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Humans ability to use language is essential and many believe it to be the sole ability that separates us from all other mammals (Chomsky, 2006 ; Crystal, 1997 ; Hockett, 1960). The importance for humans to be able to acquire language from a young age is unquestionable, but how we acquire it is under huge debate amongst psychologists and psycholinguists. Nativists such as Chomsky (1959, cited in Harley, 2001) believe language has an innate basis and this is how we acquire it so quickly and at such a young age whilst behaviourists believe we acquire language like any other learned behaviour (Skinner, 1957, cited in Harley, 2001). Another theory in this debate is the social pragmatic theory which states that children create constructions of languages which develop over time (Tomasello, 2003). This essay aims to explore the theories that exist within this debate and therefore examine the support and evidence for each in order to assess if children are in fact born with an innate ability to acquire language.
Skinner (1957, cited in Harley, 2001) founded behaviourism and claimed that any behaviour is learnt from experience and subsequently there is no such thing as an innate ability; this includes the ability to acquire language. In 1957 he claimed that language acquisition was simply a matter of imitation, reinforcement and association therefore we learn language in the same way that Skinner showed how a rat can learn a path in a maze. Skinner proposed that adults mould a child's speech by reinforcing them when they correctly produce words, as a result the words which receive reinforcement will be reproduced by the children and the words which aren't reinforced (incorrect words or sounds) will not. This is also supported by Nowak, Komariva and Niyogi (2002, cited in Nowak, 2002) who said that parents or caregivers facilitate the child's language acquisition by allowing the child to model their speech and reinforcing the grammatically correct language the child produces.
Support for Skinner comes from Clarke-Stewart (1973, cited in Yule & Yule, 1987) who found that children who experienced a vast amount of spoken languages from their parents had a larger vocabulary compared to those who experience limited spoken language.
Adults use child directed speech and therefore talk differently to and around children compared to how they talk around other adults (Cook & Newson, 2007). Many psychologists have also said that this theory is too simplistic to account for language acquisition (Clark and Clark, 1977, cited in Clark, 2003; Chomsky, 1986; Dale, 1976). This theory cannot be ignored though as imitation has been proven to help children acquire an accent (Blades, Cowie & Smith, 2003).
Chomsky however disagrees with Skinner (Chapman &Routledge, 2005) and believed that children are born with an innate knowledge of the structure of language. He called this a language acquisition device (LAD) which is an innate mechanism only in humans which allows us to develop language (Harley, 2001). Chomsky argued that a poverty of the stimulus existed as the language by which children are surrounded is not rich enough for children to successfully learn language and so they must be helped with the process of acquisition by some form of innate knowledge (Harley, 2001). Chomsky (1959, cited in Harley, 2001) pointed out that children cannot learn by imitation alone as they are able to produce sentences they may have never heard before and this is one of the major flaws of behaviourism. Children use grammar to construct these new sentences by using grammatical rules, this also means they can identify when they produce ungrammatical sentences and can prevent these mistakes from being produced again in the future (Whitney, 1998). Chomsky also noted that all languages have universal grammar or linguistic universals which all humans are programmed to understand and learn quickly early on in life. The theory of universal grammar says that all languages have the same basic foundation. As humans we're not genetically programmed to speak a particular language so grammar allows us to learn the patterns of a particular language without actually being taught them (Whitney, 1998). If no one is born knowing a particular language, and we're prepared to acquire language, then we must be born with the ability to acquire any language. This is reflected in children of a younger age as it is easier for them to learn a new language than it is for adults. However, this ability to acquire language must be taken advantage of before puberty, as after this critical period it is much harder for a child to learn how to talk correctly (Harley, 2001).
Like Chomsky, Jill and Peter de Villers (1978, cited in Harley, 2001) showed that parents use child directed speech when talking to their children, and so if imitation were to be the answer to how we acquire language, children would talk using this motherese language.
Support for language acquisition being innate can be taken from a longitudinal study conducted on a 9 year old deaf child called Simon. Researchers studied him from 2 years old and found that despite his parents teaching him incorrect grammar in sign language, he was able to sign with correct grammar ('Linguists Debate Study Classifying Language as Innate Human Skill', 1992) However, this study was only conducted using one child and therefore cannot be seen as representative of the whole population.
Dionne, Dale, Bolvin and Plomin (2003, cited in Mccartney &Phillips, 2006) conducted a study using same sex twins and found that when they correlated vocabulary and grammar ability, they were equally correlated at ages 2 and 3. This, they believe, suggests that there are genetic factors influencing these abilities and therefore there is a general innate language basis.
