How do children really acquire language? Is it in their nature or do they need to be nurtured along the way? KATIE ROBERTS investigates.

Do you have a burning desire to know how you started talking and forming grammatical sentences? This may not be at the top of your priority list but there has been a debate in this linguistic field for decades.  Are we any closer to an answer?

One viewpoint that has been very popular since the early 1960s is the ‘innatist’ approach to child language acquisition. Noam Chomsky is most closely associated with this. As the term suggests, innatists believe our ability to learn and use language is innate and “encoded in our genes” (Rowland, 2014, p. 15). This seems rational because children appear to learn language very rapidly. Pinker (1994) even refers to them as “lexical vacuum cleaners” (p. 151). He claims that language is a manifestation of a natural pre-wired “Language Instinct” (Pinker, 1994) which is triggered when a child is exposed to language output.

This builds on Chomsky’s proposition that humans have an innate grammatical capability, based on Universal Grammar (UG). Essentially, UG is the “properties of language that are mentally represented by an internal linguistic system (a grammar)” (White, 2003, p. 2). Where is the support for this? Consider the input that children receive around them. Is it a perfect model to emulate and learn from? The answer, according to Chomsky is ‘no’. Natural spoken language is full of performance errors, false starts, hesitations and fillers like “err”. Chomsky called this the ‘Poverty of Stimulus’. Our experience cannot account for our ability to generate novel sentences and so innateness must accountable for the resulting production of language (Lasnik & Lidz, 2017, p. 1).

This is admittedly a captivating attempt to explain child language acquisition. But can this be tested and proven empirically? Akhtar claims there is no way of providing watertight evidence to support this so-called ‘nature’ (as opposed to ‘nurture’) approach to language learning (2004, p. 460). So is the concept of Universal Grammar just a “Language Myth” (Evans, 2014)?  Your guess is as good as mine.

Critics of innatism propose an alternative explanation for the way children learn to speak, often called ‘Social Constructivism’. Michael Tomasello is the theorist often associated with this. Social constructivists believe that children have a natural intuition and certain cognitive abilities that help with the acquisition of language but the focus is shifted to “meaning in use” (Tomasello, 2012, p. 69). In sunning theories of innate mechanisms and language modules in the brain (Evans, 2014, pp. 96- 7) children are believed to develop language skills as a result of social and cultural environments – a desire to communicate. If anything, it serves a purpose for them.

The notion of an inbuilt pre-existing mechanism is discarded in a usage-based focus. Instead, function in use is the driving force for acquisition. Two skill sets form the fundamental components of this approach – ‘intention-reading’ and ‘pattern-finding’.

These two terms are best taken as a bottom-up interpretation, whereby grammatical “categories and rules [for language] are built up gradually” (Rowland, 2014, p. 96). Rather than being inborn, basic categories and acquisition of language are “facilitated by parents, peers, teachers, and others” (Kaufman, 2004, p. 304). Constructivists rely heavily on the notion of caregiver assistance and the input from others (‘nurture’). This might be right; language after all is a social phenomenon.

It is undoubtedly important for a child to “work out what message a speaker intends to convey” (Rowland, 2014, p. 101). Ibbotston and Tomasello provide an example from a recent article in the Scientific American. In an utterance such as “can you open the door for me?” (2016), a child would need to follow the attention of the speaker – i.e. intention reading – and realize that this is a request, understanding specified interactive goals. The next level moves from this functional base and progresses to the grammatical dimension – ‘pattern-finding’. A child needs to move “beyond individual utterances they hear people using […] and create abstract linguistic schemas” (Tomasello, 2012, p. 70). The example of “want + desired object” (Rowland, 2014, p. 101) illustrates this, for instance ‘I want drink’ or ‘I want ball’ from an ‘I want X’ pattern. Basic schemas can assist with language and sentence development. Social constructivists think children use these to slot new words into a frame.

So, does one approach have more value than the other? Many academics have latched onto one theory and have only “discussed research conducted within the relevant paradigm of interest” (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011, p. 13). There is a danger that scholars cherry-pick examples to suit their pre-existing ideas. The so-called ‘nature versus nurture’ debate is likely to continue for now. At the end of the day we can’t ask a baby how it learns to speak!

KATIE ROBERTS, 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.

Ambridge, B., & Lieven, E. V. M. (2011). Child language acquisition: Contrasting theoretical approaches. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.  

Evans, V. (2014). The language myth: Why language is not an instinct. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ibbotston, P., & Tomasello, M. (2016, October 9). What’s universal grammar? Evidence rebuts Chomsky’s theory of language learning. Scientific American. 

Kaufman, D. (2004). Constructivist issues in language learning and teaching. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 24, 303-319.

Lasnik, H., & Lidz, L. J. (2017). The argument from the poverty of stimulus. In I. Roberts (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of universal grammar (pp. 221-249). Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: The new science of language and mind. London, United Kingdom: Penguin Books.

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

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.

White, L. (2003). Second language acquisition and universal grammar. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.



One thought on “How do children really acquire language? Is it in their nature or do they need to be nurtured along the way? KATIE ROBERTS investigates.

  1. Emily Silvester says:

    Hello Katie,

    I find your portrayal of the two sides compelling. If I might add, Chomsky’s theory that language is ‘innate’ could link strongly with what he believed to be a LAD (Language Acquisition Device) built in to all individuals before birth. To go as far as to suggest, as you said, that language is “encoded into our genes” would further support this hypothesis that language is learnt through natural means already available to us, rather than that of a nurturing environment. To go on, it has been found that children DO NOT duplicate their parent’s grammatical errors, but do create a lot of their own. Building on your points, ‘performance errors, false starts’, children also over-generalise and over-extend which proves that language takes natures course and children are able to use language by themselves. One situation I have observed with my younger sister, upon being taught that our pet was a ‘dog’ she went on to claim through overgeneralisation that the neighbour’s cat was also a dog, as to her knowledge, both had four legs and a tail. You claim there is, ‘no way of providing watertight evidence to support […] ‘nature’, is there reason for this?

    On the flip side, you mention, ‘Social constructivists’, which supports the ‘nurturing’ theory, highly regarded by Skinner, that children rely on imitation which would be done through a social environment. These ‘cultural environments’ you mention are a key role in interaction amongst children and a caregiver. I agree that, as you said, children have a ‘desire to communicate’ and this communication is vital to reach beyond, what Vygotsky calls the ‘zone of proximal development’. To move forwards, children have been found to require a parental input to make it through these language stages. To build on your point about ‘rely[ing] heavily’ on a ‘caregiver’s assistance’; I have found a study conducted by Bard and Sachs whereby, two deaf parents raised their child whom had perfect hearing by teaching sign language alone and having the television for verbal language. This child could only produce very little words until exposed to other carers who could speak, which then allowed the child to develop their language rapidly. This supports your comment that ‘language after all is a social phenomenon’.

    I am interested in your findings about language patterns. Are you suggesting that these patterns can be learnt through their own desire of wanting and requiring something, or they first need to learn pragmatic and conversational skills through interaction with a caregiver? Chomsky suggests that there is an infinite number of sentences children make up, do you not believe that a child could form a request or response without external support? I personally believe that a child would first need some exposure to social routine to partake in such a conversation, which is why to answer your final question, the ‘nurture’ approach has more value and substantial evidence.

    On your final point, I’d have to say, getting a baby to explain itself would be a spectacle in itself!

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