Acquiring language: inbuilt or learnt? ALICE LEATHER explores two competing theories

Have you ever wondered what gave you the urge to start talking? Do you know why you began to order words in the correct grammatical pattern? These are questions that have baffled linguists for many years and has led to what is often labelled the ‘nature versus nurture debate’ of language acquisition. Nunan (2013) states that the acquisition of language children is often described as miraculous. By the age of four most children have their first language pretty well acquired and know over ten thousand words (Nunan, p. 127). But how do they get to this point? Are children born with language or does it take time and experiences for them to learn? Two opposing theorists in this debate are Noam Chomsky and Michael Tomasello.

Chomsky developed the mentalist approach to language acquisition which underpins the nature side of the debate. Chomsky (1988, p. 4) states “certain aspects of our knowledge and understanding are innate, part of our biological endowment, genetically determined […]”. In other words he believes that language is hard wired into the human brain and to acquire it all you need to do is to be born human and be exposed to it. He named this innate knowledge ‘universal grammar’ which is said to “contain a set of grammatical principles that are shared by all languages universally” (Rowland, 2014, p. 235).  Pinker (1994, p. 18), one of Chomsky’s former students, also describes language as an ‘instinct’ because language develops in a child spontaneously, without conscious effort or instruction. This reinforces the idea that mentalists believe language is a distinct piece of biological makeup of the brain and therefore it is their only explanation needed for the acquisition of language.

Although many aspects of Chomsky’s theory are compelling, there are holes in the argument. Linguists like Sampson believes that mentalists make claims about language universals and base it on only one example, without using further examples or evidence (Sampson, 2005, p. 138). This suggests the mentalist theory relates only to a subjective view and has no scientific proof. Nunan (2013) states that “input to babies is a lot less ‘junky’ than may be imagined”. He explains that when adults talk to babies they do so slowly, enunciate more and speak in proper sentences. Parents direct their children to aspects of language by correcting and repeating things which disagrees with the mentalist approach (p. 131). Nunan (2013, p. 132) also discusses that children suffer from limits on their communicative competence, meaning they have something to say but do not have the linguistic means to do so. This can be a source of frustration but also a powerful stimulus for acquisition that is not explained by the mentalist theory.

If there are flaws to Chomsky’s theory and the nature debate then what is the alternative? Are there other ways we learn language?

Social constructivist, Tomasello, promotes the nurture side of the debate by taking more of a functionalist view on acquisition. Tomasello (2005) dismisses the idea that children are born with an innate knowledge of grammar and argues that children acquire language by firstly understanding how others around them use it (p. 4). He developed the usage-based approach, which is perhaps one of the most modern approaches to language acquisition. According to this theory, learning constructions and their meanings can be accomplished using general cognitive and social abilities. At around the age of one children come to acquire language equipped with two sets of skills which are ‘intention reading’ and ‘pattern finding’ (Rowland, 2014, p. 100). Tomasello (2012, p. 69) claims “[i]ntention reading is what children must do to understand the goals of people around them when they speak”.

“Pattern-finding is what children must do to go productively beyond the individual utterances they hear people using around them to create abstract linguistic schemas” (Tomasello, 2012, p. 70). These skills are key in the functionalist approach in order to explain how we participate in a successful conversation.

There really is no concrete conclusion to this on-going debate and I believe this is because it is unethical to conduct experiments on new born babies’ brains in order to provide substantial scientific evidence on how language is acquired. We must have some form of innate knowledge in order to explain why we can begin to speak at such a young age, however, it cannot be the only answer. Functionalism must also play its part because input seems crucial to a child’s language development. We need to be exposed to language in order to find use for it and through teaching we can expand our vocabulary. Will the followers of Tomasello and Chomsky eventually join forces and reach a conclusion?  The battle continues…

ALICE LEATHER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Chomsky, N. (1988). Language and problems of knowledge: The Managua lectures. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Nunan, D. (2013). What is this thing called language?. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pinker, S. (1995). The language instinct: The new science of language and mind. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Penguin.

