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Role of the Innateness Hypothesis in explaining Language Acquisition Essay

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Introduction

The innateness hypothesis plays a critical role in explaining how human beings acquire language. According to this theory, human beings possess language knowledge at birth (1). The innate hypothesis therefore helps to explain the rapidity and uniformity experienced when a child is learning a language.

The innateness hypothesis was popularized by Noam Chomsky who argued that the universal ability of humans to acquire language is innate, as opposed to learned (Chomsky 1977).

Chomsky hypothesizes that even at birth children already possess a device called Language Acquisition Device (LAD) and it helps them to absorb any language that they could be exposed to. This is an innate faculty that human beings are endowed with biologically and it enables them to develop a language.

Role of innateness hypothesis in explaining language acquisition

In an attempt to support his claim that language acquisition is an innate process, Chomsky gives the example children living in a similar linguistic community and who lack an overabundance of varying experiences but still, they end up with similar grammars.

As such, Chomsky contends that all children, regardless of their cultural background share similar internal challenges which differentiate slightly the grammar that they end up constructing (Chomsky, 1977, p. 98).

Seeing that ours is a biological world, Chomsky opines that there is no need to assume that the mental world is any different. Moreover, Chomsky opines that even as there is a crucial age when the human body attains its overall development, the same could be said of learning a language.

Lenneberg talks of the six key elements of an innate behavior and by exploring them, we can be able to gain an insight into how language acquisition is an innate behavior, as opposed to a learned behavior (Lenneberg 1967).

To start with, Lenneberg contends that language materializes before it is even required. For example, among children, the emergence of language takes place when they are between 12 and 24 months of age. At this point, the child relies entirely on its parents for survival.

As such, language cannot be said to be a vital survival tool for the child but as he/she grows up, they will start to rely more on language as a survival tool. Lenneberg has also argued that learning a language among children does not come about as a conscious decision.

We are yet to hear of any hard evidence that supports the claim that at one point in their lives, children make a decision that they would want to learn a language.

Learning a language early in life is a spontaneous process that usually takes place between a baby and those who are taking care of him/her. In addition, we also need to note that external events do not trigger language acquisition whatsoever. The emergence of language among children happens spontaneously (Lenneberg 1967).

Children from diverse context and backgrounds start to play with language and sound at an early age and although learning of a language usually demands a lot of input from the child, the amazing thing is that even those children who rarely interact with their fellow children or adults for that matter, starts the phases of language acquisition like every other child.

In the absence of external input, it would be almost impossible for children to acquire language; nonetheless, such children go ahead and begin to manifest similar behaviors of acquiring a language as that which is manifested by isolated children.

Because language is an innate process, practice and teaching will not affect the process of acquiring a language in a child. For example, we are yet to encounter parents who provide their children with lessons on how to acquire language.

At the same time, correction and praise have been shown to have little effect on the ability of a child to acquire language (Fromkin, Rodman & Hyams 2011, p. 34). In the same way, the little praise and correction that a child might get from his/her parents or caregivers may not give an explanation for language acquisition.

The language that children produce cannot be traced to others as a source and this is a further testament to the fact that language acquisition is an innate phenomenon. The rapid rate at which children learn a language leaves little doubt that they could have acquired all the rules of a language from experience, as opposed to innately.

Another argument in support of the claim that language is indeed an innate phenomenon is that children do not utter words and sentences that they have heard other people uttering. If at all language was not an innate phenomenon, then we may expect that our children will only comprehend those sentences and words that they have heard other uttering (Cummins & Davidson 2007).

The fact that there lacks a regular sequence in the development of language acquisition is a further testament that indeed, language acquisition is innate, and not learned. Also, the process of language acquisition is not hindered by linguistic and/or cultural context but instead, it takes place in the form of a universal series of phases.

In his study of language and its structure, Chomsky ascertained that language is self-governed as well as creative. In developing his theory of language acquisition, Chomsky hypothesized that children possess a natural ability for language acquisition within a very short time, even in the absence of instructions to learn the language (Chomsky, 1967).

The innateness hypothesis assumes that the language faculty that is genetically endowed in children is responsible for the production, acquisition, as well as understanding of language in children. The principles of this ‘universal grammar’ entail the various principles for the acquisition of language in children and experience is not necessary to enable a child to acquire a language (Demirezen 1989).

Universal grammar theorists opine that every human being possess an in-built programme that entails a set of parameters and principles that teaches children the forms of grammar and sound for use in human language.

As such, universal grammar enables children to acquire language learning skills by limiting the options available to them. These parameters and principles allow children to experience what can be achieved in a language, and what cannot be achieved.

Children who possess an IQ as low as 50 are also able to acquire language just like their counterparts who have a high IQ. This is a clear sign that language acquisition is an innate thing. Even as language acquisition remains a complex system, nonetheless, it is also important to note that children do not struggle in their quest to acquire a language; rather, they seem to do so effortlessly (O’Grady 2008, p. 623).

