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


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


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.


Will we ever solve the language acquisition puzzle? LAURA TALBOT investigates

Language sets us apart. Animals communicate but they do not have anything approaching the sophisticated grammar of human languages. How is it that we learn to speak and think in language so easily? By the time we are five years old we have an, ‘[e]stimated vocabulary of 5,000-10,000 words’ (Anglin, 1993, p.147). But how do we acquire them? Young children become adept in a new language very quickly and since the dawn of philosophy, thinkers have argued about whether or not they are born with innate structures to prepare them for the task. So are children born with blank slates in terms of language or do they have an outline knowledge of how language is structured?

Two key theorists within this debate are nativist Noam Chomsky, who believes that “[c]ertain aspects of our knowledge and understanding are innate, part of our biological endowment, genetically determined, 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). Suggesting that just as children are born ‘innately’ with arms and legs, they are also born with innate structures that allow them to understand and acquire language. The opposing theorist is, constructivist Michael Tomasello, who claims that, “children acquire language first and foremost by understanding how others use language” (Tomasello, 2009, p.86). This posits that children understand and acquire language through the nurturing of the people surrounding them.

Looking firstly at the nativist approach, the key question is whether or not we have ‘innate principles’. Nativists claim that the rules for sentence structure are too complex to be acquired by a learner who comes to the task with no knowledge of the way that language is structured, hence Chomsky’s theory of ‘innate principles’. He believes that “the child is born with some innate principles about language ‘wired in’ to the brain” (Chomsky 1981 as cited in Cattel, 2007, p.82). He posits that this basic innate knowledge of sentence structure and grammar is present in all human children- hence it is a ‘universal grammar’. He states that “[UG] may be thought of as some system of principles, common to the species and available to each individual prior to experience” (Chomsky, 1981, p.7). Could this be possible, when all languages are made up of different grammar rules and structures? Chomsky argues that “individuals in a speech community have developed essentially the same language” (Pinker, 1994, p.23). Nativist Steven Pinker uses the following example to advocate Universal Grammar, claiming “[w]e think children pick up their mother tongue by imitating their mothers, but when a child says Don’t giggle me! or We holded the baby rabbits it cannot be an act of imitation” (Pinker, 1994, p.21). This coincides with the idea that children create their own sentences using their own rules and innate ‘Universal Grammar’ to guide them.

In his book The ‘Language Instinct Debate’ (2005) Geoffrey Sampson directly disputes Chomsky and Pinker’s theory of ‘Language Universals’. He claims that “Nativists have often made authoritative-sounding claims about language universals when it is clear that the claims could not have survived a minimal attempt to check for counter-evidence” (Sampson, 2005, p.138). Sampson believes that nativists, like Chomsky, make claims about language universals and base it on one example, without using further examples or evidence.

So what about the major influence of the child’s surroundings? Surely their environment growing up affects their language?

This takes us to the constructivist approach of language acquisition, which argues that, “[y]oung children must learn during their individual ontogenies the set of linguistic conventions used by those around them” (Tomasello, 2003, p.1). We spend the majority of our first three years of life surrounded by adults, so it makes sense that we are going to pick up their ‘linguistic conventions’ and build upon them. Constructivists fundamentally believe that language develops alongside and in connection with other social and cognitive skills which develop at, “around 9-12months of age” (Tomasello, 2003, p.3). So children will acquire language as they acquire the ability to interact in communication, make gestures, point, share the intentions of others and pursue shared goals. Therefore, language acquisition is part of the development of cognitive abilities and the knowledge of language is arguably derived from experience of the outside world.

After thousands of years of debate, will we ever get a definite answer as to how we acquire language? Aitchison attempts to answer the question by stating that “everyone agrees that human beings bring some innate faculties to the task of learning, and everyone agrees that the mature human’s cognitive world depends in some respect on his experience’ (Aitchison, 2011, p.28). Will theorists like Tomasello and Chomsky eventually join forces and reach a conclusion? The debate continues….

LAURA TALBOT, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Aitchison, J. (2011). The Articulate Mammal: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics. London: Routledge.

Anglin, J.M. (1993). “Vocabulary Development: A Morphological Analysis.” Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 58(10 (238)): 1-166.

