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Language acquisition remains a debate for what may be regarded as an innate ability, a claim that humans are exclusively genetically programmed to learn language. Drawing from the perspectives of psychologist B.F. Skinner and the linguist Noam Chomsky, this essay examines if language is an innate human ability or if it can be taught to children and other living beings like animals, firstly through 'operant conditioning', a concept in behavioural psychology introduced by Skinner and secondly, the 'rule-governed creativity' by Chomsky.
Skinner's operant conditioning refers to the systematic program of positive and negative reinforcements to influence a desired behaviour, which cannot be described by innate ability or internal thoughts. Skinner claims that children learn language through operant conditioning, where external environments primarily influence the behaviours of children in uttering certain sounds. In Skinner's view, language learning involved processes similar to those used in his proven laboratory experiments in training animals like rats to make responses such as pushing a lever through the use of carefully controlled reinforcement. With this theory, Skinner suggests that children have to be taught how to speak through positive reinforcement, in this case, receiving parental approval and encouragement.
For example, the father may stress vowel sounds like 'pa-pa' in training the child to address him. The child's obligation and correct utterances initiates the father to pick her up and cuddle her in approval. Having 'learnt' the word 'pa-pa', the child increases the regularity of this vocal behaviour, saying 'pa-pa' in the presence of the father when she wants to be picked up and cuddled.
However, Chomsky disagreed on 'learning' as a term used to describe the development of language in children. He argues that language acquisition is a uniquely human capability or a function of the human brain and an infant is born with a predisposition in our genetic make-up to learn language fluently in stages.
Chomsky's objectionable stance on Skinner's theory lies on the irrelevance of animal behaviour to human language and Skinner's misunderstanding of the nature of language. Chomsky argues that the application of reinforcement on humans is irrelevant as rewards need only be imagined and hoped for when it comes to humans but the same theory does not work on animals. The 'response strength', the measurement of speed, force and frequency in Skinner's animal experiments was also deemed irrelevant to the problem of understanding language and I feel inclined to agree with Chomsky's view in that language is infinitely more complex and less predictable than Skinner's theory of stimulus-based responses would suggest. Also, children's automatic language adaptation to Chomsky's complex 'structure-dependant operations' that involves proper sentence structure and order, suggests the innate knowledge of language in humans. He also stressed on another fundamental aspect of language - 'rule-governed creativity', which will be discussed in the following paragraphs.
According to Chomsky, a fundamental aspect of language is its creative nature. Firstly, humans have the ability to understand and produce novel utterances that include strange words and sentences unlikely heard of and uttered before, rendering assumptions of lifelong accumulation and storage of utterances by a person for a suitable occasion, impossible. By understanding novel utterances, a person is able to produce new grammatical sequences and automatically discard deviant utterances. Sentences used by a person may never have been produced in the same structure or order before and the same applies to everyday speech, which seem to show that we do not learn or speak language by simply following the speech of others.
Secondly, utterances are not controlled by external happenings. For example, a person may not necessarily say "Giraffe!" upon seeing one. He or she can always say something else, like "That is the longest neck I have ever seen". The creative nature of human speech and adaptation to these properties of language remains a 'mysterious ability' according to Chomsky.
Chomsky argues that we are not able to form judgement on the coherence of a sentence and it is impossible to process new sentences by analogy, as similarities or comparisons are unsuitable to explain our understanding of complex sentences. On the other hand, Chomsky believes such judgements are only possible because we are endowed with a highly complex system of instructions and stringent 'rules' about our language, yet, which is unconscious to us.
Children, according to Chomsky, acquire a complex set of internalized rules in a remarkably short period of time with considerably less data to work from despite being often restricted to hearing unfinished sentences, mistakes and slips of the tongue. Chomsky attributed children's ability to construct 'automatic grammatizators', where rules of grammar are fixed by almost mathematical principles, through two possibilities; that children know in advance what languages are like and that children are highly efficient puzzle-solvers in all aspects of human behaviour. Chomsky rejects the belief of a blank human mind at birth and suggests the presence of innately determined components of the mind that includes language and other systems of knowledge, also known as 'the innateness hypothesis', indicating the existence of a language 'blueprint' which is brought into use when children reach a certain point in their general development.
So, is language an innate ability or can it be taught to children and animals? I mostly agree with Chomsky's theory that the ability to learn language is innate in humans and that language itself is not innate, rather the capacity to learn language may exist in a person since birth. I feel that children do make mistakes in their speech early on and their mistakes gradually decrease as they learn to speak, hence, here, I feel Skinner's theory too proves valid to a certain extent.
I do not think that language can be taught to animals. Cats and dogs, common household animals brought up in human environment do not pick up language despite being in close proximity with humans and exposed to language over their period of care, except perhaps a few simple words trained upon them to act and behave towards likely through Skinner's operant conditioning methods. I feel the evidential structures of the human brain that control the interpretation and production of speech absent in animals, complex 'rule-governed creativity' and stimulus-based operant conditioning sets the capacity for language exclusively to humans.