Language acquisition: learned behaviour or innate? CHARLIE LEADBEATTER debates which side of the fence to sit on.

Have you ever wondered why child language acquisition (CLA) has been a hot topic amongst linguists for decades, and are we any closer in getting an answer? Is language learnt through a combination of cognitive abilities and environmental stimuli or do children have a predetermined ability to acquire language, specifically grammar? As the American linguist Bloomfield (1933, p.29) stated, the process of a child acquiring language is “doubtless, the greatest intellectual feat any of us is required to perform”.

The two main theories of CLA are nativism and social constructivism. Nativists, such as Chomsky, believe that children have a predisposed ability to acquire the grammar of any language thanks to a language acquisition device (LAD). Social constructivists such as Tomosello believe it is more of a combination between cognitive processes and environmental stimuli.

Chomsky, in critiquing the behaviourist Skinner in the late 1950s, popularised the innatist approach (nature) and coined the term Universal Grammar (UG), an inbuilt set of grammar rules which allow a child to acquire any language. Chomsky’s ‘poverty of the stimulus’ theory claims that utterances simply cannot be learned through imitation because children seem to have the ability to create an infinite number of sentences, some of which they wouldn’t have heard uttered before.

Evans (2014, pp.95-96) – a critic of Chomsky – notes that the ‘language as instinct thesis’ believes that “language, or at least Universal Grammar that underpins language, is not learned: the challenge is simply – and clearly – too great”. The task for children to acquire language without UG or an innate ability seems incomprehensible and unachievable. Nativists discredit the assumption that children acquire language via social interaction through the poverty of stimulus argument. Chomsky states that it is impossible for children to acquire language through imitation or social interaction because the input they receive is simply inadequate for something as complex as language (Chomsky, 1980, as cited by Saxton, 2017, p.217). Evidence for the LAD and UG are seen through children’s overgeneralisations. This is where children make errors by applying a generic rule to an irregular item, for example, ‘my foots hurt’. The child has applied the standard rule for plurality but for an irregular form. Another common overgeneralisation is the use of the past suffix ‘-ed’ such as, ‘I wented’ instead of ‘I went’. This seems to supports the existence of a LAD and the presence of a UG because these incorrect forms wouldn’t be learnt as no adult would utter these, so a child couldn’t possibly learn these through imitation. Also, when and if children are corrected they understand the correct form but will still produce the incorrect version.

On the other side of the coin is social constructivism, meaning in use, with which Tomasello proposed the usage-based approach. This approach focuses itself around two processes; intention reading and pattern finding. Intention reading is where children try to comprehend the intentions of adults to form some sort of linguistic communication (Tomasello, 2003, p.3). Within this framework Tomasello notes the importance of joint attention, for example, the shared attention of a third object from a caregiver. If the adult points and says “look at the truck” the child will begin to work out the intention of the utterance. If the child thinks the caregiver is wanting to bring “the truck” to his attention the child would have made the correct intention. Then when the child hears his caregiver using similar utterances with the “look at” structure he will notice the similarity and form generalisations and an understanding for that convention. Pattern finding is what the child must do in order to progress beyond the individual utterances they hear around them from adults (Tomasello, 2003, p.70). Tomasello (2003, p.70) states that “pattern finding is overall the most central cognitive construction in the usage-based approach to language acquisition”. For example, children begin to identify what sort of words are frequently grouped together, such as ‘give’ + noun, like ‘give toy’ or ‘give food’. These constructions build up schemas in the child’s mind until their grammatical ability is ‘adult-like’.

To conclude, the nature vs nurture debate has been hotly debated since the 1950s and still is in the highest academic circles, so we still are no closer in finding a definite answer and probably won’t be in another 50 years. I think the innatist approach is logical in if you believe that language is simply too complex for a child to learn through environmental stimuli. Possibly the sensible  answer would be that a combination of both approaches is responsible for how children acquire language in such a short period of time and what seems an effortless process. However I am yet to be convinced of the social constructivist approach.

CHARLIE LEADBEATTER, English language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Bloomfield, L. (1933). Language. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Chomsky, N. (1980b). Initial states and steady states. In M. Piattelli-Palmarini (Ed.), Language and learning: The debate between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Harvard University Press.

Evans, V. (2014). The Language Myth: why language is not an instinct. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Saxton, M. (2017). Child language: acquisition and development. Los Angeles: SAGE.

Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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4 thoughts on “Language acquisition: learned behaviour or innate? CHARLIE LEADBEATTER debates which side of the fence to sit on.

  1. Laura Howarth says:

    Hi Charlie, I enjoyed reading your blog on the debate of how children acquire language and I think it demonstrates how this debate does not yet have a definitive answer. Do you think we will ever have an answer to this debate or will people be divided on this topic forever?

    I agree with your point, that ‘the task for children to acquire language without a UG or an innate ability seems incomprehensible and unachievable’. When reading into the concept of Universal Grammar further, I found Saxton counter argues this idea. Within the context of children learning the past tense inflection, Saxton (2010) explains that rules must be learned from experience (or imitation). Saxton says these rules could not possibly be innate, because languages vary in how they mark tense: ‘add -ed’ works for English, but it does not work for other languages like Japanese and Chinese for example, do not even mark tense on verbs. Do you think this is a valid point?