Cattell, R. (2007). Children’s Language: Consensus and Controversy. London: Continuum.

Chomsky, N. ‘Review of Verbal Behaviour by B.F. Skinner’. Language 35 (1):26-58.

Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct. London: Penguin.

Sampson, G. (2005). The ‘Language Instinct’ Debate. London: Continuum.

Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing A Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

RHIANNON SHARKEY asks: ‘Will we ever be able to answer the language acquisition question?’

The way children acquire language is a heavily debated topic in linguistics. However is it doomed to be a never-ending battle in which an answer is never found? As Cattell, (2007) states, we cannot begin to know what happens inside a child’s brain and there is no concrete evidence to say which approach pips the other to the finish line.

The empiricist approach emphasises the need for concrete evidence to support theories, which is why empiricists such as Geoffrey Sampson have problems with nativists such as Chomsky. Chomsky’s theories are notorious for only being hypotheses with no evidence to support them. Empiricists seem to contradict themselves because Stemmer, (1987: 100-105) states that they believe we are born with an innate capacity to learn language, but there is no prior knowledge there; we are a blank slate. Chomsky (1977) retaliated with the controversial view that this theory is dangerous, because it represents humans as empty organisms that are easily manipulated. Perhaps this is taking matters to the extreme, and to discuss this theory as being ‘useful’ from a left wing perspective is going off on a tangent.

Sampson (2005: 1-7) supports Karl Popper’s theory that we learn language through a guess and test technique. He uses the metaphor of a baby being a research scientist who accumulates creative ideas from their environment. The baby then sends them into the world to test them out, and this is how they become aware of guesses which are correct. However is this reducing the complex skill of language to basic trial and error? Perhaps it would be better to believe in theories such as Chomsky’s – that humans are unique with this inbuilt knowledge of language locked in our brain until it is triggered. Throughout my research I could not help but compare it to the debate between creation and evolution. Some people are able to have faith in certain ideals without the need for evidence, whereas others are the opposite. Does this determine whether you believe the nativist or empiricist side of this debate?

Furthermore at the forefront of the functionalist approach is the social constructivist, Michael Tomasello. This approach emphasises that “[c]hildren acquire language first and foremost by understanding how others use language” (Tomasello 2009: 86). It states that children learn a set of constructions from their caregiver called ‘frozen phrases’, such as ‘I’m eating it’ and pair it with a function such as ‘performing an action on something’. Over time they start to find patterns, which enable them to develop more complex and abstract constructions, for example ‘I’m ACTIONing it’ and ‘SUBJECT VERB OBJECT’ (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011: 125).

I agree that input is crucial to a child’s language development. Sampson (2005:1-22) sums it up for me in saying that we are able to learn language if we are born into the appropriate environment. There is a substantial difference in language development between children who are born into a normal socially stimulated environment and feral children such as Genie, who unfortunately do not have this opportunity.  This also supports the need for communication by caregivers, and is further supported in a study by Moskowitz. He studied a boy who had deaf parents, but he was not deaf. Up until three years old, the only way of learning English that he had was the television, as he was confined to his house due to severe asthma. It was found that by three years old he could not understand or speak English because this communicative element was missing (Kies, 1991). However the functionalist approach cannot explain everything, such as how organs develop. Nativists believe in the ‘language organ’ and Chomsky, (1977) states that organs develop due to a genetic program not to serve a function, for example the heart.

The two sides do not deny the importance of one another, they just argue over which is weighted more. The question is: will there come a time when both sides are so exhausted they will give in? This may leave the language acquisition question unanswered, much like questions such as the origins of human existence.

RHIANNON SHARKEY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


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

Cattell, R. (2007) Children’s Language: Consensus and Controversy. 2nd edition. London & New York: Routledge.

Chomsky, N. (1977) Empiricism and Rationalism. [Accessed 25th February 2015].

Kies, D. (1991) Language Development in Children. [Accessed on 27th February 2015].

Sampson, G. (2005) The ‘Language Instinct’ Debate: Revised Edition. 2nd Edition. London: Continuum.

Stemmer, N. (1987) The Learning of Syntax: An Empiricist Approach. First Language [online], [Accessed on 28th February 2015], pp. 97-120.

Tomasello, M. (2009) Constructing a Language: A Usage Based Theory of Acquisition.  Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Nature or nurture in language acquisition? SOPHIE BRODIE explores the views of two heavyweights!

The age old question of how children acquire language is still very much a subject of debate, one for which a definite conclusion has yet to be drawn. At the centre of this debate is the argument between the two opposing theories of Functionalists and Nativists, and boxing it out in the ring are, Michael Tomasello and Noam Chomsky. While they are preparing for the fight, let’s look at what their approaches are all about.

The Formalist/Nativist approach believes that there is an innate predisposition to language, especially grammar, and that our brain has a ready inbuilt function which helps us acquire it. Formalists are more interested in linguistic competence. They believe that children could not possibly process grammatical rules and structures without having an innate predisposition, hence the ‘poverty of the stimulus’ argument.

According to Macwhinney, Bates & Kliegl, the Functionalist theory is the belief that “[t]he forms of natural language are created, governed, constrained, acquired, and used in the service of communicative factors” (2014: 160). In other words, Functionalists focus mainly on the social constructions and the input of parents, and how language is acquired through experiences and reinforced behaviour.

First up, in the red corner, we have…Noam Chomsky fighting for his Nativist approach. Two key components of Chomsky’s approach to language acquisition are ‘the poverty of the stimulus’ and the ‘universal grammar’ theories. The ‘poverty of the stimulus’ theory argues that there are some aspects of grammar that are so abstract, that children could not possibly learn them through association and reinforcement. An example of this abstract grammar is auxiliary fronting in Yes-No questions, so ‘The man who is eating is hungry?’ becomes ‘Is the man who is eating hungry?’. Chomsky claims that there is no reason why children should favour auxiliary fronting, meaning that they do produce the correct form of the sentences and rarely the incorrect form (Heine & Narrog, 2010:686). In addition, Chomsky’s universal grammar theory proposes that language is ‘hardwired’ into the brain, leading to Chomsky (1972) referring to his theory as “[n]othing other than the theory of language structure”.

However Tomasello (2005) argues that there is no poverty of the stimulus since children use their “[s]ophisticated learning skills involving categorization, analogy and distributional learning to cognitively create a structured inventory of meaningful grammatical constructions.”  Tomasello (2009: 470-71) criticizes Chomsky further by saying that the universal grammar theory is ‘outdated’.

So arguing his alternative approach, in the blue corner, we have comparative and developmental psychologist, Michael Tomasello. Tomasello believes that rather than language being hard wired into our brain, children must possess two skills in order to acquire language, thus the Usage Based Approach was born. The first cognitive skill is ‘intention reading’, which is what children must use to realise that mature speakers are trying to communicate with them, and understand what they say and mean in order to gain social benefits. The second skill is the grammatical ‘pattern finding’, which Tomasello states “is what children must do to create abstract linguistic schemas or constructions” (2009: 60).

Tomasello conducted an experiment to prove that despite a lack of verbal communication, children may already possess the cognitive skill of intention reading and as such, can understand when an adult is trying to communicate with them. Warneken and Tomasello (2007) conducted an experiment on 14-month-old babies, which involved presenting them with a stranger participant trying to reach for an object, but was unable to pick it up. The results of the experiment showed that the babies picked the object up without being asked, therefore recognising what the participant wanted and meant through his action of reaching.

In conclusion, I personally agree with the statement of Yang (2004: p. 451-456) who states “[c]onsequently, both must be taken into account, explicitly, in a theory of language acquisition”, meaning that both an innate predisposition and input through learning are required in order for children to acquire a sophisticated level of linguistic knowledge. I believe this is a debate that will go on for quite some time, but until then, in this boxing ring, it is most definitely a tie.

SOPHIE BRODIE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Chomsky, N. (1972). Language and Mind. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Heine, B. and Narrog, H. (2010). The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

MacWhinney, B. (1987). Mechanisms of Language Acquisition. Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates..

Tomasello, M. (2005). Constructing a Language. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Tomasello, M. (2009). Universal Grammar is Dead. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32(05), p.470.

