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Language Acquisition: A Critical Discussion of Innate and Learning Approaches Introduction Essay

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The debate on whether language acquisition is mainly determined by innate predispositions or environmental factors has been of interest to many researchers for decades now. Various schools of thoughts have emerged over the years in an attempt to explain how human beings acquire their language. In all these, a major concern has been to comprehensively understand how the language abilities are picked up by very young children after only inputting little efforts towards acquiring the language under normal circumstances (Harley, 2004).

The capacity to speak and be able to communicate with others has always been carried with a lot of importance especially in the contemporary world, yet controversy continues to persist regarding how this important component of life is acquired. It is, therefore, the purpose of this paper to critically discuss the available evidence supporting innate and learning approaches to language acquisition, and their potential criticisms

Language acquisition can be described as the process by which individuals attain the ability and competence to perceive, generate and employ words to comprehend and communicate (Harley, 2004). This unique ability entails acquiring varied capacities, including a wide-ranging vocabulary, grammar, semantics, and phonetics. The capacity to acquire and use these components in our daily communications is a fundamental feature that differentiates human beings from other closely linked primates and other animals.

According to Guasti (2004), the fact that animals have a wide range of communication channels to use cannot be denied, but this forms cannot be in any way qualify to be called languages since they have an inadequate variety of non-syntactically prearranged vocabulary which lacks in consistence and cross-cultural variation.

This not withstanding, it still amazes many how humans, especially infants, are able to acquire language faculties with much ease. Behrens (2009) posits that “…there must be a genetic component in this capacity because every … child is able to learn language, and there must be an environmental component because no one is born with a specific language” (p. 383).

Arguments for Innate Acquisition of Language

The approach that language is acquired through innate predispositions is viewed as largely traditional, with many of its proponents arguing that the mechanisms involved in are predetermined by biological and evolutionary endowments rather than environmental predispositions (Guasti, 2004). Plato felt that language acquisition, by any standard, was innate since it is beyond our realms of understanding to structure how an infant as young as one year old is able to comprehend the facets of language.

Other advocates such as the Sanskrit grammarians argued that language was God-given, implying that it is innately acquired (Guasti, 2004). According to Behme & Helene (2008), proponents of innateness “…postulate a species-specific language faculty as a largely genetically determined part of our biological endowment and claims that facts about language acquisition support this view” (p. 642).

Noam Chomsky, one of the most vocal advocates for innate acquisition of language, argued that many features of the linguistic capacity of a well seasoned speaker cannot be elucidated using a data-driven broad-spectrum learning mechanism.

According to this particular proponent, human beings must be endowed with an innate module for them to actively yield or generate a particular language through direct interaction with a myriad of presented experiences (Behme & Helene, 2008).

The advocate’s argument finds strength in the interpretation of systematic empirical studies, which reveals that not only does language acquisition in infants happens at a faster pace, but also has some well structured distinguishing phases whose order and time-frame seems principally independent from environmental influences.

What’s more, Chomsky argued that all children share the same inner limitations which distinguish intently the grammar they are able to construct. Chomsky concluded that the momentum and accuracy of language acquirement leaves no factual substitute to the conclusion that the young child, one way or another, “has the concepts available before experience with language and is basically learning labels for concepts that are already a part of his or her conceptual apparatus” (Behme &Helene, 2008).

According to the theory of generative grammar, the syntactic knowledge acquired by children or other language learners is, by any standards, underdetermined by the environmental input. This implies that language is innately acquired. The proponents of this theory argue that neither biological processes nor cognitive orientations of an individual can literally be equated to learning (Eisenbei, 2009).

This theory corresponds with the Nativist Model, which presupposes that language learning or acquisition is not really something that the youngster does; rather, acquisition occurs to the child when he or she is placed in a suitable surroundings, much as the child’s physical body develops and matures in a predetermined manner when proper diet and environmental stimulation are provided (Chomsky, 2000). As such, language can only be acquired innately.