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

Sampson, G. (2005). The language instinct debate. London, United Kingdom: Continuum.

Tomasello, M. (2005). Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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.

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Is language acquired from the people around us or is it all in our ‘-ed’? COURTNEY THOMAS explores the nature / nurture debate

When children are born they are surrounded by sounds such as laughter, crying, music, alarms, sirens, and of course speech. Not only do children have to listen to speech, but they eventually have to use it, and to do this they need to identify different words and parts of speech, then work out their meaning and how to put them together to make clauses, ask questions and construct sentences (O’Grady, 2005, p. 164).

The question is, how do they achieve these complex skills? The simple answer is that we do not fully know. However, academics have proposed theories as to how children acquire language so it would be useful to look at some of them to decide whether one appears more reliable than the rest.

There are two sides to this debate: nature, the idea that language is innate; and nurture, the theory that we acquire language from our environment.

Behaviourist thinkers, such as Skinner, were very much on the nurture side of the debate. He argued in the 1950s that language is acquired in the same way as all other forms of behaviour, by developing habits through imitation. Skinner insisted that children learn to talk by imitating their parents and people around them, proposing that language is acquired by stimulus-response-reinforcement. However, although a level of imitation is probably involved in certain aspects of acquiring a language, this imitation theory cannot fully explain child language acquisition because many parts of language cannot be imitated, such as entire sentences. So, according to O’Grady (2005, p. 165), “unlike words, which are memorized and stored in the brain, sentences are created when the need arises.” Often sentences are produced as specific events that are only spoken once, for children produce unique utterances going “beyond the reach of the behaviourist theory” (Nunan, 2013, p. 129). Also, children’s utterances often differ from those of adults, therefore they could not have been learned through imitation. For example, children often ‘overregularized’ past tense verbs that don’t follow the rule that they end in –ed, e.g. by saying ‘runned’ instead of ‘ran’ (Nunan, 2013, p. 129).

On the nature side of the argument, Noam Chomsky, (who may also be familiar to students of philosophy, psychology and American politics) promoted the innatist view of language acquisition, arguing that language is hard-wired into the human brain and to acquire language you just need to be born and exposed to it. Believing that the brain must contain a built-in set of grammatical structures, Chomsky argues that children are innately equipped with ‘universal grammar’, and as the language they hear from adults “is fragmentary, imprecise, and even ungrammatical”, it is unlikely to lead to language acquisition from imitation alone (Nunan, 2013, p. 130). The idea of ‘universal grammar’, means that children have an innate knowledge of how to use inflections to mark tense, which they then “apply across the board”. For example, when the past tense marker ‘–ed’ is used, ‘play’ becomes ‘played’, ‘walk’ becomes ‘walked’, and so on (Rowland, 2014, p. 122). Similarly, my little cousin changes ‘run’ into ‘runned’ instead of ‘ran’. Nativists would argue that when children start learning language “only some of the important information is available” and other knowledge such as that needed to build inflection systems “matures” later on (Rowland, 2014, p. 122).

Nunan argues however that the “input to babies is much less ‘junky’ than might be imagined” because “[w]hen addressing babies, parents and other adults speak more slowly, enunciate more clearly, and generally speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences” (2013, p. 130).

The functionalist Michael Halliday provides an alternative to Chomsky’s innate universal grammar theory by discussing the social functions which language serves. From studying his son Nigel, Halliday proposed that “children don’t have grammar or words as we know them, only sounds and their meanings” (Nunan, 2013, p. 134). For example, when Nigel said “nanana” it meant ‘give me that thing now’ (Halliday & Webster, 2006, p. 36). Halliday argued that language is used to get things done, as children use several different functions in order to communicate, such as the instrumental function ‘I want’, which Nigel used to try and get something he could not reach (Cattell, 2007, p.137). Halliday’s approach appeals to me because I can relate these language learning functions to my own observations of my nine-month old niece.

