Universal Grammar or intention-reading & pattern-finding? EMMA BARRY explores two key theories of language learning.

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


Ambridge, B., & Lieven, E. (2011). Child Language Acquisition. Cambridge University Press Textbooks.

Chomsky, N. (1996). Language and problems of knowledge. Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press.

Ibbotson, P., & Tomasello, M. (2016). What’s universal grammar? Evidence rebuts Chomsky’s theory of language learningSalon

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 Psychiatry43(10), 1305-1306.




How do children really acquire language? Is it in their nature or do they need to be nurtured along the way? KATIE ROBERTS investigates.

Do you have a burning desire to know how you started talking and forming grammatical sentences? This may not be at the top of your priority list but there has been a debate in this linguistic field for decades.  Are we any closer to an answer?

One viewpoint that has been very popular since the early 1960s is the ‘innatist’ approach to child language acquisition. Noam Chomsky is most closely associated with this. As the term suggests, innatists believe our ability to learn and use language is innate and “encoded in our genes” (Rowland, 2014, p. 15). This seems rational because children appear to learn language very rapidly. Pinker (1994) even refers to them as “lexical vacuum cleaners” (p. 151). He claims that language is a manifestation of a natural pre-wired “Language Instinct” (Pinker, 1994) which is triggered when a child is exposed to language output.

This builds on Chomsky’s proposition that humans have an innate grammatical capability, based on Universal Grammar (UG). Essentially, UG is the “properties of language that are mentally represented by an internal linguistic system (a grammar)” (White, 2003, p. 2). Where is the support for this? Consider the input that children receive around them. Is it a perfect model to emulate and learn from? The answer, according to Chomsky is ‘no’. Natural spoken language is full of performance errors, false starts, hesitations and fillers like “err”. Chomsky called this the ‘Poverty of Stimulus’. Our experience cannot account for our ability to generate novel sentences and so innateness must accountable for the resulting production of language (Lasnik & Lidz, 2017, p. 1).

This is admittedly a captivating attempt to explain child language acquisition. But can this be tested and proven empirically? Akhtar claims there is no way of providing watertight evidence to support this so-called ‘nature’ (as opposed to ‘nurture’) approach to language learning (2004, p. 460). So is the concept of Universal Grammar just a “Language Myth” (Evans, 2014)?  Your guess is as good as mine.

Critics of innatism propose an alternative explanation for the way children learn to speak, often called ‘Social Constructivism’. Michael Tomasello is the theorist often associated with this. Social constructivists believe that children have a natural intuition and certain cognitive abilities that help with the acquisition of language but the focus is shifted to “meaning in use” (Tomasello, 2012, p. 69). In sunning theories of innate mechanisms and language modules in the brain (Evans, 2014, pp. 96- 7) children are believed to develop language skills as a result of social and cultural environments – a desire to communicate. If anything, it serves a purpose for them.

The notion of an inbuilt pre-existing mechanism is discarded in a usage-based focus. Instead, function in use is the driving force for acquisition. Two skill sets form the fundamental components of this approach – ‘intention-reading’ and ‘pattern-finding’.

These two terms are best taken as a bottom-up interpretation, whereby grammatical “categories and rules [for language] are built up gradually” (Rowland, 2014, p. 96). Rather than being inborn, basic categories and acquisition of language are “facilitated by parents, peers, teachers, and others” (Kaufman, 2004, p. 304). Constructivists rely heavily on the notion of caregiver assistance and the input from others (‘nurture’). This might be right; language after all is a social phenomenon.

It is undoubtedly important for a child to “work out what message a speaker intends to convey” (Rowland, 2014, p. 101). Ibbotston and Tomasello provide an example from a recent article in the Scientific American. In an utterance such as “can you open the door for me?” (2016), a child would need to follow the attention of the speaker – i.e. intention reading – and realize that this is a request, understanding specified interactive goals. The next level moves from this functional base and progresses to the grammatical dimension – ‘pattern-finding’. A child needs to move “beyond individual utterances they hear people using […] and create abstract linguistic schemas” (Tomasello, 2012, p. 70). The example of “want + desired object” (Rowland, 2014, p. 101) illustrates this, for instance ‘I want drink’ or ‘I want ball’ from an ‘I want X’ pattern. Basic schemas can assist with language and sentence development. Social constructivists think children use these to slot new words into a frame.