There is no need to teach a child formally on how to acquire language. Chomsky says that with only a small amount and unsystematic data, children are able to learn the system of a language on their own.

We cannot say that imitation plays any crucial role in language acquisition, and reinforcement also plays a very limited role in as far as the issue of language acquisition is concerned. We need to note that in itself, language acquisition tends to be an active process.

For example, time and again, we hear or witness children uttering things that they could not have heard from their caregivers or adults. In spite of adults not adapting their language and speech to their children, the children end up learning it.

The “poverty of the stimulus arguments” holds that nearly all children are in a position to learn their native language successfully as they grow up against all odds that they cannot manage to learn something so complicated (Cummins & Davidson 2007).

Also, the environment surrounding the children tends to complicate their ability to learn language. Despite the confusing environment surrounding children, they still manage to overcome them and goes ahead to learn a language, and this is an indication that they possess an innate ability that enables them to do so. When parents decide to correct their children, their main focus is on meaning, as opposed to form.

More often than not, such corrections are ignored by the children who go on with their individual ways of uttering words and sounds. Even without instructions, children are able to utilize intricate language structures (Collins 1979). Children are also able to make use of various linguistic patterns and rules that they finally come to learn about.

Children also have the habit to utter words that they may not have heard previously (for example, puted). Clearly, there is no way that such an utterance can be attributed to imitation because parents are less likely to utter such a word in the presence of a parent or in their quest to teach them how to learn a language. If anything, this can only be attributed to a creative process of language acquisition.

In an attempt to justify why learning language is an innate process, Chomsky argues that language should not be interpreted as a set of habits; rather, language is often rule-governed. As a result, the language acquisition device that is genetically equipment in the mind of humans enables us to process and perceive linguistic data.

Universal grammar consists of fixed conceptual frameworks that underlies all natural languages, and this could perhaps offer an explanation as to how children manage understand language. These rules of grammar have been defined by Chomsky as language universals.

To this end, Chomsky has identified two forms of language universals namely formal universal, and substantive universal. To start with, the formal universal is made up of the basic principles which verify the nature and type of operation of the different rules of grammar regarding a specific language.

On the other hand, substantive universal is made up of such fixed characteristics of language as syntactic categories as verbs and nouns or phonemes (Johansson 1991). Both the core grammar and peripheral grammar of a child borrows heavily from the two aforementioned principles.

Since language learning is by and large, a habit structure, social learning has no place in it. Consequently, the language acquisition device exemplifies human knowledge at birth and it tends to develop through ideas and processes. All these tend to be mental developments, as opposed to physical developments.

It also underscores the fact that language acquisition is determined innately (Montrul 2008). Some of the features of the language acquisition device include the ability to distinguish various speech sounds. Another feature is the ability to classify linguistic events in different categories that may be defined later on with relative ease.

Chomsky opines that the language acquisition device is only restricted to human begins, and not animals. In order for human beings to embark on a successful journey of learning language, human beings are required to possess similar internal capacity that will enable this to happen, something that animals are not able to achieve.

As such, it is not possible to acquire this capacity socially, meaning that it can only be an innate behavior. This means that social factors do not feature in the learning of languages and the inborn capacity is solely responsible for it.

Conclusion

Children have a natural ability to learn language very fast without the need for instructions. The possession of a Language Acquisition Device, a biologically inherited device, is thought to play a crucial role in the ability of children to acquire language.

Also, children with both a low and high IQ appear to learn language effortless, although this is a complex process. This is an indication that indeed, learning language is an innate behavior. Children utter words and sentences that have not been taught to them by their parents or caregivers, and this is a sign that they possess their own vocabulary.

Children also ignore efforts by parents and caregivers to correct them and they go ahead to utter their own words and sentences.

Despite the confusing environment surrounding children, they still manage to overcome them and goes ahead to learn a language, and this is an indication that they possess an innate ability that enables them to do so. As a habit structure, social learning has no place in language acquisition, and it can only be an innate behavior.

Reference List

Chomsky, N 1977, Language and Responsibility, New York: Pantheon Books.

Collins, A 1979, Children’s language and communication, London: Routledge.

Cummins, J & Davidson, C 2007, International handbook of English language teaching, New York: Springer.

Demirezen, M 1989, Mentalistic theory and language acquisition. Web.

Fromkin, V Rodman, R & Hyams, N 2011, What is Language? An Introduction to Language, 9th Edition, Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Johansson, S 1991, Universal grammar and the innateness hypothesis. Web.

Lenneberg, E.H 1967, Biological Foundations of Language, London: Wiley.

Montrul, S 2008, Incomplete acquisition in bilingualism: reexamining the age Factor, Philadelphia, USA: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

O’Grady, W 2008,’ Innateness, universal grammar, and emergentism’, Lingua, vol 118, no, pp. 620-631.

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