Exploring the Nature of Language Acquisition: Innate Ability vs. Learning and Social Interaction

How is language acquired? Is it an inherent skill, or must it be learned? Can we establish a precise definition for language? These questions have long intrigued psychologists, yet to date, no concrete evidence has definitively supported any particular viewpoint. Drawing upon Chomsky and Skinner’s language acquisition theories as a foundation, I conducted a comparative analysis of their findings by applying these theories to real-world situations to assess their practicality. This process led me to conclude that each theory possesses limitations independently, but combining aspects of both may eventually unveil whether language is indeed an innate ability or a product of learning.

One perspective asserts that language is innate and not developed through learning.

To assert that language is innate and not developed through learning, we must scrutinize the arguments presented by language acquisition theorists. Some argue that language is innate (Chomsky, 1959), while others contend that it is acquired through reinforcement and repetition (Skinner, 1957). Some suggest it is an integral part of overall development (Piaget, 1969), and others claim it is learned through interaction (Bruner, 1975). Despite these varied viewpoints, the debate continues over whether language is an innate capacity or a learned skill. In this discussion, I will primarily focus on Skinner’s Behaviorist Theory (1957) and Chomsky’s Innate Theory (1959).

Let us begin by examining the definition of language. According to Webster’s online dictionary, language is described as a systematic means of communication that employs sounds or conventional symbols. This definition suggests that language relies on structured elements, encompassing not only auditory elements but also conventional symbols. But what exactly are conventional symbols? Over the course of evolution, different cultures have developed their unique methods of documentation, employing distinct letters or numerals. They have also created symbols that lack alphanumeric characters but effectively convey essential information. For example, a single arrow pointing left may signify “left turn only” or “keep left.” Similarly, the outline of a man or woman on restroom doors communicates the gender allowed to use the facility. While these symbols may have definitive meanings, the interpretation of the symbol determines the appropriate action.

Another definition, found in the Oxford online dictionary, characterizes language as the method of human communication, whether spoken or written, involving the use of words in a structured and conventional manner. It is intriguing to note the disparity between these two definitions. While Webster’s definition appears generic and applicable to various species, Oxford’s definition seems to be specific to human communication. Does the Oxford dictionary imply that communication is a uniquely human attribute? Based on research conducted by language acquisition theorists, humans indeed communicate through speech, while other living species possess their unique means of communication. Thus, it would be inappropriate to dismiss non-human communication abilities.

The study of human interaction and how we comprehend each other, particularly concerning language development in newborns, has stimulated various theories. In their book “Language Acquisition,” De Villiers and De Villiers (1978) pose the question, “What does a child bring into the world with regard to inherited knowledge or behavior, and what is the product of experience?” This query underscores the significance of both genetics and experience in language development, leaving the fundamental question still open for debate. Osherson, Gleitman, and Liberman (1995), in their book “An Invitation to Cognitive Science: Language,” assert that some aspects of language acquisition must be innate. Simultaneously, it is evident that language is learned (Gleitman and Newport, chapter 1, p.1).

The hierarchy of language, however intricate, is influenced by the environment and experiences. In infants, who lack significant experience, development is closely tied to their surroundings. Early on, babies establish direct connections mainly with their parents or immediate family members who engage with them daily. While infants cannot produce audible sentences, they do possess the ability to produce sounds that communicate their immediate needs or desires. As children develop, verbal interaction intensifies, and the pace of language development depends on the quality and frequency of this interaction. Therefore, how parents communicate with their children and the frequency of word and sentence usage shape the rapidity of the child’s language development.

The age-old debate of nature versus nurture continues. A famous story recounts the Egyptian King Psammethichus’s attempt to determine the older race between Egyptians and Phrygians. He isolated two newborns in a remote cottage, forbidding anyone from speaking around them. After two years of isolation, one of the children uttered the word ‘becos,’ which was later discovered to be Phrygian for ‘bread.’ This discovery led the Egyptians to concede that the Phrygians were older than they were. The fact that these children had no verbal interaction suggests an innate predisposition for language development.

