There are two major contrasting approaches to child language acquisition (CLA). The ‘nativist’ approach encompasses the belief that children are born with innate knowledge of language (Universal Grammar). The opposing usage-based ‘social constructivist’ approach assumes children learn language through the input they receive from an early age (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011). These conflicting views have provoked intense debate for decades within the linguistic community. Do children have nature to thank for their ability to acquire language, or nurture?
The nativist approach was proposed in the 1950s by Noam Chomsky. Chomsky’s theory is that our understanding and knowledge of language is “part of our biological endowment, genetically determined, on par with the elements of our common nature that allow us to grow arms and legs rather than wings” (1988, p. 7). In short, we have an innate knowledge of language (mainly grammatical rules) from the day we are born.
Included in the nativist theory is the idea that all human beings are born with a set of rules – or ‘Universal Grammar’- that can be applied to any of the world’s languages. Ambridge and Lieven (2011, p. 2) define Universal Grammar as a “formal set of rules that operate on abstract linguistic categories”. Ibbotson & Tomasello offer a simpler definition, that Universal Grammar is the idea that “children are born with the ability to make words conform to a grammatical template” (2016). For example if this theory is correct, children understand that in the phrase ‘John danced’, the noun ‘John’ must appear before the verb ‘danced’ is evidence of the innate rules performing a syntactic operation (creating a grammatically correct phrase) (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011, p. 3).
The nativist approach is backed up by Chomsky’s claim of a ‘poverty of stimulus’. The poverty of stimulus idea is that “the linguistic environment is too impoverished for a child learner to achieve full adult competence” (Reali & Christiansen, 2004). In short children can generally produce sentences they haven’t been exposed to before (Toppleberg, Collins & Martin, 2004). In the eyes of the nativists, this supports their views and the argument for nature over nurture as it implies that there must be a faculty inside a child’s brain allowing them to create and produce utterances previously unheard.
However, none of the data used in the nativist theory is empirical, meaning that none of the examples used in support of this theory are based on real evidence. This is because Chomsky believes that the number of performance errors means it is impossible to gain an accurate representation of a person’s grammatical competence based on recorded data. But does this compromise the validity of his theories?
The social constructivists hold an opposing view claiming that the only innate knowledge children possess is the ability to learn language because of other more general cognitive skills rather than any inbuilt rules of grammar. This approach analyses empirical data from “actual communicative events” (Ibbotson & Tomasello, 2016). They believe that children use ‘intention reading’ and ‘pattern finding’ to generalise from examples to understand language and create new utterances, refuting the nativist’s poverty of stimulus theory.
Michael Tomasello, the main driving force behind the social constructivist approach, explains that “a child must work out the intentions of the mature speaker to achieve social ends” and they do this through a process called ‘intention reading’. Ibbotson & Tomasello (2016) give the example of the question “can you open the door for me?”. In this situation the child must work out that the question is a request for help not a request into their door opening abilities. ‘Pattern finding’ works alongside ‘intention reading’ in the constructivist approach. ‘Pattern finding’ involves the realisation of patterns in language from the child to create linguistic schemas and constructions. For example, in English a child should come to realise the pattern of noun-verb-noun in utterances such as “Jane kicks the ball” and be able to generalise this pattern into their own speech (Rowland, 2014, p.100). Ibbotson and Tomasello (2016) use the sentences “the dog wants the ball” and “the dog wants food” as an example for pattern finding with the idea that after hearing this similar structure time after time the child will be able to adopt the framework and create their own novel sentences, such as, “the dog wants the bowl”.
In short, on one hand we have the rather convincing innateness theory proposed by nativists, with the poverty of stimulus argument there to deter any doubt. On the other hand there is the social constructivist theory, all based on concrete evidence. So, nature or nurture, or maybe even a little bit of both, where do you stand?
EMMA BARRY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Reali, F., & Christiansen, M. H. (2004). Structure dependence in language acquisition: Uncovering the statistical richness of the stimulus. In Proceedings of the Cognitive Science Society (Vol. 26, No. 26).
Toppelberg, C., Collins, B., & Martin, A. (2004). Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition. Journal Of The American Academy Of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 43(10), 1305-1306.