Although I feel the functionalist approach to the nurture side of the debate is persuasive, the nature/nurture question remains unanswered until we have better understanding of the brain’s functions.

COURTNEY THOMAS, English Language Undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

 References

Cattell, R. (2007). Children’s language: Consensus and controversy. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Halliday, M. A. K., & Webster, J. (2006). The language of early childhood. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Nunan, D. (2013). What is this thing called language? (2nd ed.). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

O’Grady, W. D. (2005). How children learn language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rowland, C. (2014). Understanding child language acquisition. London: Routledge.

 

Innate or functional? MEGAN BROWN summarises approaches to language acquisition

The idea of language acquisition alone is itself amazing. Some even describe it as “a miracle” (Nunan, 2013, p.127). But how does it occur? After behaviourist theories of how children acquire language was discredited in the 1950s it was time for a different perspective to take the lead in what is often known as the ‘nature’ / ‘nurture’ debate.

Noam Chomsky, an ‘armchair linguist’ according to Nunan, (2013, p.132), opposed behaviourism – the theory that children acquire language merely by responding to adult praise and punishment – by suggesting that language, especially grammar,  is innate (wired into the brain) and that children acquire it because they have to (Nunan, 2013, p.130). However, Chomsky has come in for criticism as he was not interested in researching actual instances of child language hence the ‘armchair’ label (Nunan, 2013, p.132).

On the other hand there is the view that children learn language through social interaction with others and their environment – the functionalist approach  – and therefore more closely related to the ‘nurture’ side of the debate. This has been mainly associated with Halliday, who Nunan (2013, p.133) names as “one of the most influential and important linguists of his generation”.  Halliday, along with other functionalists such as Tomasello, argue that “[c]hildren acquire language first and foremost by understanding how others use language” (Tomasello, 2005, p.86). He proposes a usage-based approach – i.e. that language is acquired through use – to explain how children acquire language.

When discussing grammar, functionalists suggest that children learn via the motivation of meaning (Jordan, 2004). Halliday defines “its scope by reference to usage rather than grammatically” (Jordan, 2004). Halliday gathered his own evidence by collecting data from his son, Nigel. Halliday suggested that a child develops a ‘proto-language’ where there is one to one correspondence present between utterance and meaning. He supported this with his findings that showed Nigel used the utterance ‘nananana’ to mean ‘give me that thing now’ and when he uttered ‘do’ he was referring to ‘look, a dog’. This supports Halliday’s claim as the utterance was understood by both parties (Nunan, 2013, p. 133).

Following this investigation, Halliday came up with seven functions of language:

  1. Instrumental (‘I want’): used by Nigel when he was trying to get something he wanted but could not reach.
  2. Regulatory (‘Do as I tell you’): used if Nigel wanted to get control over people rather by trying to get them to do something.
  3. Interactional (‘me and you’): used when Nigel wanted to be with someone he would try to get their attention.
  4. Personal (‘here I come’): used when Nigel wanted to express opinion.
  5. Imaginative (‘let’s pretend’): used when Nigel began to use meaning for the purposes of playing.
  6. Heuristic (‘tell me why’): used when Nigel would want to seek answers by asking ‘what’ and ‘why’.
  7. Informative (I’ve got something to tell you’): used when Nigel was able to tell people about things around him.

(Halliday, 1975)

Halliday (1975) explains that the first four functions occur at around the age of nine to twelve months and final three occur at the age twelve to seventeen months.

Another major phenomenon of the functionalism (or ‘social constructivism’) proposed by Tomasello (2005) is the presence of two cognitive skills. Tomasello suggests that by the age of one a child is equipped with the skills of intention reading and pattern finding claiming that “[i]ntention reading is what children must do to understand the goals of people around them when they speak” (Tomasello, 2012, p. 69). In other words, intention reading skills allow children to acquire communicative symbols in order to guess whole words or sentences, which ultimately leads to the use of more complex linguistic phrases and constructions (Rowland, 2014, p. 101). Pattern-finding is explained as “what children must do to go productively beyond the individual utterances they hear people using around them to create abstract linguistic schemas” (Tomasello, 2012, p. 70).