While this story is ancient, we can also examine more recent cases of language development in isolated children, often referred to as feral children. These children have been raised in complete isolation, with minimal human contact and no social interaction with others. Some have even developed their language, as seen in the case of ‘Genie,’ who was isolated until the age of 13. Genie was never taught to speak and had no human interaction during her isolation. Upon her discovery and assessment (Curtis, 1977), it was apparent that Genie would never master grammar rules. Although she exhibited strong semantic abilities, she struggled with syntax and could not form complete sentences.

Returning to the theories of language acquisition, does Genie’s limited communicative abilities lend credence to Skinner’s proposal that language can be acquired through repetitive tasks and reinforcement? Skinner’s Behaviorist Theory, which posits that language is acquired through conditioning and rewards, was primarily based on experiments with rats and birds. However, when we consider feral children, it becomes evident that even with repetition and rewards, they still struggle to grasp grammar rules. The prevailing explanation for their difficulty is that they passed the critical period hypothesis, a stage before puberty when the brain specializes in its functions. Language functions shift from one hemisphere to the other before settling in the left hemisphere after puberty.

Chomsky (1959) vigorously criticized Skinner’s theory, contending that children possess innate language learning abilities from birth. He argued that children are naturally predisposed to acquire language, primarily through exposure to speech, which their brains naturally process using inherent structures and principles. Chomsky’s theory posits that children are born with a complete set of linguistic universals and evaluation procedures, utilizing these as a framework to interpret the language they hear (1968a, p.76). Chomsky criticized Skinner for using only animals as test subjects, asserting that Skinner’s theory remained silent on species limitations. Ironically, Chomsky’s Innate Theory lacked empirical evidence, as it was not based on any test subjects, whether human or animal. Accepting the innateness of language acquisition would require an in-depth examination of a child’s mind from birth to understand how the brain interprets speech.

Turning to feral children like Kamala and Amala, who were reportedly raised by wolves, can we apply the Innate Theory? When the missionary Singh discovered and adopted them, he attempted to reintegrate them into human society. Unfortunately, Amala passed away shortly after her discovery, and progress with Kamala was slow. Even after three years, Kamala had only acquired a limited vocabulary of about a dozen words. This raises questions about where innate language abilities manifest. According to the Innate Theory, these children should have displayed some capacity to comprehend human language, despite their early socialization by wolves

. It took several more years for Kamala’s vocabulary to expand to forty words. Gesell (1940) commented on Kamala’s situation in his book “Wolf Child and Human Child,” suggesting that it illustrates “how mentally naked humans are at birth and how much we rely on society to shape us.”

In conclusion, after examining these two theories, it is challenging to definitively favor one over the other. While there may be some innate predisposition for language, learning undoubtedly plays a crucial role during early development. Humans teach their children language through various methods, including visual aids and verbal reinforcement. If children are only exposed to visual aids without explanations, they may develop their own interpretations and even create their language. Feral children did not invent their language; instead, they adapted to their environment. Genie, who had minimal human interaction during isolation, likely relied on the few words spoken to her. Although Skinner’s theory of repetition and reinforcement may have some validity, it still could not account for these children’s struggles with grammar.

Kamala’s case, where she was raised by wolves, challenges the Innate Theory. She had to be taught everything because she did not understand her adoptive parent’s language. Skinner’s theory of repetition and reinforcement appears more plausible here, as it was through consistent repetition and reinforcement that she developed a rudimentary vocabulary. However, the prolonged duration of her progress, compared to typically developing children, raises questions.

In conclusion, I believe that both theories complement each other, and neither can fully stand alone. Innate predisposition may exist, but repetition, reinforcement, and learning are essential components of language development. While we may possess some innate language abilities, the refinement of language, including grammar and syntax, necessitates social interaction and teaching. In essence, both Skinner and Chomsky were on the right track, but their theories may need to be integrated to provide a more comprehensive understanding of language acquisition.

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