The innate approach, therefore, assumes that language acquisition is rapid and instantaneous, not mentioning the fact that acquisition occurs without direct instruction, and can also occur in spite of inadequate input. Instantaneous acquisition of language, according to the proponents, implies that the process is effortless, error-free, and occurs without the child passing through the various developmental phases (Behme & Helene, 2008).

In arguing that acquisition occurs without direct instruction, the proponents of this school of thought implies that there is no negative evidence involved in acquiring language, a preposition that further reinforces the fact that children do not make errors and therefore do not get negative evidence (Morgan et al, 1995). Ultimately, acquisition becomes innate.


The innate approach to language acquisition, despite receiving support from some of the most refined scholars and philosophers, has a variety of setbacks. First, it is a well known fact that children go through precise developmental phases, and they do make systematic errors as they negotiate these phases (Stemmer, 1987).

Available literature reveals that children undergo various changes before they can begin to drift near to adult-like capacities in comprehending and generating a first language. For instance, Children must first break into the communication stream before even attempting to associate the words with any particular meaning.

Children must then learn to combine the words or phrases in specific ways before engaging in another phase of understanding more intricate syntactic combinations. In all these phases, children make numerous errors before commanding the language (Harley, 2001). For instance, children engage in over-extensions of actual meaning of words, and the word ‘cow’ may be applied to various animals, including the actual cows, zebras, donkeys, horses, among others.

By any standards, the argument that children do not get negative evidence goes against what has been empirically researched. In the course of development, youngsters are known to espouse grammars and other language aspects that appear over-generalized.

As such, “…a logical alternative is that children receive negative evidence: corrective feedback providing information that certain sentences are not acceptable” (Morgan et al, 1995, p. 18). Such an intervention, according to the critics of innateness approach, is fundamentally important as it permits children to recover from the common mistakes of overgeneralizations.

Arguments for Learning Approach

This school of thought is of the opinion that the human cognitive structure is adequate to learn language devoid of postulating extra factors or influences such as an inborn language system (Harley, 2001). Many of the proponents of this school simply argue that language is learned through positive interactions with the environment.

This approach is more flexible to the notion of language acquisition, with some proponents suggesting that the capacity to acquire language or the deep-seated hunger to draw in large amounts of verbiage is inborn and coincides with the child’s developmental phase, but the whole process of acquisition depends upon the immediate environment in which the youngster resides (Harley, 2001). This is a more associative approach as it appears to associate a particular ingredient – the environment – with language learning.

The connectionist models to learning language also presents a firm backing to this school of thought by fronting the notion that children “…learn from exposure to a language environment and are sensitive to the statistical structure of this environment” (Westermann et al, 2009. P. 413).

The connectionist models can be described as computer models whose purpose is loosely instigated by neurons found in the brain. The models assume that the major objective of the biological neurons is to be activated if the summed inward activation coming from other neurons is adequate enough. It is imperative to note that neurons are interconnected, and can learn from data flowing through them (Westermann et al, 2009).

The proponents of these models argue that learning indeed happens by altering the potencies of the interconnections between the mentioned neurons as a result of contact to external stimulus. As such, children learn language by exposing the network of neurons to an instruction environment that is representative of the issues of interest. This scenario is used in schools when children are requested to memorize words or phrases in grammar learning tasks to activate the neurons into learning.

The empiricists are yet another group of proponents to learning school of thought. They punch holes in some of theories supporting innateness such as the generative theory for the reason that most of their concepts, including the popular Language Acquisition Device (LAD), can never be sustained by evolutionary anthropology, which reveals a gradual adaptation of the child’s brain faculties and vocal chords to the utilization of language (Stemmer, 1987).

For the empiricists, the solid environmental experiences that children endure in the process of learning language as well as the learning mechanisms that facilitate the youngsters to process the data gathered in these encounters are fundamentally important for language learning to be effected (Stemmer, 2002).

The world renowned psychologist Jean Piaget took an empiricist approach to language learning by arguing that there exists neither a specific language component in the minds of individuals nor explicit predetermined knowledge about language.

