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Nature vs. nurture The Innateness Hypothesis Unit

Nature vs. nurture: The Innateness Hypothesis


Linguists have always been interested on whether language is innateto humans and whether there are any universal features fundamental tothe baffling diversity of human languages. On one side, somelinguists (interactionists) argue that language is acquired throughinteractions with other individuals already familiar with thelanguage. On the other side are scholars led by Noam Chomsky (1986)who believe that there is an innate or natural element that enableschildren and individuals to acquire a new language. These scholars,called nativists, believe that the language acquisition mechanism isnative to humans and is wired to the brains. Given that the processof language of acquisition is not clearly understand, the nativistsapproach is just a hypothesis and so are others. All these hypothesesare in competition hence arguments and counterarguments are common.This brief paper seeks to show that language is innate as there arebasic fundamental rules that govern all languages which are notacquirable through simple interactions with speakers of a targetlanguage.

Integrationists and nativists agree that humans have some rudimentaryunderstanding of abstract linguistic symmetries. How these symmetriesor regularities are acquired is the main area of contention (Berentet al, 2007). These regularities are supported by Universalists, who,through studying multitudes of languages including English, German,Russian and others have observed common grammatical rules in theselanguages (Chomsky 1986). However, whether these common regularitiesare as a result of innateness of the language or are just historicalartefacts of language change is not clear (Berent et al.,2007). Several empirical studies involving children have supportedthe innateness hypothesis (Crain &amp Nakayama, 1987 van der Weert,2002).

Chomsky believed that human beings have a specialized “languageorgan” or faculty in the brain that is dedicated to masteringlanguage. He believed that this faculty of the brain or ‘organ’contains innate knowledge on various linguistic principles andregularities. This approach on one hand shared Descartes views ofinnate rationality. To develop and portray this rationality, humanbeings have to be presented with an appropriate stimulus where reasonis evident. In the same manner, the innate linguistic knowledge hasto be exposed to what Chomsky calls ‘primary linguistic data’(pld) for it to develop into a specific language. This pld data doesnot necessarily provide the actual rules but rather the applicationof rules. In fact, this forms the basis of arguments against theinstructionist approach.

Primary linguistic data is just a stimulus to innate knowledge oflanguage. Chomsky argued that learning language from speakers of itis one such instance. This would equate to the nativist’s approachwhich posits that people including infants learn language from theenvironment which is literally the mother and family hence the term“mother tongue.” Chomsky opposed this view by saying that the gapbetween a hearer’s knowledge of a language including infants, andthe amount of data they have access to during the learning phase istoo huge. The data is insufficient to account for full languageacquisition. To Chomsky, a learner is not a blank vessel or sponge toabsorb a language altogether with its rules (Crain, Pietroski, 2001).He opined a different situation where children have an innateframework or structure of grammar rules on to which they fit in newlanguages or new pld they come across (Crain &amp Nakayama, 1987).

Another key aspect of innateness of language as expounded by Chomskyis through the concept of poverty of stimulus. Nativists believe thatlanguage cannot be learned through association only but it requires adeeper understanding of the rules and framework of grammar and notjust the immediate language (Legate &amp Yang, 2002). This isevident in the use of language by young children who make theoreticalhypotheses about grammar and testing it against pld. This pld ininsufficient and too impoverished to offer any chance of successfulscientific theory building. This weakness is apparent in two ways.One is that they constitute a small limited sample of the infinitenumber of sentences that any natural language can contain andsecondly is that the pld does not contain the needed sample ofsentences for forge incorrect hypotheses (van der Weert, 2002). Onthe second opposition to use of pld to learn languages, Chomskybelieved that children do not randomly entertain grammar theories butare guided by an inbuilt mechanism on grammar (Cowie, 1999).

This theory has been criticized widely. The notion of an inbuiltgrammar mechanism or a language organ is not valid to some. One ofthe issues raised pertains to the validity of the impoverishment ofpld. This is based on the fact that Chomsky and his followers havenot adequately addressed the content of pld before condemning it asinadequate. Pullum and Scholz (2002) cite the expanse of pld asindicated by the British National Corpus/demographic which notes animpressive 100 million different words being in use daily in Britainalone. This is further supported by use of complex auxiliaries at afrequency of once in every 10,000-70,000 words which negates theclaim by some critics that use of complex auxiliaries is vanishinglyrare (Sampson 2002). Nonetheless, Chomsky and his followers do notoffer what a sufficient pld entails.

There are very few published studies on innateness hypothesis whereresearchers have explicitly shown that children hypothesise grammarrules abstractly. Sampson (2002) says that it is very hard toascertain whether children have been exposed to a certain grammaticalrule, either from the mother, relatives, media (tv, radio internet)etc so as to classify knowledge in such a rule as innate.Additionally, Samson claims that the choice betweenstructure-dependent and structure-independent is informed byrationality rather than experience or innate awareness of the rules.”

Another core weakness of nativism is the failure of this approach toaddress cases of particular grammatical rules being learned fromprimary linguistic data. Cowie (1999) claims that nativists have beenunable to explain how such well documented cases of languageacquisition through pld, but have instead offered examples of complexgrammatical rules and principle that cannot be learned. Cowie is thusconceived that the language organ approach to language acquisition isnot whole as it fails to explain how simple grammatical rules areacquired through pld. Nativists have however counter argued that thepoverty of the stimulus argument does not consider acquisition ofsimple grammatical rules as stand-alone but rather as a powerfulenough tool for acquisition of a natural language with grammar rules(Elman et al., 1996).

The above discussion has set to show that the innateness hypothesisin language acquisition explains better the acquisition of languageas opposed to interactionist approach. There are a number of currentand on-going studies on language acquisition that have contributedtowards the debate. However, there is still no concrete evidence toproof beyond doubt that there is a language acquisition mechanismthat is innate. It therefore emerges that future research on thelanguage acquisition will be geared towards identifying the actual‘language organ’ in the body or the actual faculty of the brainthat is stores universal grammars rules and aids in acquisition of anew language. Such information will be critical in sociology,education and cultural studies.


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