So, does one approach have more value than the other? Many academics have latched onto one theory and have only “discussed research conducted within the relevant paradigm of interest” (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011, p. 13). There is a danger that scholars cherry-pick examples to suit their pre-existing ideas. The so-called ‘nature versus nurture’ debate is likely to continue for now. At the end of the day we can’t ask a baby how it learns to speak!

KATIE ROBERTS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Akhtar, N. (2004). Nativist versus constructivist goals in studying child language. Journal of Child Language, 31(2), 459-462.

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

Evans, V. (2014). The language myth: Why language is not an instinct. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ibbotston, P., & Tomasello, M. (2016, October 9). What’s universal grammar? Evidence rebuts Chomsky’s theory of language learning. Scientific American. 

Kaufman, D. (2004). Constructivist issues in language learning and teaching. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 24, 303-319.

Lasnik, H., & Lidz, L. J. (2017). The argument from the poverty of stimulus. In I. Roberts (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of universal grammar (pp. 221-249). Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: The new science of language and mind. London, United Kingdom: Penguin Books.

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

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.

White, L. (2003). Second language acquisition and universal grammar. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.


Nature, nurture and a gene. What does it all mean? NATHAN DURRINGTON is foxed by language acquisition

It is the only concept on earth that we have to use for it to be talked about. The concept of language without any great deal of thought is simply just another one of those human phenomena many of us take for granted. Despite large amounts of research being conducted into the debate, we are yet to find an undisputed answer to how we acquire language. In recent years, leading linguists, Noam Chomsky and Michael Tomasello, among others, have argued whether nature or nurture is responsible, whether a device in our brain exists or whether we rely totally upon input from our parents and caregivers, but is it finally time for the debate to be revolutionised? I’d probably say so.

The first notable scientific approach came in the shape of Skinner (1957) who coined the idea that the acquisition of language was a feature of behaviourism. Imagine this scenario: “the child says ‘milk’ and the mother will smile and will give [the child] some. As a result, the child will find this outcome rewarding, enhancing the child’s language development” (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011). However, Chomsky criticised Skinner’s theory on the basis of there being a ‘poverty of the stimulus’, suggesting there are too many complex grammatical rules for a child to learn, relying upon language input alone (Chomsky, 1976) and with that the behaviourist approach was somewhat (correctly) disregarded.

Taking pole position now, was Chomsky himself. Through his nativist approach, he stated, “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).  Two key elements that Chomsky preached within his ideology are, the ‘poverty of stimulus’ and ‘universal grammar’, the latter which “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).

Then came along the social constructivist, Michael Tomasello. He somewhat dismissed Chomsky’s claims on the basis of him being an ‘armchair linguist’. He instead promoted Wittgenstein’s ‘meaning is use’ approach (1953). This approach is comprised of two elements. The first suggests that children must “come to a new understanding of their own intentional actions… [Following this, they must] use their ‘like me’ stance to understand the behaviour of other persons in this same way” (Tomasello 1999, p.72). This concept, known as ‘intention reading’ is “what children must do to discern the goals or intentions of mature speakers when they use linguistic conventions to achieve social ends” (Tomasello, 2012, p.69). The second element is ‘pattern finding’. This is “what children must do to go productively beyond the individual utterances they hear people using around them” (Tomasello, 2012, p.70). When these two features work in unison, children will “understand the communicative functions of utterances… [They do this] by reading the intentions of the speaker. They then find patterns across item-based constructions by schematizing and making analogies” (Tomasello 2003, p.143). With this we have the point of view of the nurture side of the debate.

Still with no clear answer as to how we acquire language, is it time we look elsewhere? Since the turn of the millennium, considerable work has gone into investigating the FOXP2 gene. The gene is found to “influence the development of the nervous system, and parts of the brain involved in motor skills” (Kunert, Jongman & Prins, 2013, p.2) suggesting that the gene is pivotal to evolving the muscle structure required for such complex articulation. It is also found that “individuals that have a mutation of the FOXP2 gene suffer from speech and language disorders, and have difficulties expressing and articulating language” (Kunert, Jongman & Prins, 2013, p.2). This area of research has been reinforced with evidence, which would suggest that it has strong foundations.

With the argument concerning genes still being in its infancy, it is impossible to hypothesise that it is responsible for language learning just yet. However it is key that its potential is not ignored. Despite this, when we consider the evidence we do have, it may be sensible to change the way we look at the debate, is it really a case of one being more important than the other? Or we should we be asking “to what extent do nature and nurture combine to allow the acquisition of language?”

