Chomsky or Tomasello? KATIE O’REGAN tries to avoid sitting on the fence in the language learning debate.

Would you ever think there would be so much controversy on how a child says their first word? Have you ever wondered where the ability to acquire language comes from? Even if you haven’t, Noam Chomsky and Michael Tomasello have done all the wondering for you. They aim to answer the age-old question in regards to language acquisition: ‘nature or nurture?’. Is language part of our genetic make-up, or do we learn it through our observations as children of the speakers around us? Respectively, they each represent the different sides of the nature vs nurture debate. Chomsky spearheaded the ‘mentalist’ theory of language acquisition, which hypothesizes that language is innate to us as human beings; it is as natural to us as breathing. On other side of the argument, or the nurture side, ‘functionalist’ or ‘social constructivist’ are the terms used to describe Tomasello’s theory. These focus on “meaning in use” (Tomasello, 2009, p. 69) and credits the social interaction that we have when we are children as being the main factor in language acquisition.

Chomsky is well known outside of his language studies, but he first came to prominence in 1959 when he wrote a damning review of B.F. Skinner’s ‘behaviourist’ language acquisition theory. In a nutshell, behaviourism theorized that language develops in children through copying adults, and in turn the adults would encourage this behaviour through positive reinforcement. Chomsky went on to say that this theory was “far from justified” and even claimed that it was “gross and superficial” (Chomsky, 1959, p. 28). Behaviourism subsequently became discredited and Chomsky’s theory took its place at the forefront of the debate.

One of the key elements of innatism is the theory of the existence of ‘Universal Grammar’, a set of structural rules of grammar that we are all apparently born with. Anderson and Lightfoot (2002, p. 18) claim that, “a grammar arises in each speaker which not only encompasses the actual facts to which they have been exposed, but also permits the production and comprehension of an unlimited range of novel utterances in the language”. We are able to construct sentences that we have never heard before because of this inherent linguistic ability that, according to Pinker –a stout believer in Chomsky’s theory – is a “biological birthright” (Pinker, 1994, p. 19).

On the other side of the debate is Tomasello, whose so-called ‘usage-based’ theory emphasizes the importance of social interaction in the acquisition of language. Children come to learn language by watching and listening the adults around them. Tomasello (2009, p. 69) says that there are two main skills for language acquisition -“intention-reading” and “pattern finding”. As regards intention-reading, children attempt to read the intentions of speakers so they can have some form of limited communication, even if they cannot speak. Pattern-finding is described by Tomasello (2009, p. 70) as, “…what children must do to go productively beyond individual utterances they hear people use around them to create linguistic schemas”. These are the two key main aspects for language acquisition from a functionalist point of view.

We still don’t know how children properly acquire language, and it could be the case that perhaps a mixture of the two theories could best explain it. This could be the most sensible way to put it. However, I personally feel that sitting on the fence is too easy. As Evans (2014, p. 21) puts it, there is “scant empirical evidence” to support Chomsky. The usage based theory looks at real life uses of language, and in actual fact Ibbotson and Tomasello (2016) say, “the idea of universal grammar contradicts evidence showing that children learn language through social interaction…”. I’m sure there is something to be said about children being naturally disposed towards language learning, but the existence of Universal Grammar is something that I’m yet to be convinced of.

KATIE O’REGAN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Anderson, S.R and Lightfoot, D.W. (2002). The language organ: Linguistics as cognitive physiology. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Chomsky, N. (1959). Review of Verbal Behavior, by B.F. Skinner. Language 35, no. 1 (January-March 1959): 26-57

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

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

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

Tomasello, M. (2009). The usage-based theory of language acquisition. In The Cambridge handbook of child language, pp. 69-87. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.



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.


