Language is considered one of the attributes that define human beings as a unique species. We are the only species able to employ complex language to communicate our feelings, intentions and also to teach others. Although language is such an exclusive and intricate skill, infants can learn it fairly quickly. Child vocabulary grows very fast once they say their first words growing from 5-20 words at 18-months to about 6000 words by the age of 5 (Bates, 2003). This remarkable ability to acquire language is the basis for a central debate: how much of our ability to acquire, produce and understand language is innate (genetically programmed) and how much is acquired by learning? This essay will focus on the debate between nature and nurture and how research in the area of language produced evidence for both sides of the argument.
The claim for an innate ability for language acquisition assumes that we are genetically programmed to acquire language. Human languages demand very complex abilities such as syntactic (sentence formation) and semantic (sentences meaning) rules. We can, however, apply them naturally and automatically hundreds of times every day. If learning language is really about knowing these rules, then language acquisition would involve a massive task for infants. Nativist theorists such as Chomsky advocate that it would be impossible for children to learn such a complicated set of rules if they were not born equipped with specialised brain structures for language acquisition.
Chomsky (1968) suggests that children are born with an innate specialised mechanism in their brains (Language Acquisition Device) that allows them to identify the structure-dependence of a language and to be able to use these structures efficiently. He argues that this mechanism contains innate knowledge of several linguistic rules and restrictions. Although this device allows children to understand and create all types of sentences (even if they have never heard them before) they need environmental input to develop this skill, though environmental stimuli alone would not be enough to explain how children learn grammatical rules since the speech they hear is frequently incomplete.
An important aspect of Chomsky’s theory is the transformational grammar, the phrase-structure rules which indicate sentence order and expressions that are acceptable or unacceptable in a language. These rules are applied systematically in order to generate adequate sentences in any language. The surface structure of the sentence refers to actual words or phrases (syntax) whereas deep structure is related to meaning. According to Chomsky, when we hear a sentence, the transformational grammar allows us to transform meaning into sentences and vice-versa. He argues that children are born able to learn the rules to transform deep structure into many different surface structures.
Furthermore, Chomsky’s theory of “Universal Grammar” suggests that children are born with innate knowledge of...