    On the flip side, your arguments about the constructivist side of the debate were interesting. Rowland (2014) explains that Tomasello and other social constructivists, believe that children do not need innate linguistic constraints and instead, are guided by their understanding of what speakers are trying to say. Children use ‘social clues’ to learn the meaning of words. What are your thoughts on this approach?
    To clarify, what are your reasons for not yet being convinced of the social constructivist approach?

    From my experience with children, I believe that children do acquire certain aspects of speech from the adults they are around (for example their parents). However, I do agree with you, that language is far too complex for children to learn just by imitation. The nativist approach gives a good explanation of how children can acquire such a complex thing like language. However, I think this is just the infrastructure on which language is developed through the environment that the child is in.

    References
    Saxton, M. (2010). Child language: acquisition and development. London, United Kingdom: SAGE.
    Rowland, C. (2014). Understanding child language acquisition. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

  2. CATHERINE TEASDALE says:

    Hi Charlie,

    I believe that this is a really interesting discussion, looking at how children acquire language, it got me thinking about how I personally learnt to talk and working off what friends and family have said, I think that Tomasolli’s usage-based approach seems to be more fitting as children are learning to talk in context. By this I mean that with words for example ‘read’ they can be said differently dependent on the context that they are spoken in, therefore if a child was to innately see that word written down on a form stimuli without hearing it in different contexts then they would have two options of pronouncing it.

    However, if they have heard adults using it in different contexts and they mimic the adult then there is more chance of them finding the pattern within in several texts.

    Personally, I think there is both processes going on with childhood language acquisition as, they may pick up words and phrases from hearing adults uttering them, but the fundamentals of being able to learn to speak language must be innate as proposed by Chomsky.

    Children will all have their own ways of learning a language therefore it may be impossible to study how it is done

  3. Michael Townley says:

    Hi Charlie, an excellent read highlighting the long, complex history of the nature vs nurture debate!

    In relation to the Chomskyan approach to language acquisition, I am reminded of the historical, linguistic Genie case in 1970. In this case, Genie was deprived of any stimuli for years beyond the critical age period and as a result, never acquired language. In my own understanding of the debate, this case is significant to look back on as it demonstrated evidence to support an innate ability to acquire language. However, it is noted by Jones (1995) that only after years of teaching “[g]enie was able to acquire the morphology and syntax of English and was still in the process of acquiring it when she was 18 years old’ (p. 278). In this case, it is suggested that a combination of both innate and constructivist approaches were at play. In my own experience, children tend to imitate that of their caregivers, and so to this extent, I am in agreement with Tomasello’s (2003) usage-based approaches. Although, as you mention, language acquisition seems to be too complex to be placed in the hands of imitation alone and does not account for overgeneralisations in children’s speech.

    Overall, much like yourself, I believe that a combination of both approaches are at work as one approach cannot explain everything in language acquisition, and neither can the other.

    References

    Jones, P. E. (1995). Contradictions and unanswered questions in the genie case: A fresh look at the linguistic evidence. Language and Communication, 15(3), 261-280. doi:10.1016/0271-5309(95)00007-D

  4. Emma Robinson says:

    Hi Charlie, thank you for presenting a discussion which shows fair representation of both sides of the debate, whilst simultaneously providing stimulating food for thought.

    I have to agree with you – the suggestion of a combination of both approaches also seems the most logical to me. I believe that humans must have a fundamental propensity for language because of their ability to acquire it at such a young age, but this must surely be realised through social situation and circumstance as well.

    However, I do believe one of the most frustrating elements of the nativist theory is that it offers little certainty as to exactly what is innate. In an article I read recently, Pinker argues that Chomsky has proposed a succession of technical theories (such as Universal Grammar (UG)) in regards to language acquisition, however, a lot of his claims about language being innate have changed over the decades, and have never been accurate enough to confirm his theory (Horgon, 2016). Although in your blog you mention the overgeneralisation of the ‘-ed’ suffix as support for UG, do you feel there has been enough empirical research to support it?

    I’m also curious to know why you are yet to be convinced of the social constructivist approach, as I have found copious amounts of work to suggest that this is a credible theory. One particular study I found recently that piqued my interest was an analysis of toddlers’ early language, carried out at Standard University, which found that rule-based knowledge of grammar emerges gradually, rather than from birth, with a significant increase in knowledge around 24 months (Shashkevich, 2017). Surely this favours a usage-based approach, rather than a nativist one.

    I don’t mean in this comment to question the work of such a great linguistic pioneer as Chomsky, but until nativists can prove, through significant evidence, that Universal Grammar exists, I have my suspicions.

    References

    Horgon, J. (2016, November 28). Is Chomsky’s Theory of Language Wrong? Pinker Weighs in on Debate. Retrieved from Scientific American: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/is-chomskys-theory-of-language-wrong-pinker-weighs-in-on-debate/
    Shashkevich, A. (2017, February 22). Toddlers’ grammar skills not inherent, but learned, new Stanford research says. Retrieved from Stanford News: https://news.stanford.edu/2017/02/22/new-research-toddlers-grammar-skills-learned-not-innate/

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