Are Children Born with an Innate Ability to Acquire Language

Humans ability to use language is essential and many believe it to be the sole ability that seperates us from all other mammals (Chomsky, 2006 ; Crrystal, 1997 ; Hocket, 1960. The importance for humans to be able to acquire language from a young age is unquestionable, but how we acquire it is under huge debate amongst psychologists and psycholinguists. Nativists such as Chomsky (1959) believe language has an innate basis and this is how we acquire it so quickly and at such a young age, whilst behaviourists believe we acquire language like any other learned behaviour (Skinner, 1957). Another theory in this debate is the social pragmatic theory which states that children create constructions of languages which develop over time (Tomasello, 2003). This essay aims to explore the theories that exist within this debate and therefore examine the support and evidence for each in order to assess if children are in fact born with an innate ability to acquire language.


Perhaps the most simplest theory existing within this debate is the idea that children learn language by imitating adults and modelling their speech based on what they hear others saying. Adults also use “child directed speech” and therefore talk differently to and around children compared to how they talk around other adults (Cook and Newson, 2007). Many psychologists have also said that this theory is too simplistic to account for language acquisition (Bloom, Hood, and Lightbow 1974, Clark and Clark 1977, Chomsky 1986, and Dale 1976). This theory cannot be ignored though as imitation has been proven to help children acquire an accent (Blades, Cowie and Smith, 2003).


Further support Evidence for the imitation theory comes from Skinner, who founded behaviourism, which claims that any behaviour is learnt from experience and subsequently there is no such thing as an innate ability; this includes the ability to acquire language. In 1957 he claimed that language acquisition was simply a matter of imitation, reinforcement and association therefore we learn language in the same way that Skinner showed how a rat can learn a path in a maze. Support for Skinner comes from Clarke-Stewart (1973) who found that children who experienced a vast amount of spoken languages from their parents had a larger vocabulary compared to those who experiences little spoken language.


Chomsky however disagrees with Skinner (Chapman and Routledge, 2005) and believed that children are born with an innate knowledge of the structure of language. He called this a language acquisition device (LAD) which is an innate mechanism only in humans which allows us to develop language. (HARTLEY). Chomsky argued that a “poverty of the stimulus” existed as the language in by which children are surrounded is not rich enough for children to successfully learn language and so they must be helped with the process of acquisition by some form of innate knowledge (HARTLEY). Chomsky (1959) pointed out that children cannot learn by imitation alone as they are able to produce sentences they may have never heard before and this is one of the major flaws of behaviourism. Children use grammar to construct these new sentences by using grammatical rules, this also means they can identify when they produce ungrammatical sentences and can prevent these mistakes from being produced again in the future (WHITNEY). Chomsky also noted that all languages have universal grammar or linguistic universals which all humans are programmed to understand and learn quickly early on in life. The theory of “Universal Grammar” says that all languages have the same basic foundation. As humans we’re not genetically programmed to speak a particular language so grammar allows us to learn the patterns of a particular language without actually being taught them (WHITNEY). If no one is born knowing a particular language, and we’re prepared to acquire language, then we must be born with the ability to acquire any language. This is reflected in children of a younger age as it is easier for them to learn a new language than it is for adults. However, this ability to acquire language rapidly must be taken advantage of before puberty, as after this critical period it is much harder for a child to learn how to talk correctly (HARTLEY).

Support for Chomsky

Like Chomsky, Jill and Peter de Villers (1978) showed that parents use child directed speech when talking to their children, and so if imitation were to be the answer to how we acquire language, children would talk using this motherese language.

Support for language acquisition being innate can be taken from a longitudinal study conducted on a 9 year old deaf child called Simon. Researchers studied him from 2 years old and found that despite his parents teaching him incorrect grammar when it comes to in sign language, he was able to sign with correct grammar ( However, this study was only conducted using one child and therefore cannot be seen as representative of the whole population.

Dionne, Dale, Bolvin and Plomin, 2003 (Mccartney and Phillips, 2006) conducted a study using same sex twins and found that when they correlated vocabulary and grammar ability, they were equally correlated at ages 2 and 3. This, they believe, suggests that there are genetic factors influencing these abilities and therefore there is a general innate language basis.

If language does in fact have an innate basis then language disorders should be inheritable

Criticism for Chomsky

There are less extreme nativists than Chomsky who say that we are born with language biases allowing us to learn language. This is called the whole object assumption or fast mapping. The acquisition of names for entities belonging to different types and the effect of lexical contrast (Kipp and Shaffer YEAR).

Bard and Sachs (1977) reported a study where a child had two deaf parents, despite being surrounded by speech from television and friends he was unable to acquire language until a speech therapist began to work with him around the age of 4. After this he was able to acquire language rather quickly showing there must be some form of innate knowledge that allowed him to acquire languages quickly, however he still needed to be taught how to use language.

Gomez and Gerkhen, 1998 (Hoff and Shatz, 2009) reject the idea that language has innate properties. They say that many researchers assume that because language is so complex, it is unlearnable and therefore we must be born with a way of knowing how and when to generalise from the stimuli in which we encounter. Piaget, 1980 (Piaget, Piatelli-Palmarini and Chomsky, 1980) also said because language is complex we cannot assume it has a specific innate basis simply because we acquire it quickly and early on in life.

Bloom and Markson (YEAR) pointed out that the focus of most language acquisition research is based on parents teaching children speech. This research is mainly conducted within western cultures, however this is not universal as in some cultures parents don’t help their children to learn words, therefore they learn from overheard speech. However these children still develop a good vocabulary.

Locke, 1995 believed that all knowledge that rationalists said was innate can actually be learnt through experience. At birth our mind is a tabula rosa on which sensations can influence and determine our future behaviour.

Research has been conducted regarding the critical period that Chomsky referred to regarding optimal acquisition of language. Research has shown that if children have not acquired language before puberty then they are not likely to ever fully acquire it, regardless of any innate mechanisms they may hold. If the language acquisition advice truely existed, like Chomsky believed it to, then surely this critical period would not exist, or at least we should be able to acquire language at any age (Hayes, YEAR).


Lenneburg (1967) believed in a critical period for language acquisition but that that said that a child must experience spoken language frequently during this critical period in order for language to be fully acquired. After this critical period prior to puberty, the child undergoes several changes which makes it increasingly harder for the child to acquire language. This is also supported by the fact that it is harder for adults to learn a language than it is for children.

Social Pragmatic Theory

Tomasello (2003) looked away from a specifically innate theory of language acquisition and instead created a construction based approach to how children acquire language; developing from simple to more complex constructions. Bruner (1983) said that almost all language a child acquires is done so through a routine of interaction with adults or more complex speakers than themselves. A child will first learn to understand a person’s intentions by sharing goals and therefore enabling the child to know what is going on and why it is happening. This then facilitates joint attention between the child and adult allowing them to both focus on the same object or cultural routine. A cultural routine is an activity or event which occurs frequently in the child’s everyday life and so the child is able to predict successfully the shared goals existing in that activity (Tomasello 2008).

An experiment conducted by Baldwin 1991, 1993 (Bates and Tomasello, 2001) showed that children are capable of monitoring an adult’s attentional focus and know that a label refers to an object that the speaker is attending to, even if this object was hidden. At around 16 months children were unable to identify any object, but around 19 months they successfully chose the object the adult was attending to despite this object being hidden from sight.

Despite this Atkinson (1982) and Gleitmen et al (1984) believed that the social pragmatic view of how children may acquire language is vague and subsequently does not produce testable theories of language.

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