Language language, or is it a learned behaviour

Language is the quintessential trait that divides us as humans from anyother species on earth.

For centuries, linguists have tried to solve the puzzleof how language is actually acquired, birthing the historic debate of Nature VSNurture. Are we born with the ability to learn language, or is it a learnedbehaviour just like learning to walk? I aim to discuss in detail the three maintheories associated with language acquisition, in order to gain a betterpersonal understanding and form my own opinion.   Primarily, the Nativist theory questions what abilities a child is bornwith in order to be able to acquire language. This theory suggests that we areborn with the innate ability to recognise and use grammar, and that from birth childrenare biologically programmed to learn language. The main theorist surroundingthis ideology is Noam Chomsky , an American linguist who proposed the idea ofthe LAD (Language acquisition device), a hypothetical part of the brain that hasthe capability to understand and produce language without training. ForChomsky, only the LAD can explain how children are able to correct grammar fromthe fragments of sentences and incorrect grammar that they hear. Nativists believethat when children learn language, they do not simply repeat the sentences thatthey hear, which Behaviourists believe to be true.

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Instead, Nativists insistthat infants recognise rules, and create entirely new sentences from these,hence why some sentences are innovative and unique to them. Chomsky claims thatthe rules of language are already imprinted onto a child’s mind via the LAD,meaning that they only have to learn the vocabulary of a language and go fromthere. He also identifies that the language spoken by adults is irregular,therefore a child could not just imitate it in their own speech. Furtherevidence supporting Nativists would be under/overextension in child speech, forexample adding ‘ed’ on the end of past tense verbs i.e ‘wented’. Obviously thisis not something a child would have imitated, and although it is grammaticallyincorrect is still demonstrates the childs knowledge of grammatical rules. Although some could argue that the rules of language can be taught, tothis Nativists reply that it would be impossible because nobody actually knowsthem, they are totally unconscious. There are however, linguistic universals, thecertain features shared across universal languages i.

e nouns and verbs. Creditedlargely  to Noam Chomsky, linguisticuniversals support nativist ideologies, as they serve as evidence that allhumans have a similar genetic nature in which they have acquired language. Differentlanguages that were birthed at entirely different parts of the globe sharepatterns in their structure, whether it be grammatical or syntactical. In aninterview, Chomsky once made the point that if we were to take an infant from aremote tribe in Papua New Guinea where the language has not been influenced forapproximately 40,000 years, and flew them to the USA and raised them there,they would grow up to speak like a child from the USA. This implies then, thatall human brains have the same biological endowment for language. In the lateryears of his career (1985,1986), Chomsky expanded his original ideas with atheory that recognises the complexities of language. The ‘Government andbinding theory’ (or the ‘principles and parameter theory’) highlights thatalthough there are linguistic universals, languages also vary in a number orparameters and that language acquisition consists of learning the correctversion of any parameter from hearing the adult speech.

For example, comparingword order in English and in Japanese (Messer, 2000). In English sentences areusually ordered SVO, whereas in Japanese they are ordered SOV. Any child exposedto English speech would have their word order parameter set for SVO, whereas aJapanese child would have the same parameter set for SOV. This is evidence of thesame unconscious parameters being used in different environments, showing twogrammars within the rules of Universal grammar. Chomsky defines universalgrammar as “the system of principles, conditions and rules that are elements orproperties of all human languages” (Cook,1985).

Universal grammar consists of fundamentalideas  that apply to grammar in all knownlanguages and therefore sets the limit to which languages are able to differ.  On the contrary, although Chomsky’s research is held in high regardthere is also a lack of pragmatic dimension within his work. The emphasis ongrammatical rules in Nativist theory fails to take into consideration pragmatics.Pragmatic understanding is important for the social interaction theory, which claimsthat language acquisition is driven almost entirely by interaction andcommunication. In addition to this, the Nativist theory also ignores environment,and the impact this has on a child learning semantics, the accent they willhave, and the grammar of their first language. Renowned linguists such as Bruner and Vygotsky strived to stress thesocial nature of language, and its importance of interaction with others. Unlikenativists, social interaction theorists questioned how children and othersinteract and the impact this has on their development of cognition. Socialinteractionists believe that language is not an abstract skill and that during childhood,the need to communicate with others is the driving force behind languageacquisition.

They debate that exposure to language is insufficient to acquireit, and that it is a skill learned by interacting with others. A small exampleof this would be that whilst a television exposes children to language, itdoesn’t necessarily help them learn it as there is no interaction involved. Thisis why many children’s television shows now include interaction i.e Dory theExplorer which presents questions and leaves a short pause for the child to beable to participate. 


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