Deduction or construction. SCOTT ROBINSON discusses the pros and cons of generative and usage-based approaches to language learning

Understanding how children come to acquire language has been a great source of debate for many years.  From the nature or nurture debate to the much more detailed ideas on whether children are an active or passive part of language development, there is a lot to be said.  When it comes to language acquisition there are two main approaches, generativist and usage-based. According to the generativist theory, “all human children innately possess a universal grammar, abstract enough to structure any language of the world” (M. Tomasello, K. Abbot-Smith, 2002, p.207).  There are two processes in this model – “acquiring all the words, idioms, and quirky constructions of the particular language being learned; and linking the particular language being learned to the abstract universal grammar” (M. Tomasello, K. Abbot-Smith, 2002, p.207). As this is allegedly innate, grammar develops continually, which is different to that proposed by of the usage-based theorists. Tomasello, who is one of the key exponents of the usage-based theory, points out that in fact “children are not very productive with their early language, suggesting that they do not possess the abstract linguistic categories and schemas necessary to effortlessly generate infinite numbers of grammatical sentences” (M. Tomasello, K. Abbot-Smith, 2002, p.207). These are the differences in the theories which are debated most.

Tomasello assumed a constructivist approach to language acquisition. Ambridge and Lieven (2011, p 123) claim that according to constructivists, “language is an inventory of constructions of various sizes and various levels of abstraction, each of which serves some communicative or socio-pragmatic function”. Constructivism argues language is likely to be acquired through a development of the understanding of forms (syntactic categories such as nouns and verbs) through the function of meaning.  In more detail, the usage-based theory focuses “on the specific communicative events in which people learn and use language” (M. Tomasello, 2000, p.61). He argues that sufficient input is required for a child to acquire language and detracts away from the notion of innateness. This is highlighted in his response to Lidz et al, who argued that input for children does not generate sufficient information to support unaided learning and attempts to support the contribution of innateness. In his response to Lidz et al’s  (2003) study, he highlights that in a forced choice situation, eighteen month old children think the phrase ‘another one’ goes best with another object, near identical to the one they’ve just seen other than one that is a different colour (M. Tomasello, 2004, p.140). By highlighting this he is trying to prove this shows nothing of a child’s understanding of the nested structure of noun phrases or innate linguistic knowledge, and that only non-linguistic experiences are shown in the study (M. Tomasello, 2004, p.140).

The usage based approach can be summarised in two principles, the first being ‘meaning is use’ which “represents an approach to the functional or semantic dimension of linguistic communication” (M. Tomasello, 2008, p.69). This idea stems from philosophers of language who wanted to combat the idea that meanings are things in themselves and focus on how people use linguistic conventions to achieve social ends. The second is ‘structure emerges from use’ which “represents an approach to the structural or grammatical dimension of linguistic communication” (Tomasello,2008, p.69).  The theory places emphasis on pre-linguistic communication. It is important to start by exploring the communicative function in the usage based view. Human infants communicate in rather sophisticated ways prior to acquiring any linguistic conventions: e.g. nearly all infants communicate by pointing before they acquire productive language. For Tomasello this suggests “that all human pointing and other gestures may already embody forms of social cognition and communicative motivation that are unique to the species, and that are necessary as a first step on the way to linguistic conventions both phylogenetically and ontogenetically” (M. Tomasello,2008, p.70). This stands opposed to the generativist approach, which because they believe it is innate, “universal grammar does not develop ontogenetically but is the same throughout the life span…” (M. Tomasello, 2002, p.207).

SCOTT ROBINSON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


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

Tomasello, M., Abbot-Smith, K., (2002) A tale of two theories: response to Fisher’, Cognition 83, pp.207 – 214.

Tomasello, M. (2004) ‘Syntax or semantics? Response to Lidz et al.’, Cognition 93, pp.139-140.

Tomasello, M. (2000) ‘First steps toward a usage-based theory of language acquisition’, Cognitive Linguistics 11-1/2, pp.61-62.

Tomasello, M. (2008) ‘The Usage-based theory of language acquisition’. In Bavin, E, (Ed.) The Cambridge handbook of child language (2008), pp.69-88.

Is grammar squished into our head from birth or built up slowly from usage? HANNAH SADLER gets cerebral

Whether infants learn language from absorbing the chit-chat of their caregivers or from an innate mechanism in those complicated, squishy things in our heads has been an ongoing and baffling debate for centuries. If you take this question to the internet or to the books, they will both come back at you with ample theories and theorists. But before I try to steer you to the empiricist side of the debate, I feel that it is only fair I give you an overview of what the other side is saying about language learning.