If language does in fact have an innate basis then language disorders should be inheritable
Criticism for Chomsky
There are less extreme nativists than Chomsky who say that we are born with language biases allowing us to learn language. This is called the whole object assumption or fast mapping. The acquisition of names for entities belonging to different types and the effect of lexical contrast (Kipp & Shaffer, 2009).
Bard and Sachs (1977, cited in Hayes, 2000) reported a study where a child had two deaf parents, despite being surrounded by speech from television and friends he was unable to acquire language until a speech therapist began to work with him around the age of 4. After this he was able to acquire language rather quickly showing there must be some form of innate knowledge that allowed him to acquire languages quickly; however he still needed to be taught how to use language.
Gomez and Gerkhen (1998, cited in Hoff & Shatz, 2009) reject the idea that language has innate properties. They say that many researchers assume that because language is so complex, it is unlearnable and therefore we must be born with a way of knowing how and when to generalise from the stimuli in which we encounter.
Bloom and Markson (1997, cited in Hoff & Shatz, 2009) pointed out that the focus of most language acquisition research is based on parents teaching children speech. This research is mainly conducted within western cultures, however this is not universal as in some cultures parents don't help their children to learn words, therefore they learn from overheard speech. However these children still develop a good vocabulary.
Locke (1995) believed that all knowledge that rationalists said was innate can actually be learnt through experience. At birth our mind is a tabula rosa on which sensations can influence and determine our future behaviour.
Research has been conducted regarding the critical period that Chomsky referred to regarding optimal acquisition of language. Research has shown that if children have not acquired language before puberty then they are not likely to ever fully acquire it, regardless of any innate mechanisms they may hold. If the language acquisition advice truly existed, like Chomsky believed it to, then surely this critical period would not exist, or at least we should be able to acquire language at any age (Hayes, 2000).
Lenneburg (1967, cited in Ryan & Singleton, 2004) believed in a critical period for language acquisition but that that said that a child must experience spoken language frequently during this critical period in order for language to be fully acquired. After this critical period prior to puberty, the child undergoes several changes which makes it increasingly harder for the child to acquire language. This is also supported by the fact that it is harder for adults to learn a language than it is for children.
Tomasello (2003) looked away from a specifically innate theory of language acquisition and instead created a construction based approach to how children acquire language; developing from simple to more complex constructions. Bruner (1983, cited in Garton, 1995) said that almost all language a child acquires is done so through a routine of interaction with adults or more complex speakers than themselves. A child will first learn to understand a person's intentions by sharing goals and therefore enabling the child to know what is going on and why it is happening. This then facilitates joint attention between the child and adult allowing them to both focus on the same object or cultural routine. A cultural routine is an activity or event which occurs frequently in the child's everyday life and so the child is able to predict successfully the shared goals existing in that activity (Tomasello 2008). An experiment conducted by Baldwin (1991, 1993, cited in Bates & Tomasello, 2001) showed that children are capable of monitoring an adult's attentional focus and know that a label refers to an object that the speaker is attending to, even if this object was hidden. At around 16 months children were unable to identify any object, but around 19 months they successfully chose the object the adult was attending to despite this object being hidden from sight.
Despite this Atkinson (1982, cited in Delin, 2000) believed that the social pragmatic view of how children may acquire language is vague and subsequently does not produce testable theories of language. Fernald and Morikawa (1993) argued that adults use child directed speech with their children in order to communicate with them better, not to ensure they both understand the shared goal of a situation. They also argued that adults don't make a conscious effort to teach the correct principles of grammar to their children so that they can imitate them.
There are many theories amongst psychologists and psycholinguists which attempt to understand how children acquire language; and this essay has looked at a small sample of them. Some researchers believe that children acquire languages simply as they do any other behaviour; by learning it (Skinner, 1957, cited in Harley, 2001). Nativists such as Chomsky (1959, cited in Harley, 2001) strongly disagree with this and believe that language acquisition has an innate basis as we all have an inbuilt language acquisition device (LAD) providing us with the basic rules and guidelines we need in order fully acquire language successfully (Whitney, 1998). However, despite the evidence that exists for this theory, there has been much criticism regarding the idea that language has an innate basis; in particular from constructivists such as Tomasello (2003). The constructivists agree that there must be some form of innate basis for language acquisition to exist, but ultimately it is our interactions and understandings with people (especially adults) around us that enable us as children to successfully acquire language so quickly at a young age.