Warneken, F. and Tomasello, M. (2007). Helping and Cooperation at 14 Months of Age. Infancy, 11(3), pp.271-294.

Yang, C. D. (2004). Universal Grammar, Statistics or Both? Cognitive Sciences, 8(10), 451-456.

Is there universal agreement about universal grammar? AZARIA CROSS investigates

Theories of language acquisition are often be broken down into two sides –  nature versus nurture, and two of the main theorists behind these positions are Noam Chomsky and Michael Tomasello.

Chomsky’s first contributions to the nature debate were made in the 1960s when much of the empiricist work saw the mind as being a ‘blank slate’ upon which we learn language. Chomsky’s ideas, however, proposed just the opposite suggesting that language was ‘hard-wired’ into the brain which introduced a whole new side to the argument and led to Lyons (1970) calling these ideas a ‘Chomsky Revolution’.

The greatest contribution from Chomsky would be his idea of a ‘universal grammar’, which describes the mind as being the ‘linguistic core’ since there are some principles of grammar that are so abstract they would be impossible to learn, therefore, we must be born with them. This is supported by Chomsky’s related ‘poverty of the stimulus’ theory which gives the example of auxiliary fronting and says that children have no reason to favour auxiliary fronting, since they are not explicitly taught it, yet they do use them to produce the correct form. For example ‘the man who is eating is hungry’, becomes ‘is the man who is eating hungry?’ Pinker (1994: 4) supports the universal grammar theory and says “[l]anguage and grammar is a distinct piece of the biological make up of our minds”. Crain and Pietroski (2001) agree claiming every person is born with innately specified linguistic values of grammar formation.

However, there are also many who disagree with the concept of universal grammar. Tomasello (2005: 7), for instance, argues that universal grammar is not sufficient enough to link all the complex elements of a language that is being learnt, and he states that if universal grammar is always the same then how could a child’s language development be measured over time? Crain et al. (2010) also argue that Chomsky has no empirical evidence to support his theories and therefore the ‘language faculty’ part of the brain he describes cannot be located. The features of any given language across the world are also said to be a complex function of history and not due to the simplistic nature of universal grammar (Jackendoff 2002), therefore, Chomsky’s theory would overlook the crucial aspects of language formation over time. Tomasello (2009) sums up the criticisms simply by claiming “[t]he idea of a biologically evolved, universal grammar with linguistic content is a myth”.

Tomasello’s nurture stance involves what is often called the ‘usage-based approach’. This theory has developed from early behaviourist theories, such as those of Skinner (1957), to claim that language is acquired through integration with other cognitive and socio-cognitive skills, and essentially that language acquisition emerges from language use (Tomasello 2009: 85). He suggests that children use both intention reading, to determine what mature speakers say and mean to gain social benefits, and pattern finding, what children do to create their own linguistic schemas and language representations, to gain the skills they need to acquire language. Tomasello also proposed the idea of the ‘verb island hypothesis’ whereby children treat verbs as their own ‘islands’ of organisation from around which they build sentences. However, this view has caused more controversy than the usage-based approach and Ninio (2003) states that instead of an island, which isolates words, developing grammars are formed more like a web since all the items connect to each other.

Although both Chomsky and Tomasello’s approaches have their strengths and weaknesses it is difficult to highlight one as being the single best explanation for how we acquire language. Therefore, it is safer to adapt to an approach such as that of Yang (2004) who argues that both a theory of innate predisposition with learning must contribute to language acquisition, and that by assuming both it presents an extremely sophisticated body of linguistic knowledge. Future research should focus on how the mind integrates language capabilities that are both innate and learnt, and in doing so it could open up a whole new approach to the language acquisition debate.

AZARIA CROSS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Crain, S., Khlentzos, D., & Thornton, R. (2010). Universal Grammar versus Language Diversity. Lingua, 120(12). 2668–2672.

Crain, S., & Pietroski, P. (2001). Nature, Nurture and Universal Grammar. Linguistics and Philosophy, 24(2)

Jackendoff, R. (2002). Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. London: Oxford University Press

Lyons, J. (1970). Chomsky. United Kingdom: Harper Collins

Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind. London: Penguin Books

Tomasello, M. (2005). Constructing a Language: A Usage Based Theory of Language Acquisition. United States of America: Harvard University Press

Tomasello, M. (2009). Universal Grammar is Dead. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 32(5), 470-471.