NATHAN DURRINGTON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


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

Chomsky, N. (1981). Knowledge of language: Its elements and origins. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 295(1077), 223-234.

Chomsky, N. (1988). Language and problems of knowledge: The Managua lectures (Vol. 16). MIT press.

Kunert, R., Jongman, S. and Prins, T. (2013). Language, Nature and Nurture – Can genes settle the debate.

Tomasello, M. (1999). The cultural origins of human cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tomasello, M. (2003) 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.

Internal or innate, the great language acquisition debate. LUCY HANCOCK investigates

Will there ever be an end to the controversy about how children manage to acquire language seemingly so easily? According to Cacioppo & Freberg (2013), Francis Galton was the first to coin the phrase ‘nature versus nurture’. He was very much in support of the ‘nature’ hypothesis, claiming “I propose to show […] that a man’s natural abilities are derived by inheritance” (Galton, 1869, p. 1).  This bold statement has been supported heavily by Chomsky, one of the most respected linguists, renowned for his theory that language structure is biologically determined in the human mind. In stark contrast stood the behaviourists whose belief in the acquisition of language through imitation of adult language and positive reinforcement (or conditioning) to encourage repetition of accurate linguistic constructions, was severely criticised by Chomsky in the late 1950s. Skinner (1957, p. 199) stated that “among the sounds which become important are the verbal responses of his parents and others. The child can then reinforce himself automatically for the execution of vocal patterns which are later to become part of his verbal behaviour.” The behaviourists were very much interested in the influence of a child’s environment upon their acquisition of language, a factor that the nativists like Chomsky chose to ignore.

According to Stilwell Peccei (2006, p. 3), “Chomsky proposed that children actively construct the rule systems of their native language aided by a brain already pre-wired with a special language capacity”. This apparent innate set of language rules, that are present in every human brain from birth, was labelled ‘Universal Grammar’ and nativists believe this inbuilt device is the key to a child’s language acquisition. They argue that a child’s environmental exposure to language is simply not enough for them to acquire a complete linguistic system. This so-called ‘poverty of stimulus’ is the idea “that the knowledge acquired in language acquisition far outstrips the information that is available in the environment” (Laurence and Margolis 2001, p. 221). Despite the amount of interest and support for the nativist theory, there is little empirical evidence to validate it (Akhtar, 2004). The legitimacy of this argument is called into question due to the theoretical nature and the lack of data to prove the proposed theories. On the other hand, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to study the human brain from the moment of birth to search for the supposed ‘Language Acquisition Device’, the area of the brain in which nativists believe language ‘lives’.

In juxtaposition to the nativist argument, we have the constructivists who, as stated by Lieven and Brandt, are named as such “because children are seen as building up an inventory of constructions” (2014, p. 282). They believe in the idea of language acquisition via exposure to rich language; once the exposure to adult language has occurred, the child will imitate this. It is claimed that language is the product of life experiences and that the human brain is powerful enough to learn, memorise and retain information simply through exposure. Tomasello, one of the leading constructivists in this approach, focuses his thinking around the idea that “children begin to acquire language when they do because the learning process depends crucially on the more fundamental skills of joint attention, intention-reading and cultural learning” (2003, p. 21). A child must understand the communicative intentions of an adult or caregiver and share joint attention to the object the caregiver is referring to. Once this joint attention is achieved, the child should then, according to this theory, be able to imitate the adult’s constructions.

It seems that both sides of this debate have little chance of working alone to explain the process of language acquisition. Should we believe that language is innate from birth? Or is it more a process of learning from our environment? Instead of separating the debate into two sides, would it not make more sense to combine them and see how well they work as one?

LUCY HANCOCK, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Akhtar, N. (2004). Nativist versus constructivist goals in studying child language. Journal of Child Language, 31(2), 459-462.

Cacioppo, J., & Freberg, L. (2013). Discovering psychology: The science of mind. Belmont, United States of America: Wadsworth.

Galton, F. (1869). Hereditary genius. London, United Kingdom: Macmillan.

Laurence, S. & Margolis, E. (2001). The poverty of stimulus argument. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 52(2), 217-276.

Lieven, E. & Brandt, S. (2014). The constructivist approach. Journal for the Study of Education and Development, 34(3), 281-296.

Skinner, B.F. (1957). Verbal behavior. Massachusetts, USA: Copley Publishing Group.

Stilwell Peccei, J. (2006). Child language. Oxford, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Tomasello, M. (2003) Constructing a language. London, United Kingdom: Harvard University Press.

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


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.

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.