Language: Is it innate or learned?

Language is a cognitive skill essential to human communication.Without language as a means of communication, life would be very different.  In linguistics there has been a long standing debate as to whether language is innate or learnt. To this date, the nature versus nurture debate has proved controversial, with evidence supporting either side.

Children learn their native language with ease when they are young, though adults learn a second language with greater difficulty. As a result, linguists came to conclude that there might be something called a critical period in which your first language is learnt. Some children grow up bilingual and have two first languages. Some children however, have never been exposed to language at a young enough age, such as the feral child Genie. She was abandoned as a child and never managed to acquire language.  She was given extensive language training when she was found at the age of 13, but was unable to pick it up.

Alongside the critical period hypothesis, nativist linguist Noam Chomsky proposed the idea that humans are born with a Language Acquisition Device, also known as LAD. It is said to be a mental faculty that enables children to learn the grammar of a language and this innate knowledge is called Universal Grammar. Universal Grammar is activated during first language acquisition, and the stages of grammar acquisition and language development seem to be independent of culture or language learnt. Also, these stages of acquiring grammar follow the same sequence and duration across all languages. However, this doesn’t explain the importance of environmental influence.

Nativists view ‘The Poverty of the Stimulus’ argument as evidence that we must have an innate knowledge of language, asserting that language is too complex to be learnt by environmental linguistic exposure alone. The linguistic input and the utterances heard by a child learning their first language are incomplete and at times incorrect. Nevertheless, the child acquires the correct set of rules for the language they are learning without support of their environment. This links closely back to the theory of Universal Grammar.

Despite the evidence for a naturalistic approach to language, behaviourist B.F. Skinner claims that language is learnt and not innate. Behaviourism observes human behaviours as a result of a response to a stimulus. It looks at language development as a type of imitation process. The behaviourist approach says that when a child learns their first language they receive positive feedback when they make a correct utterance, but receive negative feedback from their environment when making a mistake. The feedback is expected to reinforce positive behaviour. Behaviourists believe that we are born with a blank slate, also known as tabula rasa, in order for this to be possible.

The behaviourist approach doesn’t account for where, how and when language was started. If we were to argue that language or its knowledge isn’t innate, the question arises as to why we have language. Communication and language can be said to be two different things. Communication is a way to make ourselves understood, whereas language is the medium to do so. In the wild, animals communicate with each other by various methods. Animal communication includes visual, vocal, olfactory and touch communication, different to vocalisation in humans.

It can be argued that there was no need for animals to have language but that there was a need for humans to have language. This could be down to evolution. It is possible that as humans evolved, it became clear that they were capable of many things that animals were not. This argument is problematic in that it is hard to argue why humans are different to animals in earlier stages.

It is debatable which side of argument is convincing. Evidence for the nativist approach comes from observations and hypotheses but so does the evidence from behaviourists.  Humans may or may not be born with a predisposition for language. It is possible that it’s neither nature nor nurture but a combination of both.

Michelle Heinrich

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