Yang, C. D. (2004). Universal Grammar, Statistics or Both? Cognitive Sciences, 8(10), 451-456.

Nature v nurture: Is the Genie Wiley study a reliable source for the language acquisition debate? BETHAN WINNER explores the case

The language acquisition question is one of the oldest linguistic debates in the discipline that still has no simple answer. So many people have voiced their opinions on whether they think it is nature or nurture that helps us to acquire language, and equally, many have failed in their process to actually prove anything despite how much research, time and effort has been put in.

One study that is consistently referred to in the past 45 years is that of the feral child Genie Wiley. Linguists, scientists and psychologists have all used Genie as a primary case study in the language acquisition debate since she was taken from an abusive father by child welfare authorities in Los Angeles in 1970 (Dowling 2004: 64) and subsequently the subject of studies into brain and language development. On the surface Genie seems to provide evidence for both nativist and constructivist sides of the debate, but a closer look at her unique case leads us to rethink if she is actually a reliable source to use at all, or if there ever will be someone we could study instead of her.

Genie was found in a small, dark room where she had been tied to a potty from the age of just a few months old.  When she was discovered, Genie was 13 ½ and was mute due to her lack of communications with the outside world. The only interactions she had with other humans was with her father and brother who simply grunted at her when they tied her up or needed her to move. She seemed like the ideal candidate to test the debate on.

The first issue that people encountered with Genie was her mental state. Although it has been suggested that Genie had normal cognitive function at the time of birth, there is no denying that Genie turned into a “highly abnormal adult” (Harris & Pinker 2009: 147). We will never know whether her subsequent retardation was a result of her traumatic upbringing or if she was born with an initial problem from birth. Like similar cases (such as Victor the Wild Child of Aveyron), this raises the issue of how reliable the study really is as the brain capacity of these individuals differs from someone who would have a normal upbringing with a normal brain capacity. Rolls (2015: 131) discusses many of the methodological problems with Genie’s case and suggests her lack of interaction and social development was inevitable given her circumstances. It is unlikely you would find someone who had a normal upbringing with a normal brain capacity that wasn’t exposed to any language, so although this could be as close as we could ever get, it is still not considered reliable data for many people.

Fortunately there aren’t many cases like Genie, but the results from studying her have coincided with similar studies in the past. Her quick discovery and swift arrest of her father meant that scientists were eager to study her every move. Benzaquen describes this as, “for people in general, Genie was an object of pity; for the scientists, she was an object of knowledge” (2006: 245). Although Genie was a great case to study, many people who cared for her failed her and this is something we have to consider when thinking about the validity of the results. Her care is another issue that people have used to challenge the validity of her study because Genie was constantly moved to and from different people and even moved back to the house where the abuse took place. There was confusion about the funding behind her study which meant she was constantly being moved between specialists who all wanted to learn from her. Rolls provides a detailed account of Genie’s story and describes it as a “catalogue of unfortunate or misguided mistakes” (2015: 132), leaving us to consider the ethics of Genie’s case and as a result of this, if we can even take anything from it at all.

The ethics behind this study mean that it could never be recreated, as abuse of a child is involved. Due to this, Genie’s case is the closest we are ever going to get to a child being brought up in these circumstances. Although there were many mistakes made, within her case the chances something like this happening again are extremely rare. Due to this we may have to accept that though the study may not have been completely ethical or carried out how we would do now, the results are the closest thing we will ever get to studying a child that has never been exposed to language.

 BETHAN WINNER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Benzaquen, A. (2006) Encounters with Wild Children: Temptation and Disappointment in the History of Human Sciences. Canada: McGill-Queens University Press.

Dowling, J. (2004) The Great Brain Debate. Nature or Nurture? USA: Joseph Henry Press.

Harris, J. R and Pinker, S. (2009) The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. United States: Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group.

Rolls, G. (2015) Classic Case Studies in Psychology: Third Edition. United Kingdom: Routledge.