Would you ever think there would be so much controversy on how a child says their first word? Have you ever wondered where the ability to acquire language comes from? Even if you haven’t, Noam Chomsky and Michael Tomasello have done all the wondering for you. They aim to answer the age-old question in regards to language acquisition: ‘nature or nurture?’. Is language part of our genetic make-up, or do we learn it through our observations as children of the speakers around us? Respectively, they each represent the different sides of the nature vs nurture debate. Chomsky spearheaded the ‘mentalist’ theory of language acquisition, which hypothesizes that language is innate to us as human beings; it is as natural to us as breathing. On other side of the argument, or the nurture side, ‘functionalist’ or ‘social constructivist’ are the terms used to describe Tomasello’s theory. These focus on “meaning in use” (Tomasello, 2009, p. 69) and credits the social interaction that we have when we are children as being the main factor in language acquisition.
Chomsky is well known outside of his language studies, but he first came to prominence in 1959 when he wrote a damning review of B.F. Skinner’s ‘behaviourist’ language acquisition theory. In a nutshell, behaviourism theorized that language develops in children through copying adults, and in turn the adults would encourage this behaviour through positive reinforcement. Chomsky went on to say that this theory was “far from justified” and even claimed that it was “gross and superficial” (Chomsky, 1959, p. 28). Behaviourism subsequently became discredited and Chomsky’s theory took its place at the forefront of the debate.
One of the key elements of innatism is the theory of the existence of ‘Universal Grammar’, a set of structural rules of grammar that we are all apparently born with. Anderson and Lightfoot (2002, p. 18) claim that, “a grammar arises in each speaker which not only encompasses the actual facts to which they have been exposed, but also permits the production and comprehension of an unlimited range of novel utterances in the language”. We are able to construct sentences that we have never heard before because of this inherent linguistic ability that, according to Pinker –a stout believer in Chomsky’s theory – is a “biological birthright” (Pinker, 1994, p. 19).
On the other side of the debate is Tomasello, whose so-called ‘usage-based’ theory emphasizes the importance of social interaction in the acquisition of language. Children come to learn language by watching and listening the adults around them. Tomasello (2009, p. 69) says that there are two main skills for language acquisition -“intention-reading” and “pattern finding”. As regards intention-reading, children attempt to read the intentions of speakers so they can have some form of limited communication, even if they cannot speak. Pattern-finding is described by Tomasello (2009, p. 70) as, “…what children must do to go productively beyond individual utterances they hear people use around them to create linguistic schemas”. These are the two key main aspects for language acquisition from a functionalist point of view.
We still don’t know how children properly acquire language, and it could be the case that perhaps a mixture of the two theories could best explain it. This could be the most sensible way to put it. However, I personally feel that sitting on the fence is too easy. As Evans (2014, p. 21) puts it, there is “scant empirical evidence” to support Chomsky. The usage based theory looks at real life uses of language, and in actual fact Ibbotson and Tomasello (2016) say, “the idea of universal grammar contradicts evidence showing that children learn language through social interaction…”. I’m sure there is something to be said about children being naturally disposed towards language learning, but the existence of Universal Grammar is something that I’m yet to be convinced of.
KATIE O’REGAN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK