How do we learn language? Is it an innate ability or do we have to learn language? Can we find an absolute definition for language? These questions has been asked and investigated by many psychologists, but to date I have not been able to find any concrete evidence put forward to support any of the findings. Using the language acquisition theories of Chomsky and Skinner, as a base, I was able to compare of their findings by applying the theories to actual situations to determine the practicality of the results. As a result of making these comparisons, I was able to determine that each theory on its own had limitations, but I believe that if we took aspects of each and made one compilation, it is possible that we could eventually determine whether language is in fact an innate ability or whether it is developed through learning.
Language is an innate ability and is not developed through learning
To say that language is an innate ability and is not developed through learning, we need to look at the theorist arguments on language acquisition. One theorist argued that language is an innate ability, (Chomsky,1959), another argued that it is acquired by reinforcement and repetition (Skinner, 1957), another argued that it was part of the overall development (Piaget, 1969) and yet another argued that it is learned through interaction (Bruner, 1975). Although each theorist produced differing views on language acquisition, the debate still remains as to whether language is an innate ability or it is learned. I will be focusing on Skinner’s (1957) Behaviourist Theory and Chomksy’s (1959) Innate Theory as the base on this paper.
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Let us first look at the definition of language. Language, as defined by the Webster’s online dictionary states that it is a systematic means of communicating, by the use of sounds or convectional symbols. The idea is that language is facilitated and understood by the use of structured elements. These elements are not limited to auditory but also encompass the use of convectional symbols. What therefore are convectional symbols? Throughout the evolutionary process, countries have developed their own method of documentation using unique letters or numerals. They have also created signs which have no alphanumeric symbols but effectively communicate necessary information, for example, a single arrow pointing to the left could mean, left turn only or keep left. Similarly the outline of a man or woman on the doors of washrooms communicate the gender allowed to use the washroom. The symbol may have a definitive meaning, but the interpretation of the symbol will determine the appropriate action.
Another definition found in the Oxford online dictionary, we see where language is defined as the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and convectional way. It is interesting to note the disparity in the two definitions. Whilst the Webster’s definition appears generic to any specie, the Oxford definition seems to be specific to communication in humans. Does the Oxford dictionary imply that communication is unique to humans? Based on the research done by the theorists we recongnise that humans talk and all other living species have their own unique method of communicating with each other. It is therefore not appropriate to disregard non-human communication abilities.
Looking at the human interaction and how we are able to understand each other, especially as it relates language development in newborn babies, has encouraged many theories. De Villiers J. G. & P. A. (1978), in their book, Language Acquisition, the question is asked, “What does a child bring into the world with him by way of inherited knowledge or behaviour, and what is the product of the experience?” (p.2). It is clear that both genetics and experience play an important part in language development, but the underlying question remains debatable. The arguments continue with Osherson, D. N., Gleitman L. R., Liberman M, (1995) in their book, An Invitation to Cognitive Science: Language, they state that some parts of the capacity to learn language must be ‘innate’. At the same time, it is equally clear that language is ‘learned’ (Gleitman and Newport, chapter 1,p.1)
The hierarchy of language, however complex, is influenced by the environment and experiences. In babies we recognise that there is no experience, therefore the development can only be linked or associated with their environment. The direct links that babies have in their early stages are only with their parents or other close family members who interact with them on a daily basis. Babies do not have the capacity to make audible sounds which constitute sentences; however they do have to capacity to make other sounds which can be interpreted as immediate needs or wants. As the child develops, the verbal interaction increases and depending on the appropriateness or the effectiveness of the interaction, the development progress will be determined. This means that how the parent speaks to the child or how often word or sentences are used will determine how quickly the child’s language is developed.
The comparisons between nature versus nurture have been debated for a long time. The story has been written about the Egyptian King Psammethichus, who in an attempt to determine which race was more ancient, the Egyptian or the Phrygians, took two newborn babies and placed them in isolation. They were kept by themselves in a lonely cottage and no-one was allowed to utter words around them. After two years in isolation the caregiver of the children heard them say the word ‘becos’ and he eventually reported this to the King. King Psametichus researched the word and found out that the origin of the language was Phrygian for ‘bread’. The discovery made the Egyptians yield their position of antiquity and conceded that the Phrygians were more ancient than they were. (Herodotus, De Sélincourt A., Marincola J. 2003), The Histories). The fact that these children had no verbal interaction at all makes you want to believe that babies are born with some innate ability for language development.
