The question of language being innate or learnt has always been polemical. Some persons believe that people have an inherent ability to speak language while others think that an effort must be exerted for an individual to acquire a language. It is believed that if you take children away from their place of birth they will still develop the language they were born with. While others believed that language is something that you develop through learning. In this instance it is said that if you take children away from their place of birth they will not know the language of their birth country, they will adopt the language of the country they grow up in.
So, based on the arguments that have been postulated, saying exactly whether language is acquired by innate ability or is a process of learning through socialization with people in a particular society is difficult. This paper will examine the arguments put forward by different theorists hence based on the strength of the arguments will make a decision as to which side has the stronger arguments.
The fact that language as we know is unique to human being suggests that there is some amount of innate capacity to acquire language. However, since a parrot can be taught how to say a few words it may be concluded that learning a language may also be one in which the individual can be taught. The problem with this is that learning a few words is not the sum total of language learning. Will the parrot be able to use the words in appropriate situations? Is it talk or just the reproduction of sound combinations?
LANGUAGE – INNATE OR LEARNT? /3
Akhbar has stated that the acquisition of language “depends upon the child being exposed to language and his or her surrounds.” So, in fact heredity must be part of language acquisition. A child who grows up in Mexico will speak Spanish while a child who is brought up in Jamaica will undoubtedly speak English and the Jamaica dialect. So, this gives support to the argument that the environment plays an important role in language development.
Plato believed that the process of acquiring language through associating word with meaning is innate. Behaviourists believe that language may be learnt through a process called operant conditioning. This means that it is a voluntary behaviour learnt from one’s surroundings. Chomsky, thinks that children are born with the capacity for learning language and that they are destined to speak. The Language is inborn and children will discover the language based on their own inborn grammar. This view was in opposition to the behaviourists’ approach.
It cannot be explained why children acquire and master their native language quickly. Chomsky further states that language acquisition must be more than imitation and this does not depend on the level of general intelligence. He claims that each individual is born with what he called a language acquisition device (LAD). Critics of Chomsky’s theory claim that though children do not learn necessarily through imitation but that interactions with other people play an important role in language acquisition.
LANGUAGE – INNATE OR LEARNT? /4
David Crystal believes that acquiring language is not just about producing sounds, but also about being able to perceive sounds and understand the meaning of utterances that people make. The crux of Crystal’s theory is that children learn in an unstructured set of stages.
For those who say that language is acquired by exposure to environmental interactions in early life, there must be exposure to language as a child or you wont acquire it very well no matter how predisposed your cognitive system may be to learn it. Supporters of the learned approach to language acquisition see this process as akin to any other learning process and is related to cognitive development. They believe that even if the child undergoes some traumatic experiences that might influence language development he is able to recover completely and learn language. So, in effect, learned approach theorists believe that language is a cultural tool that is acquired as individuals adapt to the social environment. That is language is not something that human beings are born with. They further posit that there is no language acquisition device thus criticizing Chomsky’s theory. Every person has to find his/her own way of learning and using language.
Both sides have done studies to prove their theories of language acquisition. For instance, in an article in the University of Chicago Chronicles Williams Harms concluded
LANGUAGE – INNATE OR LEARNT? /5
that “Children apparently have an inherent ability to form words and sentences independent of the capacity they have to imitate the language of their parents.
In a research it was discovered that youngsters can develop complex sentence structures on their own without learning them first from their parents”. While others have observed through investigations that children will learn language not because of any device with which they were born but they can learning through their interactions with people within their societal backgrounds. This is why they believe that if a child grows up in a multilingual environment he will be able to acquire more than one language without him being predisposed to these languages.
In more recent times the belief has been that there are a complex sets of processes involved in the acquisition of language. Theorists such as Piaget and linguists such as Melissa Bowerman believed that both nature and nurture have made significant roles in the acquisition of languages. So, the debate over whether language is acquired or innate will be continuing for a long time. Whether or not there are inborn capabilities for language learning or that language emerges from social interactions is very critical to persons studying languages and how best to approach the teaching of foreign languages and so on.
Based on my reading of the many theories and investigations that have been done to test the veracity of each argument, I can therefore conclude that language acquisition is not dependent on any single factor. It is in deed an incorporation of many different
LANGUAGE – INNATE OR LEARNT? /6
processes that allow the individual to acquire a language that he can use to communicate effectively in his society. So, both sides may have reasonable arguments that can lead to the conclusion that language is acquired through nature and nurture.
LANGUAGE – INNATE OR LEARNT? /7
Cite This Work
To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below: