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

References

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.

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