Although this story is very old, we can also look at more recent language developments in children who are kept in isolated conditions. Feral children, commonly known as wild children, are children who have been brought up in total isolation. They may have some human contact but they are denied any kind of social interaction with other people. These children have been known to develop their own language as in the case of ‘Genie’, who was kept in isolation until she was 13 years old. This is a recent example of language development without guidance. She was not taught to speak and was denied any human interaction whilst in isolation and when she was found and tested (Curtis, 1977), it was discovered that Genie would never be able to master the rules of grammar. Although she had good semantic ability, she could not learn syntax and therefore was not able to form complete sentences.
Going back to the theorist arguments, did ‘Genie’s’ lack of communicative ability give credence to Skinners’ (1957) proposal that language can be acquired through a series of habit forming tasks? The experiments he performed were conducted on rats and birds, which were taught to perform various tasks successfully. This theory, known as the Behaviourist Theory, proposes that through repetition and subsequent rewards children learn how to communicate. In his 1957 book, Verbal Behaviour, Skinner argued that language was like any other form of behaviour which is acquired through conditioning. Rewards were given once the appropriate behaviour was achieved. However looking again at feral children, even with repetition and rewards they still were not able to master the rules of grammar. The common diagnosis was that these children had passed the critical period hypothesis, which is the stage before puberty before the brain becomes specialized in it functions. Language functions are assigned to the left brain, however before puberty the language function moves from one side to the next and after puberty this function is assigned to the left brain.
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Chomsky (1959) published a criticism of this theory. Chomsky believed that a child’s brain contained special language learning abilities at birth which enabled them to communicate from birth – the Innate Theory. He argued that a child was naturally predisposed to learn a language. This was possible by hearing speech which is interpreted by the brain using its natural ability to apply structures and principles. Chomsky’s’ view is that ‘a child is held to be born with the entire set of linguistic universals plus evaluation procedures, built in, and that he somehow uses this set as a grid through which he filters the particular language he happens to hear around him’ (1968a, p.76). After reading the review it was interesting to note that Chomsky critised Skinner because he used only animals as the test subjects, and as a result the theory was silent on specie restrictions. Ironically, Chomsky’s innate theory was based on no test subject (human or animal). If we are to accept the innateness of language acquisition then we would have to somehow get into the mind of the child from birth to determine how the brain interpreted the speech it heard.
Using the feral children Kamala and Amala, the two Indian girls that were said to be raised by wolves can we apply the innate theory? The missionary who found and adopted them (Singh) tried to rehabilitate them back to their human form. Unfortunately Amala died shortly after being found. Progress was slow and after three years, Kamala had only mastered about a dozen words. The question then is; where does the innate ability surface? Based on the innate theory, these children should have had some ability to understand human language, despite the fact that they were socialized by wolves in the early stages of development. It was several years later that Kamala’s vocabulary increased to forty words. Gesell (1940) in his book, Wolf Child and Human Child, stated that Kamala’s situation demonstrated ‘just how mentally naked humans are when born and how much we rely on society to shape us’.
After looking at the two theories I am still left to determine which one has more credence than the other. I am almost tempted to conduct my own research, similar to King Psammethichus, the only risk with doing that would be the impending prison time I may have to serve for offences committed against a minor. I am however able to give my opinion on the theories. I do not agree that language acquisition is solely dependent on an innate ability; there must be some learning which takes place during the early developmental stages. Humans may be born with a pre-disposition for language, however there has to be some social interaction that defines the language, grammar and speech.
We teach our children language by using a variety of methods, such as visual aids and verbal reinforcements. If we only show them the visual aids, without explaining what they are seeing, they will ultimately create their own description and possibly create their own language. The feral children did not necessarily create their own language, instead they adapted to their environment. In the case of Genie, she had limited human interaction; therefore it is possible that her language development was only based on the few words spoken to her during her isolation. The meals she was served may have just been shoved at her with harsh accompanying words of “eat this” or “here”. Applying Skinner’s theory, the reinforcement may have been the harsh words heard regularly but not enough to develop the syntax needed to form sentences. Here Chomsky’s theory may have been more appropriate, in that there was some amount of innate understanding of human communication; Genie responded to human speech although she was not taught.
In the case of Kamala, who was raised by wolves, the innate theory is not possible. She had to be taught everything as she did not understand anything her adoptive parent said. Skinner’s theory here is more believable. It was through constant repetition and reinforcement that she was able to develop some kind of vocabulary database to eventually communicate. What is interesting is the length of time it took for her to grasp a dozen words. In a normal three year old child, you will find that they are most communicative and speaking constantly at this age.
In conclusion, I believe that the two theories go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other. We may be born with some amount of innate ability, but it is through repetition and reinforcement that we are able to communicate effectively. The necessary grammar and syntax ability requires practice and this can only be achieved with being taught. It is my opinion that both Skinner and Chomsky were on the right path but they needed to work together to get the language acquisition theory more credence.
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