Ambridge and Lieven (2011, p. 1) explain that whilst there are many competing proposals, each will generally be aligned with one of two major theoretical approaches. These are: (a) the nativist, generativist, Universal Grammar (UG) approach and; (b) the empiricist, constructivist, usage-based approach. The most appropriate term to use will depend on the precise nature of the proposal.

The (a) approaches are associated with likes of Chomsky who argued that speakers must possess a system or set of rules that allows them to understand and use grammar correctly (1959, cited by; Ambridge and Lieven, 2011, p. 105). He famously illustrated this point with the following pair of sentences:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
* Sleep green colorless furiously ideas.

Although you have probably never been exposed to either of these sentences before due to their nonsensical nature (unless you are already familiar with this example), your knowledge of English still allows you to determine that the first sentence is grammatical (it is a possible sentence in English despite how bizarre it may sound), whereas the second is not (Ambridge and Lieven, 2011, pp. 104-105). However, I couldn’t agree more with Saxton’s view that ‘[i]f your eyebrows shoot up at this idea, you are not alone.’ He claims that there are many who find this notion deeply implausible (2010, p. 187).

Those in favour of the (b) approaches are not fond of grammar being innate. Instead they believe that it is possible to learn grammar. Ambridge and Lieven (2011, p. 126) explain that learning construction grammar is a gradual process. They propose that the SUBJECT VERB OBJECT transitive constructions do not need to be learned all in one go. The child will learn phrases such as ‘I’m kicking it’, ‘I’m hitting it’ and ‘I’m eating it’  directly from the input and will then schematize to form an ‘I’m ACTIONing it’ schema. Theorists refer to this notion as a lexically specific or item-based construction (Ambridge and Lieven, 2011, p. 126).

This takes me on to my favourite guy in the area of language acquisition, Tomasello. Tomasello is a key thinker when it comes to the usage-based approach to language acquisition. Saxton explains that within the usage-based approach, three stages of early multi-word construction are recognized: word combinations, pivot schemas and item-based constructions (2010, pp. 213-215). Tomasello explains these in detail in his book Constructing a Language: A Usage-based Theory of Language Acquisition (2003). Unlike Chomsky, Tomasello has put his ideas in writing in a fashion that has a fighting chance of keeping you awake.

So what is Tomasello saying about grammar? In terms of item-based constructions he explains the what and the why. What are infants doing? They are producing transitive utterances around their second birthdays which are verb specific. He claims that there is abundant evidence to support this and even refers to his own daughter, explaining that all of her early multi-word utterances revolved around specific verbs (2003, p. 117). However, some verbs were used in quite simple constructions (‘cut’____) and some in more complex frames of different types (‘Draw ____ ‘, ‘Draw ____ on ____’ , Draw ____ for ____’ , ‘____ draw on ____’) (Tomasello, 2003, p. 117). Why do infants do this? Because of what they are exposed to linguistically. The usage-based approach assumes that infants will most easily acquire the words and constructions that they hear most frequently (Ambridge and Lieven, 2011, pp. 2-3).

Unfortunately we may never have a certain, flawless answer to how we acquire language. However, to put language learning “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 cited by; Saxton, 2010, p. 187) seems a less logical, small-minded and archaic view to have in terms of language acquisition.

HANNAH SADLER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Ambridge, B., & Lieven, E. V. M. (2011). Child language acquisition: contrasting theoretical approaches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Saxton, M. (2010). Child language: acquisition and development. London: SAGE.
Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition. London: Harvard University Press.

Grown-up grammars and creative constructions. RACHEL BREEDON explores modern theories of child language acquisition

Whilst helping children work their way through the early stages of language, we may not recognise the effort that little ones put in to making those wonderful half-formed sentences. They make it look easy, but whilst they’re babbling away, most of us are unaware of the controversy surrounding this verbal miracle. How exactly do these tiny humans piece together and learn a language so fast and efficiently?

