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


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


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.


LORNA CRAVEN outlines a functionalist approach to child language acquisition

Understanding how children learn and use language is still a hot topic in the field of linguistics. It is also still a topic without a definite answer. While this is the case, it does not mean that there has been little research into answering this age old question –  quite the opposite in fact. I will be looking at how functionalists approach this question and look at one of the main theorists behind the approach: Michael Tomasello.

So what is functionalism? Ambridge and Lieven state that “[f]unctionalists assume that children do not have any innate knowledge of grammar […] it assumes that children are not born with grammatical categories such as verb and noun but must acquire them by generalising across the adult speech that they hear, therefore most functionalist approaches are input based” (2011: 2). This approach therefore goes against anything put forward by Chomsky (language being pre-wired in the brain) and instead focuses on the social constructions and experiences children go through while growing up.

Michael Tomasello is one of the main theorists behind the social constructivist approach and argues that “[c]hildren acquire language first and foremost by understanding how others use language” (Tomasello 2009:86). It comes as no surprise then that he puts forward a usage based approach to language acquisition which states that children come to acquiring language at around the age of one equipped with two sets of cognitive and social skills. This enables children to pattern their utterances into the structure of language. The two skills are ‘intention reading’ and pattern finding. Intention reading skills enable children to acquire the appropriate use of communicative symbols which eventually leads to the use of more complex linguistic expressions and constructions. Pattern findings are necessary for children to find patterns in the way adults use linguistic symbols in utterances to construct the grammar of language.

As well has having opposing views to the nativists, functionalists also go about researching this topic differently. Observational studies are used so linguists can actually see what is happening with child speech. It comes down to cause and effect. These studies are all well and good, but how do you carry them out on children who are not yet old enough to speak themselves? To answer this Gertner, Fisher and Eisengart (2006) carried out a preferential looking task on children aged 21-25 months of age to determine whether or not they had the ability to recognise syntactic roles of different characters from a given sentence. Children would look at a screen, and whichever one they looked at for the longest determined their answer. There are major flaws with preferential looking tasks. It is not possible to know for sure whether or not children actually know the correct answer, or whether they just look at a screen longer because they like the picture more. Again, this shows just how complex the question of child language acquisition actually is.

The main focus of the functionalist approach is to look at how social constructions and experience with language shape how our language develops. Observational studies are key when looking for answers but just how early can these studies be carried when we want reliable results? The question is still ongoing, and I think it will be for some time to come.

 LORNA CRAVEN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


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

Gertner, Y. Fisher, C. & Eisengart, J. (2006). Learning words and rules: abstract knowledge of word order in early sentence comprehension. Psychology Science, 17 (8), 684-691.

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