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Nativist theories of language acquisition

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Nativist theories of language acquisition hold that children learn through their natural ability to organize the laws of language, but cannot fully utilize this talent without the presence of other humans. This does not mean, however, that the child requires formal teaching of any sort. Chomsky claims that children are born with a hard-wired language acquisition device (LAD) in their brains. They are born with the major principles of language in place, but with many parameters to set (such as whether sentences in the language(s) they are to acquire must have explicit subjects). According to nativist theory, when the young child is exposed to a language, their LAD makes it possible for them to set the parameters and deduce the grammatical principles, because the principles are innate.

Mark Baker's work, The Atoms of Language (2004) presents arguments that there are not only certain "parameters" (as Chomsky called them) that are innate switches in our LAD, but we are very close to the point where these parameters could be put together in a "periodic table of languages" as determined by their parameter features. Baker's work is very controversial, however, because he has argued (1996: 496-515) that principles and parameters do not have biological or sociological origins, but instead were created by God (i.e. creationism). In contrast to Baker's theological creationism, Chomsky, although not a creationist has been described as a magical creationist or a crypto-creationist (e.g. MacFarquhar, 2003: 71) by people who find his scepticism of natural selection troubling. Chomsky does however make it clear in a reply to John Maynard Smith that he does believe that the innate capacity for language can be explained by biology when he states that language "... can be studied in the manner of other biological systems." [1].

In addition, there are significant studies in biogenetics that strongly suggest that the genetic factors that combine to build the brain contain redundant systems for recognizing patterns of both sight and sound.

One idea central to the Chomskian view is the idea of Universal Grammar, which posits that all languages have the same basic underlying structure, and that specific languages have rules that transform these underlying structures into the specific patterns found in given languages. This is important in 20th Century philosophy because it directly counters Wittgenstein's key assertion that grammar is just surface and arbitrary, like the rules of a chess game.

Another Chomsky argument is that without a propensity for language, human infants would be unable to learn such complete speech patterns in a natural human environment where complete sentences are the exception. This is sometimes mischaracterised as the poverty of the stimulus argument. Psychologists such as Catherine Snow at Harvard, who study parent-child interaction, point out that children do not have to deduce the principles of language from impoverished and ungrammatical scraps of talk. Many studies of child directed speech or CDS have shown that speech to young children is slow, clear, grammatical, and very repetitious, rather like traditional language lessons.

Additional arguments for nativism Edit

However, there exists emerging evidence of both innateness of language and the "Critical Period Hypothesis" from the deaf population of Nicaragua. Until approximately 1986, Nicaragua had neither education nor a formalized sign language for the deaf. As Nicaraguans attempted to rectify the situation, they discovered that children past a certain age had difficulty learning any language. Additionally, the adults observed that the younger children were using gestures unknown to them to communicate with each other. They invited Judy Kegl, an American linguist from MIT, to help unravel this mystery. Kegl discovered that these children had developed their own, distinct, Nicaraguan Sign Language with its own rules of "sign-phonology" and syntax. She also discovered some 300 adults who, despite being raised in otherwise healthy environments, had never acquired language, and turned out to be incapable of learning language in any meaningful sense. While it was possible to teach vocabulary, these individuals seem to be unable to learn syntax.

The developmental period of most efficient language learning coincides with the time of rapid post-natal brain growth and plasticity in both humans and chimpanzees. Prolonged post-natal brain growth in humans allows for an extended period of the type of brain plasticity characteristic of juvenile primates and an extended time window for language learning. The neotenic pattern of human brain development is associated with persistence of considerable language learning capacity into human adulthood.

Derek Bickerton's (1981) landmark work with Hawaiian pidgin speakers studied immigrant populations where first-generation parents spoke highly-ungrammatical "pidgin English". Their children, it was found, grew up speaking a grammatically rich language -- neither English nor the broken pidgin of their parents. Furthermore, the language exhibited many of the underlying grammatical features of many other natural languages. The language became "creolized," and is known as Hawaii Creole English. This was taken as powerful evidence for children's innate grammar module.

See alsoEdit

References & BibliographyEdit

Key textsEdit


  • Baker,M. (2004) The Atoms of Language
  • Bickerton, D. (1981). Roots of language. Ann Arbor, MI: Karoma


Additional materialEdit



External linksEdit

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