Rather, according to Piaget, individuals, especially youngsters, create knowledge about a particular language from scratch by employing brains that are exclusively tailored and inclined to extract patterns and construct ever more complicated and supple representations of the universe (Harley, 2001).

B.F. Skinner also hailed from this school of thought, and proposed that individuals, like other organisms, discover their capacities from scratch through the environment. Skinner postulates that the learning environment reinforces some responses while limiting others depending on the repeatability of a certain action.

Consequently, human beings have the capacity to undertake more complex learning such as language acquisition since their brains are much more developed and complex unlike those of other animals. The above, therefore, implies that language acquisition in humans can be explained comprehensively without referring to innate and predetermined knowledge or other brain structures (Harley, 2001).


The learning approach to language acquisition also fall victim to the problem of generalizations. For instance, when an instructor exposes the child to a picture of a giraffe in the hope of instilling correct syntax, this particular child will end up applying the word not only to the original animal, but also to other similar animals (Stemmer, 1987).

Second, some behaviorist models of language learning seems incapable of explaining some observed realities about language acquisition such as the speedy acquirement of language by young children, otherwise known as lexical explosion.

According to Noam Chomsky, one of the harshest critics of the learning approach, a child’s linguistic capacities appear to be fundamentally underdetermined by the proof of verbal behavior extended to the child in the short episode in which he or she articulates those capacities (Graham, 2007).


Both approaches have their own strengths and weaknesses, but from the deliberations above, the learning approach to language acquisition appears to have more credibility and support, especially when scrutinized under modern conditions.

It is, indeed, gratifying to note that some proponents of language learning salutes the important role played by brain structures in the acquisition of language, but they steadfastly argue that the whole process must depend upon the immediate environment in which the youngster resides for it to be a success (Harley, 2001). Such an understanding continues to draw support for the learning approach.

Second, some of the weaknesses identified in the innate approach raise more queries about the credibility of the approach. For instance, we all know that children make systematic errors when learning the language, and get negative evidence from parents as they attempt to master the syntax.

The innate approach, however, denies the existence of such concepts in language acquisition, and bases its argument on the fact that language acquisition occurs due to specific innate capacities, including the Language Acquisition Device (Stemmer, 1987).

How then can one explain instances of children who have failed to develop their language capacities after being alienated from environmental stimulus for longer periods of time? What’s more, the innate approach presupposes that language acquisition occurs in spite of inadequate input, otherwise known as the poverty of stimulus (Chomsky, 2000).

Again, this assertion does not hold much water since a multiplicity of studies have reveled that the rate of language acquisition in a child is directly related to the amount of stimulus received (Guasti, 2004). Consequently, the learning approach comes out much stronger.

Reference List

Behme, C., & Helene, D.S. (2008). Language learning in infancy: Does the empirical evidence support a domain specific language acquisition devise? Philosophical Psychology, Vol. 21, Issue 5, p. 641-671. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier Database.

Behrens, H. (2009). Usage-based and emergentist approaches to language acquisition. Linguistics, Vol. 47, Issue 9, p. 383-411, p. 383-411. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier Database.

Chomsky, N. (2000). New horizons in the study of language and mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Eisenbei, S. (2009). Generative approaches to language learning. Linguistics, Vol. 47, Issue 2, p. 273-410. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier Database.

Graham, G. (2007). Behaviorism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from <>.

Guasti, M.T. (2004). Language acquisition: The growth of grammar. Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Harley, T. (2001). The psychology of language: From data to theory. Hove, East Sussex: Psychology Press Ltd.

Morgan, J.L., & Bonamo, K.M., & Trauis, L.L. (1995). Negative evidence on negative evidence. Developmental Psychology, Vol. 31, Issue 2, p. 18. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier Database.

Stemmer, N. (2002). Empiricist views on the innateness hypothesis. Web.

Stemmer, N. (1987). The learning of syntax: An empiricist approach. First Language, Vol. 7, p. 97-120.

Westermann, G., Roh, N.S., & Punkett, K. (2009). Connectionist approaches to language learning. Linguistics, Vol. 47, Issue 2, p. 413-452. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier Database.

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