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Nature vs. Nurture: Theory of Language Acquisition

Some Background: History of Psycholinguistics

Behaviorism (early to mid twentieth century)
Early 1900s, behaviorists tried to establish psychology as an empirical science with scientific methods but devoid of mental constructs like mind, thought, and imagery. B.F. Skinner in Verbal Behavior (1957) argued that speech was a product of operant learning processes such as reinforcement, extinction and generalization.

Linguistics (post behaviorism through Chomsky) - nature vs. nurture debate Noam Chomsky critically reviewed Skinner’s book in 1959; gave rationalist argument that the potential for language was an innate mental capacity. Chomsky argued that children’s patterns of language acquisition were too systematic to be the product of parents’ operant conditioning. Human species has a built-in language acquisition device (LAD).

Theories of Language Acquisition

1. Imitation: children learn language just by imitating adult language i.e. learn language by simply hearing and copying what they hear (Criticism: differ from adult speech, mistakes, failure to reproduce, rich knowledge of rules)

2. Learning Theory (reinforcement and conditioning): children learn language because parents reward proper uses and discourage improper uses (Criticism: ungrounded; failure in trying to correct improper uses)

3. Innatist Theory: for various reasons, language must be genetically encoded (biologically pre-programmed)

▪ Universal Grammar: The core of the grammar that is universal to all languages, and which specifies and restricts the form that individual languages can take ▪

▪ .


▪ Language acquisition device (LA


): Chomsky argued that
children hear an impoverished language input and therefore need the assistance of an innate language acquisition device in order to acquire language. ▪ Principles and Parameters...

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