Regarding the theories of language acquisition, there are a great many sub-theories, at occasion each differing from the last in as little as one single aspect, however, it would not be wrong to state that roughly two major directions regarding the issue exist, referred to as the “nature vs nurture debate”. It must be said even from the very beginning that contemporary tendencies are to favour both sides of the argument, however, many a renowned linguist, such as Thomas Scovel in his Psycholinguistics, favour the nature side.
The nurture direction largely follows the work of B.F. Skinner and consists of the theories of Behaviourism and Empiricism (to which the careful scholar may add nuances such as Social Interactionism or Relational Frame Theory). The main premise of such theories is that children learn words by associating sounds sequences with the empirical objects, actions or phenomena and they learn grammar by imitating the adults around them. The role of parents or other adults surrounding the child is very important since Behaviourism insists that children’s linguistic abilities are developed due to their interaction with parents, who constantly reinforce correct speech. As such, the main conclusion is that language structure is created through language use.
In the case of the nature side of the debate, its roots can, surprisingly, be traced back to ancient philosophers. Plato is one such thinker who believed that knowledge of words was somehow innate. In modern times, the direction which focuses on the biological aspects thought to be involved in language acquisition (represented by Nativism and the almost subsequent Generativism) largely follows the work of Noam Chomsky, who brutally criticized Skinner in one of his essays. Chomsky’s premise is that knowledge of language is innate and language acquisition is done with the help of a Language Acquisition Device wired in the brain. Thusly, children come into this world with a “Universal Grammar” (or “Language Instinct”) that is responsible to children being aware of the common features of all languages.
Arguments in support of such theories are many, but amongst the most important one must mention the following:
- Mere environmental influences are not enough to explain the incredible speed with which children acquire language.
- It must be considered that within a language there exist an infinite number of possible sentences, and they cannot be all learnt by imitation. However, children have the ability to produce combinations they have not been exposed to.
- Children produce overregularizations (such as adding -ed to form the past of irregular verbs) which cannot come from imitation since adults speak correctly.
- Children acquire language and correct syntax despite adults not correcting them all the time.
- Indifferent of culture, the language development of children follows the same pattern.
- Not only do children acquire language skills at a very fast rate, but they also do this effortlessly.
- One should also consider that children have limited cognitive abilities and most of the time they are given linguistic input which is ambiguous for them, involving highly complex grammar. But this does not impair the process of acquisition, hence, it must be wired in the brain.
Evidence for some innate devices or abilities in children to develop language is incontrovertible, as seen from the speed of language acquisition as well as the fact that it happens in roughly the same patterns for all children regardless of their circumstances and without excessive instruction (in the proper sense of the term). However, a combination of both this nature aspect described above and the nurture one must be realised since research has shown that a child who does not hear or does not use language will learn none. Interaction is very important as well, considering that caregiver speech offers to the child a role in conversation (by the extensive use of questions) even before the child can speak. One must always keep in mind that children are not taught language per se, in terms of rules or phrases; they creatively construct combinations with what is being said around them, thus uncovering new ways of using their mothertongue. Another important aspect is that children test whether these combinations work or not. An emphasis on the term “creatively” must be placed here since, as mentioned before, children produce combinations that are not found in adult speech.
Another interesting aspect of children acquiring their first language is that, contrary to Behaviourist principles, parents correcting their children is, very many times, a hopeless task. This suggests that: “the child is working out how to use the linguistic system while focused on communication and interaction rather than correctness”. Yule makes this statement in his attempts to show that imitation alone is not responsible for language acquisition; it is not even the primary factor.
Perhaps what could shed even more light on the matter is the actual origin of language. Unfortunately, our connection with it has been irredeemably lost, depriving us of the possibility of ever knowing the entire multitude of aspects related to “the truth”.
Cook, V.J., Newson, Mark, “Chomsky’s Universal Grammar: An Introduction”, Blackwell Publishing, 1988
Noam, Chomsky, “A Review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior”, 1959
Scovel, Thomas, “Psycholinguistics”, Oxford University Press, 2008
SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Language and Cognition.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2005. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.
Yule, George, “The Study of Language”, Cambridge University Press, 2010 (4th Edition)