In my opinion, functionalists are most definitely leading the debate due to their modern ideas and the approach presents itself as somewhat more realistic than the mentalist view. Unlike Chomsky, functionalists have carried out observations on children, such as Nigel’s study and more. However, if the child cannot yet speak, to what extent are these observations useful?  Therefore, the question still stands, “will it take breakthrough research to end this battle, or is it simply unanswerable?” (Gleason, 1958).

MEGAN BROWN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Gleason, J. (1958). The child’s learning of English morphology. Word, 14, 150–177.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1975). Learning how to mean: Explorations in the development of language. London, United Kingdom: Edward Arnold.

Jordan, G. (2004). Theory construction in second language acquisition. United States: John Benjamins Publishing.

Nunan, D. (2013). What is this thing called language?. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.

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

Tomasello, M. (2005). Constructing a Language: A usage-based Theory of Language Acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tomasello, M. (2012). The usage-based theory of language acquisition. In E. Bavin, (Ed.), Cambridge Handbook of Child Language (pp.69-88). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

Deduction or construction. SCOTT ROBINSON discusses the pros and cons of generative and usage-based approaches to language learning

Understanding how children come to acquire language has been a great source of debate for many years.  From the nature or nurture debate to the much more detailed ideas on whether children are an active or passive part of language development, there is a lot to be said.  When it comes to language acquisition there are two main approaches, generativist and usage-based. According to the generativist theory, “all human children innately possess a universal grammar, abstract enough to structure any language of the world” (M. Tomasello, K. Abbot-Smith, 2002, p.207).  There are two processes in this model – “acquiring all the words, idioms, and quirky constructions of the particular language being learned; and linking the particular language being learned to the abstract universal grammar” (M. Tomasello, K. Abbot-Smith, 2002, p.207). As this is allegedly innate, grammar develops continually, which is different to that proposed by of the usage-based theorists. Tomasello, who is one of the key exponents of the usage-based theory, points out that in fact “children are not very productive with their early language, suggesting that they do not possess the abstract linguistic categories and schemas necessary to effortlessly generate infinite numbers of grammatical sentences” (M. Tomasello, K. Abbot-Smith, 2002, p.207). These are the differences in the theories which are debated most.

Tomasello assumed a constructivist approach to language acquisition. Ambridge and Lieven (2011, p 123) claim that according to constructivists, “language is an inventory of constructions of various sizes and various levels of abstraction, each of which serves some communicative or socio-pragmatic function”. Constructivism argues language is likely to be acquired through a development of the understanding of forms (syntactic categories such as nouns and verbs) through the function of meaning.  In more detail, the usage-based theory focuses “on the specific communicative events in which people learn and use language” (M. Tomasello, 2000, p.61). He argues that sufficient input is required for a child to acquire language and detracts away from the notion of innateness. This is highlighted in his response to Lidz et al, who argued that input for children does not generate sufficient information to support unaided learning and attempts to support the contribution of innateness. In his response to Lidz et al’s  (2003) study, he highlights that in a forced choice situation, eighteen month old children think the phrase ‘another one’ goes best with another object, near identical to the one they’ve just seen other than one that is a different colour (M. Tomasello, 2004, p.140). By highlighting this he is trying to prove this shows nothing of a child’s understanding of the nested structure of noun phrases or innate linguistic knowledge, and that only non-linguistic experiences are shown in the study (M. Tomasello, 2004, p.140).

The usage based approach can be summarised in two principles, the first being ‘meaning is use’ which “represents an approach to the functional or semantic dimension of linguistic communication” (M. Tomasello, 2008, p.69). This idea stems from philosophers of language who wanted to combat the idea that meanings are things in themselves and focus on how people use linguistic conventions to achieve social ends. The second is ‘structure emerges from use’ which “represents an approach to the structural or grammatical dimension of linguistic communication” (Tomasello,2008, p.69).  The theory places emphasis on pre-linguistic communication. It is important to start by exploring the communicative function in the usage based view. Human infants communicate in rather sophisticated ways prior to acquiring any linguistic conventions: e.g. nearly all infants communicate by pointing before they acquire productive language. For Tomasello this suggests “that all human pointing and other gestures may already embody forms of social cognition and communicative motivation that are unique to the species, and that are necessary as a first step on the way to linguistic conventions both phylogenetically and ontogenetically” (M. Tomasello,2008, p.70). This stands opposed to the generativist approach, which because they believe it is innate, “universal grammar does not develop ontogenetically but is the same throughout the life span…” (M. Tomasello, 2002, p.207).

SCOTT ROBINSON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

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

Tomasello, M., Abbot-Smith, K., (2002) A tale of two theories: response to Fisher’, Cognition 83, pp.207 – 214.

Tomasello, M. (2004) ‘Syntax or semantics? Response to Lidz et al.’, Cognition 93, pp.139-140.

Tomasello, M. (2000) ‘First steps toward a usage-based theory of language acquisition’, Cognitive Linguistics 11-1/2, pp.61-62.

Tomasello, M. (2008) ‘The Usage-based theory of language acquisition’. In Bavin, E, (Ed.) The Cambridge handbook of child language (2008), pp.69-88.

Is grammar squished into our head from birth or built up slowly from usage? HANNAH SADLER gets cerebral

Whether infants learn language from absorbing the chit-chat of their caregivers or from an innate mechanism in those complicated, squishy things in our heads has been an ongoing and baffling debate for centuries. If you take this question to the internet or to the books, they will both come back at you with ample theories and theorists. But before I try to steer you to the empiricist side of the debate, I feel that it is only fair I give you an overview of what the other side is saying about language learning.

Ambridge and Lieven (2011, p. 1) explain that whilst there are many competing proposals, each will generally be aligned with one of two major theoretical approaches. These are: (a) the nativist, generativist, Universal Grammar (UG) approach and; (b) the empiricist, constructivist, usage-based approach. The most appropriate term to use will depend on the precise nature of the proposal.

The (a) approaches are associated with likes of Chomsky who argued that speakers must possess a system or set of rules that allows them to understand and use grammar correctly (1959, cited by; Ambridge and Lieven, 2011, p. 105). He famously illustrated this point with the following pair of sentences:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
* Sleep green colorless furiously ideas.

Although you have probably never been exposed to either of these sentences before due to their nonsensical nature (unless you are already familiar with this example), your knowledge of English still allows you to determine that the first sentence is grammatical (it is a possible sentence in English despite how bizarre it may sound), whereas the second is not (Ambridge and Lieven, 2011, pp. 104-105). However, I couldn’t agree more with Saxton’s view that ‘[i]f your eyebrows shoot up at this idea, you are not alone.’ He claims that there are many who find this notion deeply implausible (2010, p. 187).

Those in favour of the (b) approaches are not fond of grammar being innate. Instead they believe that it is possible to learn grammar. Ambridge and Lieven (2011, p. 126) explain that learning construction grammar is a gradual process. They propose that the SUBJECT VERB OBJECT transitive constructions do not need to be learned all in one go. The child will learn phrases such as ‘I’m kicking it’, ‘I’m hitting it’ and ‘I’m eating it’  directly from the input and will then schematize to form an ‘I’m ACTIONing it’ schema. Theorists refer to this notion as a lexically specific or item-based construction (Ambridge and Lieven, 2011, p. 126).

