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The Innate Ability to Learn Language: Understanding Nativist Theory

For centuries, theorists have debated the effortless way in which children acquire language within just a few years of being born. While some argue that it is a result of environmental factors, others believe that it is an inherent trait. This article will examine the Nativist theory, which proposes that language ability and other essential components of understanding are innate and do not necessarily need to be taught through experiences.

What is Nativist Theory?

The word innate refers to something that is present from birth and is not learned. In the context of language acquisition, Nativists believe that children are born with an instinctive ability to comprehend and organize the fundamental laws and structures of language. This is why children are able to learn their native language quickly and effortlessly.

The Nature vs Nurture Debate: Where do Behaviourist Theorists Stand?

In the past, behaviourist theorists held a dominant position in the nature vs nurture debate, largely due to a lack of scientific evidence supporting the Nativist theory. However, the emergence of Noam Chomsky changed this. As one of the most influential Nativist theorists, Chomsky revolutionized the field of linguistics in the 1950s and 60s by considering language as a uniquely human, biologically-based cognitive ability.

Chomsky challenged the idea that the human mind is a "blank slate" and rejected behaviourist theory, highlighting that children are exposed to "limited language input" (such as baby talk) during their formative years. He questioned how children could demonstrate an understanding of grammar before receiving any formal education on grammatical rules. Chomsky argued that the human brain must have evolved to contain certain linguistic information from birth, which aids children in grasping the fundamental structures of language.

According to Chomsky, our innate ability to learn a native language effortlessly is a result of two key factors: the Language Acquisition Device (LAD) and universal grammar.

The Language Acquisition Device (LAD)

The LAD is a theoretical "tool" in the brain that comprises specific knowledge about language and grammar. Chomsky introduced this concept to explain how children can understand the basic structures of language from a young age. He suggests that when a child hears speech, the LAD is triggered, and it guides them in comprehending what they hear based on underlying principles and structures already present in their brain.

Chomsky believes that the LAD is a unique characteristic of the human brain and cannot be found in other animals, which explains why humans are the only species capable of using language to communicate.

Universal Grammar

The knowledge contained within the LAD is known as Universal Grammar. This concept recognizes that while each language has varying sounds and meanings, they also share many common grammatical principles. For example, most languages differentiate between verbs and nouns, have a way of talking about the past and present, and have a counting system.

This sharing of common grammatical principles is what Chomsky defines as Universal Grammar. According to this theory, the basic structures of language are already present in the human brain from birth, and a child's environment will determine which language they will ultimately learn.

Chomsky has since revised his own theory on the LAD, now proposing that it functions more as a mechanism for children to understand the rules of language, rather than containing specific knowledge about language.

Key Principles of Chomsky's Model of Language Acquisition

In this article, we will explore the fundamental principles of Chomsky's model of language acquisition. This theory, also known as the Nativist theory, suggests that all humans are born with a Language Acquisition Device (LAD), which enables us to learn and understand language.

Real-Life Examples of the Nativist Theory in Action

To gain a better understanding of the Nativist theory, let's examine some real-life instances where it is evident. According to Chomsky, our closest living relatives, the apes, do not possess a LAD. This is supported by the research of Pinker (1994) ¹, who found that while some chimpanzees can learn single words through signs, they are unable to grasp the complexities of syntax and proper sentence formation.

The Nativist Theory and Language Acquisition: Understanding the Innate Ability of Children to Learn Language

During an interview, renowned linguist Noam Chomsky (2012) stated, "It's evident that there is a genetic factor that sets humans apart from other animals, specifically when it comes to language. The theory of this genetic element, whatever it may be, is what we call universal grammar."

One crucial aspect of language is the use of past tense. Interestingly, children possess an unconscious ability to recognize past tense and will instinctively associate words ending in /d/, /t/, or /id/ with the past. Chomsky argues that this ability is the reason for children making "virtuous errors" while learning language, such as saying "I goed" instead of "I went." These errors suggest that children are born with an innate capability to understand the grammatical rules of language independently, without any formal instruction.

The Emergence of Creole Languages

Another example that supports Chomsky's theory is the development of creole languages. Creole languages are created from a blend of other languages without any formal instruction. Linguist Derek Bickerton studied Dutch-based creoles that evolved from escaped slaves. The adults, who had already surpassed the critical age for language learning, had to communicate using basic Dutch. However, their children were able to develop this basic pidgin language into a fully-fledged language with consistent grammar rules, without any formal instruction.

The Significance of the Nativist Theory in Linguistics

The nativist theory, along with other learning theories, aids in understanding crucial aspects of linguistics. It provides an explanation for how children acquire language and learn it.

Arguments Against the Nativist Theory

Like any theory, the nativist theory has faced criticisms. One of the primary criticisms is its lack of scientific evidence and its highly theoretical nature. Elman et al. (1996) ² pointed out that it is challenging to determine what knowledge is innate and how it is coded in our genes.

Furthermore, Chomsky's focus on complicated explanations of grammatical structures, rather than the study of children themselves, results in a lack of empirical evidence to validate his theory. This indicates that the nativist theory does not wholly consider external factors, real-life relationships, and motivations that children may encounter during their language acquisition journey.

Moreover, interactionist theorists, such as Bruner and Vygotsky, stress the role of biology and social environment in language development. They argue that the nativist theory fails to acknowledge the influence of the social environment on language acquisition.

Finally, while scientists have identified specific areas in the brain involved in language processing, there is no specific region that can be defined as the Language Acquisition Device (LAD).

The Nativist/Universal Grammar Theory: Key Takeaways

The nativist theory suggests that language and other essential concepts are innate and do not necessarily need to be learned from experience. This contrasts with behaviorist theories. Chomsky, a prominent nativist theorist, believes that every child is born with an innate LAD that enables them to comprehend and acquire the universal grammar rules of human language.

Interactionist Theories and the Criticism of the Nativist Theory

Interactionist theorists, such as Bruner and Vygotsky, have opposed the nativist theory for disregarding the role of the social environment in language acquisition.

What is the Nativist Theory?

The Nativist Theory proposes that children have an innate ability to learn language from birth. Nativist theorists argue that there is a specific part of the brain dedicated to language acquisition and that children can instinctively understand basic grammar without any formal instruction.

Chomsky's Theory of Language Acquisition

Noam Chomsky, a nativist theorist, based his theory on the concept that all human languages share universal structures and rules. He termed these shared structures as "Universal Grammar" and believed that children are born with the capacity to comprehend the fundamental grammatical structures of language.

Examples Supporting the Nativist Theory

One example that corroborates the nativist theory is the existence of creole languages. Creole languages develop when different languages interact and merge, without any formal instruction, resulting in distinct grammatical structures. This suggests that children have an innate ability to construct complex languages from basic forms.

The Significance of the Nativist Theory

Examining key aspects of linguistics, learning theories like the Nativist Theory are highly valuable. These theories offer valuable insights into language acquisition and learning, particularly in how children develop language skills.

The Origins of the Nativist Theory

Among the many influential theorists involved in the development of the Nativist Theory, Noam Chomsky stands out as the most prominent figure and is often referred to as the "father" of the theory.

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