It is apparent that the ability to learn language is innate for humans specifically. Without delving too deeply into the realm of animal linguistics, one characteristic that separates human language from animal languages is the ability to make brand new, novel utterances. To do this though, we need some sort of grammar to be able to combine words and express features such as tense (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011, p. 103). This is where theories of language acquisition generally divide into one of two approaches; generative or constructivist, each with their own ideas of what the nature of this grammar is and where it comes from.

According to generative grammar theory, all children have an innate universal grammar. They believe the capacity to learn language is ‘hardwired’ into our brains in what Chomsky calls a language acquisition device (LAD), explaining our instinct for learning language. Generativists also hold the continuity assumption (Pinker, 1984), which suggests that universal grammar is the same throughout people’s life-span, assuming young children have the syntactic competence of adults.  Acquiring language according to the generativist view can be simplified into two processes; learning the words and constructions of the language, then linking the learned language to the abstract universal grammar (Tomasello, 2002, p. 207). Taking an example from Ambridge & Lieven (2011, p. 123), to form the sentence ‘John kicked Bill’ a speaker would retrieve the verb ‘kick’ from their lexicon or mental dictionary and see that it needs a kicker (subject) and a kickee (object). They’d then insert ‘John’ and ‘Bill’ in their subject and object positions and voilà! Sentence formed according to generativists.

However, this theory relying on selection struggles to account for the formation of certain sentence types. For example, “he sneezed the napkin off the table” would mean you would have to have a caused-motion meaning in your mental dictionary for the verb ‘sneezed’, which most of us have only encountered in intransitive sentences with no object, such as ‘he sneezed’ (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011, p.125). We don’t often encounter someone sneezing something to a place, so how would a child work out what that means?

This is where the constructivist approach emerges. A construction according to Goldberg (1995, p. 4) is “a form-meaning pair such that some aspect of the form or some aspect of the function is not strictly predictable from the construction’s component parts”. In simpler terms, the construction or word pattern itself adds meaning. For example, in an English transitive construction such as the kicking example from before, a form (NOUN1 VERB NOUN2) is associated with a function (A acts upon B, causing B to be affected in some way) (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011, p. 124). From the components ‘kicked’, ‘Bill’ and ‘John’ alone it isn’t possible to tell who was the kicker and kickee, but when inserted into the construction the meaning emerges.

Once a child notices that certain forms are associated with particular functions, they are motivated to learn that construction, especially when talking about their own actions. SUBJECT VERB OBJECT transitive constructions can be learned bit by bit, as the first step is to learn simple phrases such as ‘I’m hitting it’ and ‘I’m eating it’ directly from adult input (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011, p. 125). From these, children form an I’m ACTIONing it schema into which they can insert any action they learn the lexical item for. These are item-based constructions and are easily learned from the input of others, relating to simple functions that the child understands. Tomasello found that most of children’s early linguistic competence is item-based and develops in a piecemeal fashion. He provides evidence to contrast the generativist continuity assumption, suggesting there is virtually no evidence of an innate, system-wide adult-like grammar in children and proposing his own usage-based theory of language acquisition (Tomasello, 2000, p. 209).

However, even that study received criticism (Fischer, 2002), and so the dispute continues. It seems obvious that item-based schemas such as ‘I’m ACTIONing it’ could generate children’s early sentences. The challenging part is deciding whether they do, or whether we’re born with these abstract rules and just have to match our experiences up with them. Either way, innate or acquired, baby humans certainly have a knack for grammar.

RACHEL BREEDON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


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

Fischer, C. (2002). The role of abstract syntactic knowledge in language acquisition: a reply to Tomasello (2000). Cognition, 82, pp. 259-278.

Goldberg, A. E. (1995). Constructions: A construction grammar approach to argument structure. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

Pinker, S. (1984). Language learnability and language development. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.

Tomasello, M. (2000). Do young children have adult syntactic competence? Cognition, 74, pp. 209-253.