This takes me on to my favourite guy in the area of language acquisition, Tomasello. Tomasello is a key thinker when it comes to the usage-based approach to language acquisition. Saxton explains that within the usage-based approach, three stages of early multi-word construction are recognized: word combinations, pivot schemas and item-based constructions (2010, pp. 213-215). Tomasello explains these in detail in his book Constructing a Language: A Usage-based Theory of Language Acquisition (2003). Unlike Chomsky, Tomasello has put his ideas in writing in a fashion that has a fighting chance of keeping you awake.

So what is Tomasello saying about grammar? In terms of item-based constructions he explains the what and the why. What are infants doing? They are producing transitive utterances around their second birthdays which are verb specific. He claims that there is abundant evidence to support this and even refers to his own daughter, explaining that all of her early multi-word utterances revolved around specific verbs (2003, p. 117). However, some verbs were used in quite simple constructions (‘cut’____) and some in more complex frames of different types (‘Draw ____ ‘, ‘Draw ____ on ____’ , Draw ____ for ____’ , ‘____ draw on ____’) (Tomasello, 2003, p. 117). Why do infants do this? Because of what they are exposed to linguistically. The usage-based approach assumes that infants will most easily acquire the words and constructions that they hear most frequently (Ambridge and Lieven, 2011, pp. 2-3).

Unfortunately we may never have a certain, flawless answer to how we acquire language. However, to put language learning “on a par with the elements of our common nature that causes us to grow arms and legs rather than wings” (Chomsky, 1988, p. 4 cited by; Saxton, 2010, p. 187) seems a less logical, small-minded and archaic view to have in terms of language acquisition.

HANNAH SADLER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Ambridge, B., & Lieven, E. V. M. (2011). Child language acquisition: contrasting theoretical approaches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Saxton, M. (2010). Child language: acquisition and development. London: SAGE.
Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition. London: Harvard University Press.

Grown-up grammars and creative constructions. RACHEL BREEDON explores modern theories of child language acquisition

Whilst helping children work their way through the early stages of language, we may not recognise the effort that little ones put in to making those wonderful half-formed sentences. They make it look easy, but whilst they’re babbling away, most of us are unaware of the controversy surrounding this verbal miracle. How exactly do these tiny humans piece together and learn a language so fast and efficiently?

It is apparent that the ability to learn language is innate for humans specifically. Without delving too deeply into the realm of animal linguistics, one characteristic that separates human language from animal languages is the ability to make brand new, novel utterances. To do this though, we need some sort of grammar to be able to combine words and express features such as tense (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011, p. 103). This is where theories of language acquisition generally divide into one of two approaches; generative or constructivist, each with their own ideas of what the nature of this grammar is and where it comes from.

According to generative grammar theory, all children have an innate universal grammar. They believe the capacity to learn language is ‘hardwired’ into our brains in what Chomsky calls a language acquisition device (LAD), explaining our instinct for learning language. Generativists also hold the continuity assumption (Pinker, 1984), which suggests that universal grammar is the same throughout people’s life-span, assuming young children have the syntactic competence of adults.  Acquiring language according to the generativist view can be simplified into two processes; learning the words and constructions of the language, then linking the learned language to the abstract universal grammar (Tomasello, 2002, p. 207). Taking an example from Ambridge & Lieven (2011, p. 123), to form the sentence ‘John kicked Bill’ a speaker would retrieve the verb ‘kick’ from their lexicon or mental dictionary and see that it needs a kicker (subject) and a kickee (object). They’d then insert ‘John’ and ‘Bill’ in their subject and object positions and voilà! Sentence formed according to generativists.

However, this theory relying on selection struggles to account for the formation of certain sentence types. For example, “he sneezed the napkin off the table” would mean you would have to have a caused-motion meaning in your mental dictionary for the verb ‘sneezed’, which most of us have only encountered in intransitive sentences with no object, such as ‘he sneezed’ (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011, p.125). We don’t often encounter someone sneezing something to a place, so how would a child work out what that means?

This is where the constructivist approach emerges. A construction according to Goldberg (1995, p. 4) is “a form-meaning pair such that some aspect of the form or some aspect of the function is not strictly predictable from the construction’s component parts”. In simpler terms, the construction or word pattern itself adds meaning. For example, in an English transitive construction such as the kicking example from before, a form (NOUN1 VERB NOUN2) is associated with a function (A acts upon B, causing B to be affected in some way) (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011, p. 124). From the components ‘kicked’, ‘Bill’ and ‘John’ alone it isn’t possible to tell who was the kicker and kickee, but when inserted into the construction the meaning emerges.

Once a child notices that certain forms are associated with particular functions, they are motivated to learn that construction, especially when talking about their own actions. SUBJECT VERB OBJECT transitive constructions can be learned bit by bit, as the first step is to learn simple phrases such as ‘I’m hitting it’ and ‘I’m eating it’ directly from adult input (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011, p. 125). From these, children form an I’m ACTIONing it schema into which they can insert any action they learn the lexical item for. These are item-based constructions and are easily learned from the input of others, relating to simple functions that the child understands. Tomasello found that most of children’s early linguistic competence is item-based and develops in a piecemeal fashion. He provides evidence to contrast the generativist continuity assumption, suggesting there is virtually no evidence of an innate, system-wide adult-like grammar in children and proposing his own usage-based theory of language acquisition (Tomasello, 2000, p. 209).

However, even that study received criticism (Fischer, 2002), and so the dispute continues. It seems obvious that item-based schemas such as ‘I’m ACTIONing it’ could generate children’s early sentences. The challenging part is deciding whether they do, or whether we’re born with these abstract rules and just have to match our experiences up with them. Either way, innate or acquired, baby humans certainly have a knack for grammar.

RACHEL BREEDON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

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

Fischer, C. (2002). The role of abstract syntactic knowledge in language acquisition: a reply to Tomasello (2000). Cognition, 82, pp. 259-278.

Goldberg, A. E. (1995). Constructions: A construction grammar approach to argument structure. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

Pinker, S. (1984). Language learnability and language development. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.

Tomasello, M. (2000). Do young children have adult syntactic competence? Cognition, 74, pp. 209-253.

 

Blank slate or language acquisition device. MADDI SYMES explores the language acquisition battleground

From hair colour to height, gender to complexion – we all have characteristics which have been determined biologically. Whilst these characteristics are undeniably innate, there are many human traits which are not quite so straightforward; aggression, intelligence, our unique ability to communicate through language. This longstanding debate had existed since Francis Galton coined the phrase ‘nature versus nurture’ in 1869 (Cacioppo & Freberg, 2013, p. 90). Human beings have come so far in scientific discoveries, from black holes to cancer treatments, so why is it we still don’t know whether language is innate or learnt? Well, allow me to break it all down for you!

Rationalist René Descartes (1641; cited by Hunt, 2003, p. 32) argued that we have ‘innate ideas’ whilst empiricist John Locke (1689; cited by Sherman, 2013, p. 26) famously attacked Descartes claim, stating that the human mind ‘begins’ or enters the world in a blank state (tabula rasa) – knowledge being acquired through posteriori – through experience and observations. From an epistemological point of view, we have capacities to acquire language but clearly have no ability to develop it as we do this in early in life. Tabula rasa, although tenable in this sense, is simply not true. In the light of contemporary science it is evident that we begin life with certain characteristics that characterise ‘human nature’. Evolutionary, biological instincts and that are studied within the discipline of ‘evolutionary psychology’.

When exploring this debate with regards to language we find there are two major schools of thought – nativists and functionalists. Nativists believe that some aspects of linguistic knowledge are innate, meaning they are present at birth (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011, p. 1-3). Holding up a fight for nativism is generativist Noam Chomsky (1976). Generativists believe knowledge of grammar consists of formal ‘rules’ that operate on abstract linguistic categories. Chomsky (1976; cited by Kearns, 2010, p. 174) argues that these rules are innate and that we all have inbuilt, instinctive ‘universal principles’ and rules for grammar. He calls this our ‘Language Acquisition Device’ (LAD) which is activated when children are exposed to language (Chomsky, 1976; cited by Kearns, 2010, p. 174). If only it was that simple, Chomsky!

