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
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.