American linguist Noam Chomsky proposed the theory of Universal Grammar in the 1960s as a reaction to B.F. Skinner’s argument that children learn language based on reinforcement principles. Skinner’s ideas of how children acquired language were grounded in John Locke’s philosophy that the mind is a blank slate and that all knowledge comes from experience or perception. One can place Locke and Skinner on the nurture side of the nature versus nurture debate. Chomsky’s theory falls on the nature side – that humans are born with innate faculties related to the acquisition of language. I do not believe that children are born with language universals, there is no language acquisition device, and that a child’s general cognitive abilities are more than powerful enough to acquire language.
Animal communication is governed by stimulus-response. Bird calls and songs, bee dances, and non-human primate gestures and calls are all used to communicate about the present. As far as we know, they do not have the capacity for displacement. Their communication systems are non-creative and they don’t change from generation to generation. A grizzly bear will never communicate about a large salmon it caught last week, a cockatoo will never put a new spin on its song to attract a mate, and bees will never make up a story about a bee from another planet that uses its superpowers to fight evildoers. Humans have the incredible ability to communicate with language. I don’t believe that language is innate. However, our capacity for language is innate.
What are the linguistic universals? If they exist, are we born with them or simply pick them up as infants? The amount of diversity among the more than six thousand languages spoken on earth is dizzying. The word orders of languages may be subject-verb-object, subject-object-verb, verb-subject-object, verb-object-subject, object-subject-verb, or object-verb-subject. Chomsky would have us believe that all these rules are hardwired into our brains and this allows us to pick up the language of whatever community of speakers we are born into. It is difficult to fathom that our brains already have so many foundations of language pre-installed before birth. Could linguistic universals such as all languages having vowels and consonants simply be the result of humans being physically capable of creating these sounds? Roughly 100,000 years ago, human mouths began to shrink, our tongues became more flexible, and the larynx lowered. At the expense of being able to swallow large pieces of food quickly, the variety of sounds our species was able to produce vocally increased dramatically (Masterson, 2010).
Researchers’ understanding of our brains continues to grow. Chomsky’s proposition, of the language acquisition device hardwired into the brains of children that propels them to learn language has been criticized recently based on our current understanding of the brain, which uses many parts to process language (Rowe & Levine, 2015, p. 233). Currently, the Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area, both located in the cerebral cortex have been identified as being essential for human communication. Humans differ from other animals due to our large cerebral cortex, which unlike theirs, is wrinkled rather than smooth, giving our brains more surface area for the processing power required for learning, thinking, remembering, acquiring language, tool-making, and cooperation. Although other animals such as beavers build structures and crows use tools, humans use by far the most extensive toolkit in the animal kingdom to survive almost anywhere there is land (Buskell, 2016). Humans are exceptional animals: Members of tribes have crafted boats and colonized islands that are thousands of miles from any neighboring islands; just over sixty years since the Wright Brothers took flight astronauts landed on our closest celestial neighbor; and for better or worse, we have harnessed the power of the atom.
Skinner believes that children learn language through imitation which is then positively or negatively reinforced by their caregivers. As Chomsky noted, it is easily observable that in many cultures caregivers give positive feedback no matter how phonologically or grammatically inaccurate the utterances from the child they care for are. Chomsky would have us believe that inappropriately giving positive reinforcement for phonologically or grammatically incorrect utterances would result in children unable to successfully learn language. However, for every time that a child makes a grammatically incorrect utterance that is not explicitly corrected, he or she likely hears grammatically correct utterances several thousands of times before syntactic rules are subconsciously internalized.
Just how much language is an infant exposed to? Imagine if you will that every word spoken within hearing distance of an infant were spelled out using the letters from a can of Alphabet Soup. A single can would be used up during an extremely brief conversation that a baby may overhear, such as a parent accepting a package from a delivery person or ordering take out. Now imagine all these conversations over the course of days and weeks and months. Before long, you would have enough Alphabet Soup to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Depending on family wealth, a child may hear between 600 and 2,100 words per hour (Rosenberg, 2013). With all this input, it’s no wonder that children pick up language. Researchers have recently discovered a correlation between a child’s academic performance in the third grade with the amount of words spoken in the home from birth to three years old (Wood, 2009). The amount of language an infant hears daily is likely far greater than Chomsky imagined while he was writing his scathing review of Skinner’s 1957 release Verbal Behaviors.
