“At one time it was common to define a human as a thinking animal, but we can hardly imagine thought without words” (Barber, 1997, p.1). So how do we humans seem to effortlessly acquire language skills – including all the complexities of grammar – which other species cannot? Imagine a never ending coin toss. Heads, language acquisition is innate – “the ability comes […] naturally” (Pinker, 1994, p.15), tails, language is learned through environmental stimuli. Toss the coin.
Heads, nature. Chomsky’s hypothesis is that the grammar of language is “genetically determined, on a par with the elements of our common nature that cause us to grow arms and legs rather than wings” (1988, p.4). Just imagine! But is grammar a universal part of our genetic makeup “determined by its biological nature” as the innatists believe? Chomsky claims that “language develops naturally and with minimal effort”, with former student Pinker pointing out that children “know things they could not have been taught” (1994, p.40-2). This innate knowledge of grammatical structures is referred to as ‘Universal Grammar’, based, for instance on the fact that children seem to know how to use inflection markers to mark tense and number, with little or no effort. My sister informs me our dog “runned in the garden” instead of “ran”. This over-generalisation with the addition of ‘–ed’, signifying past tense, is an internalised rule not imitated from the caregiver. Jean Berko Gleason conducted an experiment testing this theory in 1958, whereby the made-up word ‘wug’ was associated with a drawing of a bird-like creature and the child was asked what they would call two of these. It found “as a fact almost any human being [will] do the task” by adding the plural marker ‘–s’, to make ‘wugs’. As the children had never heard the plural before, they had already internalized the rule and were not simply copying adults as the researchers ensured they had never heard the plural ‘wugs’ before.
Tails, nurture. Functionalists, or social constructionists, argue that communication with caregivers is essential in aiding a child’s development. Key exponent, Michael Tomasello insists “children begin to understand linguistic symbols produced by adults when they are able to participate with adults in the concept known as joint attention frames […] to understand their specific communicative intentions as expressed in an utterance” (Tomasello, 2003). So, a caregiver pointing out pictures in a book, to a child, may read: “Floppy was happy he finished his bone” or “why was Floppy happy?” The child will learn that the mother is labelling the bone, as both parent and child are looking at the dog consuming it and are both also aware that each other are looking at it. This process of ‘intention reading’ is essential. Tomasello notes that children must “come to a new understanding of their own intentional actions” (Tomasello, 1999, p.72) and be aware of “adult behaviours expressing not just simple intentions but communicative intentions” (Tomasello, 2013:296). Adopting this ‘like me’ behaviour is what a child must do “when they use linguistic conventions to achieve social ends” (Tomasello, 2012, p.69).
Another argument favouring a nurture-based theory of grammatical acquisition is a general cognitive skill that enables human infants to recognise patterns and form analyses of sounds and words. Studies have found that children have the ability to find patterns across item-based constructions by “schematizing and making analogies” (Tomasello, 2003, p.143). A child start to recognize a common pattern, for instance of ‘X liked the Y’ and learn that noun-like words will go in the X and Y slots of these ‘schema’. A sound experiment exposing six-month-old infants to a repeated combination in the left ear and an original combination in the right found, infants will lean their head to the left in favour of pseudowords they were familiar with, and that’s before they even know how to talk! This alone shows that children are a “able to recognise patterns of syllables forming ‘words’ in an auditory stream” (Evans, 2014:119).
So who is right? Is it nature or nurture? Perhaps it is a mixture of both? We don’t have a definite answer. Language theorists will no doubt continue to debate this for a long time and in the meantime children will continue to learn language, seemingly effortlessly and “take part in one of the wonders of the natural world” (Pinker, 1994, p.15). Let’s leave the professions to toss their coins.
EMILY SILVESTER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK