very much in support of the ‘nature’ hypothesis, claiming “I propose to show […] that a man’s natural abilities are derived by inheritance” (Galton, 1869, p. 1).  This bold statement has been supported heavily by Chomsky, one of the most respected linguists, renowned for his theory that language structure is biologically determined in the human mind. In stark contrast stood the behaviourists whose belief in the acquisition of language through imitation of adult language and positive reinforcement (or conditioning) to encourage repetition of accurate linguistic constructions, was severely criticised by Chomsky in the late 1950s. Skinner (1957, p. 199) stated that “among the sounds which become important are the verbal responses of his parents and others. The child can then reinforce himself automatically for the execution of vocal patterns which are later to become part of his verbal behaviour.” The behaviourists were very much interested in the influence of a child’s environment upon their acquisition of language, a factor that the nativists like Chomsky chose to ignore.

According to Stilwell Peccei (2006, p. 3), “Chomsky proposed that children actively construct the rule systems of their native language aided by a brain already pre-wired with a special language capacity”. This apparent innate set of language rules, that are present in every human brain from birth, was labelled ‘Universal Grammar’ and nativists believe this inbuilt device is the key to a child’s language acquisition. They argue that a child’s environmental exposure to language is simply not enough for them to acquire a complete linguistic system. This so-called ‘poverty of stimulus’ is the idea “that the knowledge acquired in language acquisition far outstrips the information that is available in the environment” (Laurence and Margolis 2001, p. 221). Despite the amount of interest and support for the nativist theory, there is little empirical evidence to validate it (Akhtar, 2004). The legitimacy of this argument is called into question due to the theoretical nature and the lack of data to prove the proposed theories. On the other hand, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to study the human brain from the moment of birth to search for the supposed ‘Language Acquisition Device’, the area of the brain in which nativists believe language ‘lives’.

In juxtaposition to the nativist argument, we have the constructivists who, as stated by Lieven and Brandt, are named as such “because children are seen as building up an inventory of constructions” (2014, p. 282). They believe in the idea of language acquisition via exposure to rich language; once the exposure to adult language has occurred, the child will imitate this. It is claimed that language is the product of life experiences and that the human brain is powerful enough to learn, memorise and retain information simply through exposure. Tomasello, one of the leading constructivists in this approach, focuses his thinking around the idea that “children begin to acquire language when they do because the learning process depends crucially on the more fundamental skills of joint attention, intention-reading and cultural learning” (2003, p. 21). A child must understand the communicative intentions of an adult or caregiver and share joint attention to the object the caregiver is referring to. Once this joint attention is achieved, the child should then, according to this theory, be able to imitate the adult’s constructions.

It seems that both sides of this debate have little chance of working alone to explain the process of language acquisition. Should we believe that language is innate from birth? Or is it more a process of learning from our environment? Instead of separating the debate into two sides, would it not make more sense to combine them and see how well they work as one?

LUCY HANCOCK, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Akhtar, N. (2004). Nativist versus constructivist goals in studying child language. Journal of Child Language, 31(2), 459-462.

Cacioppo, J., & Freberg, L. (2013). Discovering psychology: The science of mind. Belmont, United States of America: Wadsworth.

Galton, F. (1869). Hereditary genius. London, United Kingdom: Macmillan.

Laurence, S. & Margolis, E. (2001). The poverty of stimulus argument. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 52(2), 217-276.

Lieven, E. & Brandt, S. (2014). The constructivist approach. Journal for the Study of Education and Development, 34(3), 281-296.

Skinner, B.F. (1957). Verbal behavior. Massachusetts, USA: Copley Publishing Group.

Stilwell Peccei, J. (2006). Child language. Oxford, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Tomasello, M. (2003) Constructing a language. London, United Kingdom: Harvard University Press.


3 thoughts on “Internal or innate, the great language acquisition debate. LUCY HANCOCK investigates

  1. Kate Green says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post, Lucy – you make some thought-provoking points!

    I agree with you in that it is difficult to completely support one side or the other of the nature versus nurture debate. Chomsky’s idea of a language acquisition device which you mentioned is very interesting, and I agree that there must be some inbuilt structure in our minds to help us acquire language. Do you have a particular view in terms of this? You also mention that it would be impossible to study the human brain from birth but, if this were possible, do you believe that it would provide linguists with the answers they have been searching for?

    You have summarised Lieven and Brandt’s (2014) work really well with regards to children’s imitation of the speech of adults around them. I believe that this has a massive impact on children’s speech, although as you have mentioned in your post, the poverty of stimulus argument must be taken into account.

    How much of an impact do you personally believe that the newly discovered FOXP2 gene has on children’s acquisition of speech when compared to the main nature versus nurture debate?

    I look forward to your reply!

  2. Cassandra-Rae Jones says:

    You’ve done an excellent job of structuring the argument Lucy, I found the paragraphs on Nativism and Constructivism to be succinct which makes your blog an easy and informative read. I really liked that you used Cacioppo & Freberg (2013) to reference Galton as the first to coin the ‘nature vs nurture’ phrase, it shows a brief history of linguists debating this topic and it leads to a smooth transition into talking about Chomsky’s work. You keep an objective view of both arguments; however, do you think the lack of evidence for Nativism discredits this theory? If so to what degree, if not completely? For me I largely agree with your reference to Tomasello (2003), that it ‘depends crucially on the fundamental skills of join attention’. The conclusion of combining Nativist and Constructivist approaches to ‘see how they work as one’ is very intriguing, I would be fascinated to read more on what you have to say on this. Do you think one theory would have more prominence over the other in this regard? Personally, I think the lack of evidence supporting Nativist theories would encounter issues in this regard as there is no way of gauging to what extent it could be innate compared to constructed from an environment.

  3. hollygregg96 says:

    This is a really good comparison between both sides of the debate. You consider references from linguists to support claims from either sides. I would also be interested to see how the two approaches could work as one too.

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