From a young age, humans categorize. A couple of weeks ago, as I was loading the car to take my son to preschool I asked him to come outside. He responded that he was looking for a marker. I walked back inside and saw all of his markers, from multiple sets, neatly placed in different piles by color. I asked which color he wanted. He said he wanted an orange one. He picked up each orange marker, one by one, examining the different shades, and ultimately chose one he felt was suitable for drawing in a notebook on our daily commute. Chomsky would like us to believe that grammar is innate, that we are born with the universals of language hardwired into our brains. Could it be that just as my son categorized colors that our brains act as a large net, catching language that is spoken to us and around us, and subconsciously categorizing it?
Jean Berko tested children’s knowledge of morphological rules using nonsense materials in her groundbreaking Wug Test. She concluded, “The answers were not always right so far as English is concerned; but they were consistent and orderly answers, and they demonstrated that there can be no doubt that children in this age range operate with clearly delimited morphological rules” (Berko, 1958). These children were able to correctly apply their subconscious knowledge of inflectional endings to create plurals of nonsense words. Her work showed that young children have an implicit understanding of linguistic morphology. Children are born into language-rich environments armed with the mind’s incredible processing power. This accounts for a child’s implicit understanding of linguistic morphology.
The mighty pendulum of the nature versus nurture debate is swinging back to the nurture side under a new banner: the usage-based approach to language acquisition. In the usage-based approach, developed by Michael Tomasello, linguistic structures are learned through intention reading and pattern finding. Ghalebi and Sadighi summarize intention reading as, “…what children must do to determine the goals or intentions of mature speakers when they use linguistic conventions to achieve social ends” (2015). Tomasello, in his article, First Steps Toward a Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition summarizes pattern finding as follows:
When young children have something they want to say, they sometimes have a set expression readily available and so they simply retrieve that expression from their stored linguistic experience. When they have no set expression readily available, they retrieve linguistic schemas and items that they have previously mastered (either in their own production or in their comprehension of other speakers) and then “cut and paste” them together as necessary for the communicative situation at hand. (2001)
Tomasello’s argument provides us with a better understanding of how children acquire language. His theory cuts Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar completely out of the picture and replaces it with a child’s complex cognitive abilities. Tomasello’s continued research arms the nurture argument with modern findings and a very convincing model of language acquisition in children.
The ability to use language to communicate is one of several things that separate us from non-human animals. We have evolved incredibly powerful cerebral cortexes to learn and process language. We have also evolved the ability to create a wide-range of sounds. Children, using the extraordinary powers of their minds are able to subconsciously learn the language of whatever community of speakers they are born into. The recent work of Tomasello have pushed the pendulum of the nature versus nurture debate towards the nurture end of the spectrum. Time will tell if future research in fields such as linguistics, genetics, cognitive neuroscience, or evolutionary psychology pull the pendulum back to the nature side.
Berko, Jean. (1958) The child’s learning of English morphology, Word, 14(2-3), 150-177, doi:10.1080/00437956.1958.11659661
Buskell, A. (2016, March 03). What makes humans special? Retrieved December 02, 2017, from http://www.lse.ac.uk/philosophy/blog/2016/03/03/what-makes-humans-special/
Ghalebi, R., & Sadighi, F. (2015). The usage based theory of language acquisition: A review of major issues. Journal of Applied Linguistics and Language Research, 2(6), 190-195. Retrieved December 03, 2017, from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download? doi=10.1.1.953.491&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Masterson, K. (2010, August 11). From grunting to gabbing: why humans can talk. Retrieved December 04, 2017, from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php? storyId=129083762
Rosenberg, T. (2013, April 10). The power of talking to your baby. Retrieved December 02, 2017, from https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/10/the-power-of-talking-to-your-baby/
Rowe, B. M., & Levine, D. P. (2015). A concise introduction to linguistics. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Tomasello, M. (2001). First steps toward a usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cognitive Linguistics, 11(1-2). doi:10.1515/cogl.2001.012
Wood, D. (2009, November 10). 30,000 words: Is your child getting enough? Retrieved December 04, 2017, from https://www.education.com/magazine/article/30000_words/