Blank slate or language acquisition device. MADDI SYMES explores the language acquisition battleground

From hair colour to height, gender to complexion – we all have characteristics which have been determined biologically. Whilst these characteristics are undeniably innate, there are many human traits which are not quite so straightforward; aggression, intelligence, our unique ability to communicate through language. This longstanding debate had existed since Francis Galton coined the phrase ‘nature versus nurture’ in 1869 (Cacioppo & Freberg, 2013, p. 90). Human beings have come so far in scientific discoveries, from black holes to cancer treatments, so why is it we still don’t know whether language is innate or learnt? Well, allow me to break it all down for you!

Rationalist René Descartes (1641; cited by Hunt, 2003, p. 32) argued that we have ‘innate ideas’ whilst empiricist John Locke (1689; cited by Sherman, 2013, p. 26) famously attacked Descartes claim, stating that the human mind ‘begins’ or enters the world in a blank state (tabula rasa) – knowledge being acquired through posteriori – through experience and observations. From an epistemological point of view, we have capacities to acquire language but clearly have no ability to develop it as we do this in early in life. Tabula rasa, although tenable in this sense, is simply not true. In the light of contemporary science it is evident that we begin life with certain characteristics that characterise ‘human nature’. Evolutionary, biological instincts and that are studied within the discipline of ‘evolutionary psychology’.

When exploring this debate with regards to language we find there are two major schools of thought – nativists and functionalists. Nativists believe that some aspects of linguistic knowledge are innate, meaning they are present at birth (Ambridge & Lieven, 2011, p. 1-3). Holding up a fight for nativism is generativist Noam Chomsky (1976). Generativists believe knowledge of grammar consists of formal ‘rules’ that operate on abstract linguistic categories. Chomsky (1976; cited by Kearns, 2010, p. 174) argues that these rules are innate and that we all have inbuilt, instinctive ‘universal principles’ and rules for grammar. He calls this our ‘Language Acquisition Device’ (LAD) which is activated when children are exposed to language (Chomsky, 1976; cited by Kearns, 2010, p. 174). If only it was that simple, Chomsky!

On the other side of the battle ring is Tomasello (2005; cited by Workman and Reader, 2014, p. 303), a leading figure in the functionalist camp. Functionalists argue that the ability to learn language is innate, but there is no innate knowledge of grammar, and grammatical categories are not a priori. Tomasello, a bit like Locke, believes we learn through exposure to adult speech.  A quote by Tomasello (2008) that I came across reading his chapter, ‘The Grammatical Dimension’ In Origins of Human Communication reads, “[a]lthough many aspects of human linguistic competence have indeed evolved biologically, specific grammatical principles and constructions have not” (p. 313) which I feel summarises the functionalist view well.

So far it seems to be a tie between the two contenders, so let’s step out of the battle ring and look at an experiment famously known as ‘the wug test’. I first came across the research a number of years ago when I was reading Davidson’s (2011) book Planet Worda great read by the way! Jean Berko Gleason (1958; cited by Davidson, 2011, p. 47) presented children with a picture of a ‘wug’, a nonsense word describing the creature in the picture to see whether the children made ‘wug’ into the plural ‘wugs’. The results suggested children’s ability to form such grammatical structures is varied and depends on the individual’s development (1958; cited by Davidson, 2011, p. 49). Nativists argue that this shows children do not simply imitate language as they can produce the correct grammatical forms for nonsense words they have not heard before (Barry, 2002, p. 184). However, there have been many criticisms of the ‘wug’ test, and could it be possible that children have actually acquired these grammatical rules and have learnt to generalise them?

Gleason has quite a middle ground opinion in believing that there are areas of the brain which are specialised for language and through hearing and experiencing language and by interacting with language users, coupled with the capacity for language, language is built in the brain (1958; cited by Davidson, 2011, p 49). Personally, I have to agree with Gleason’s (1958) view. I believe that the difficulty in concluding the on-going debate lies in the fact we cannot (yet) conduct experiments on new-born babies that would provide substantial evidence to prove which aspects of language are innate and which are acquired. Will it take breakthrough research to end this battle, or is it simply unanswerable?

MADDI SYMES, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


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