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

References

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.

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