On the other side of the battle ring is Tomasello (2005; cited by Workman and Reader, 2014, p. 303), a leading figure in the functionalist camp. Functionalists argue that the ability to learn language is innate, but there is no innate knowledge of grammar, and grammatical categories are not a priori. Tomasello, a bit like Locke, believes we learn through exposure to adult speech.  A quote by Tomasello (2008) that I came across reading his chapter, ‘The Grammatical Dimension’ In Origins of Human Communication reads, “[a]lthough many aspects of human linguistic competence have indeed evolved biologically, specific grammatical principles and constructions have not” (p. 313) which I feel summarises the functionalist view well.

So far it seems to be a tie between the two contenders, so let’s step out of the battle ring and look at an experiment famously known as ‘the wug test’. I first came across the research a number of years ago when I was reading Davidson’s (2011) book Planet Worda great read by the way! Jean Berko Gleason (1958; cited by Davidson, 2011, p. 47) presented children with a picture of a ‘wug’, a nonsense word describing the creature in the picture to see whether the children made ‘wug’ into the plural ‘wugs’. The results suggested children’s ability to form such grammatical structures is varied and depends on the individual’s development (1958; cited by Davidson, 2011, p. 49). Nativists argue that this shows children do not simply imitate language as they can produce the correct grammatical forms for nonsense words they have not heard before (Barry, 2002, p. 184). However, there have been many criticisms of the ‘wug’ test, and could it be possible that children have actually acquired these grammatical rules and have learnt to generalise them?

Gleason has quite a middle ground opinion in believing that there are areas of the brain which are specialised for language and through hearing and experiencing language and by interacting with language users, coupled with the capacity for language, language is built in the brain (1958; cited by Davidson, 2011, p 49). Personally, I have to agree with Gleason’s (1958) view. I believe that the difficulty in concluding the on-going debate lies in the fact we cannot (yet) conduct experiments on new-born babies that would provide substantial evidence to prove which aspects of language are innate and which are acquired. Will it take breakthrough research to end this battle, or is it simply unanswerable?

MADDI SYMES, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Ambridge, B., & Lieven, E. V. M. (2011). Child Language Acquisition: Contrasting Theoretical Approaches. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Barry, A. (2002). Linguistic Perspectives on Language and Education. Connecticut, United States of America: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Cacioppo, J., & Freberg, L. (2013). Discovering Psychology: The Science of Mind. Belmont, United States of America: Wadsworth.

Chomsky, N. (1976). On the nature of language. In S. R. Harnad, H. D. Steklis, & J. Lancaster (Eds.), Origins and Evolution of Language and Speech, 280, 46–57.

Davidson, J. P. (2011). Planet Word. London, United Kingdom: Michael Joseph.

Descartes, R. (1641). Meditations on first philosophies. In J. Cottingham, R.Stoothoff, & D. Murdoch (Eds.), The Principle Writings of Descartes. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Galton, F. (1869). Hereditary Genius. London, United Kingdom: Macmillan and   Co.

Gleason, J. (1958). The child’s learning of English morphology. Word, 14, 150–177.

Hunt, S. (2003). Controversy in Marketing Theory: For Reason, Realism, Truth, and Objectivity. New York, United States of America: M. E. Sharpe.

Kearns, K. (2010). Frameworks for Learning and Development. Australia: Pearson.

Locke, J. (1689). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London, United Kingdom: William Tegg.

Sherman, P. (2012). John Locke: Philosopher of the Enlightenment. California, United States of America: Teacher Created Materials.

Tomasello, M. (2008). Origins of Human Communication. London, United Kingdom: The MIT Press.

Workman, L., & Reader, W. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology (3rd ed.). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.