Is Language Innate Ability or Is It Acquired Through Learning and Experience?

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IntroductionThe acquisition of language in humans is a fascinating yet immensely intricate skill. Many linguists have put forth their own theories in an attempt to explain this natural phenomenon and determine whether the language mechanism is an innate ability or whether language is developed from learning and experiences. This paper will discuss the following three language acquistion theories in detail: the behaviorist interpretation, the linguistic interpretation and the social interactionist interpretation. Each theory has its own valid arguments as well as limitations and the three interpretations work together to provide an more accurate representation of language acquisition. Linguistic approach suggests language is innate however this innate ability must be facilitated through learning experiences like behavioral reinforcements and social interaction.

Behaviorist interpretationBehaviorists postulate that language learning is a case of behavior - the actions or reactions of a person in response to external or internal stimuli. There are three approaches of the behaviorist paradigm: classical conditioning, operant conditioning and imitation. According to behaviorists then, language develops as classical, operant and imitative conditionings converge to direct and control child's language behavior.

Classical conditioning suggests that words are learned when an association is formed between arbitrary verbal words and internal stimuli such as the word 'hot' when an infant touches a hot plate. This does explain how children develop receptive vocabulary, however additional learning principles must be applied to explain productive speech development and abstract ideas. (Gleason, 2005, pg.236).

The accelerated rate of learning during childhood requires additional learning techniques. Thus, children rely on imitation- a behavior whereby an individual observes and reproduces the same action supplied by environmental agents (Gleason, 2005, pg.237). When a child successfully imitates an adult they are usually reinforced. Hence imitation is likely to occur again (a paradigm of learning and reasoning in a child) . Children can imitate the syntax of an utterance as well as various grammatical structures (Russel, 2004, pg.455).

On the contrary, if children did imitate adult's speech it would not explain how they produced and interpreted novel sentences or structures (Rnarasimhan, 1998, pg.31). Imitation also cannot explain the unpredictability of language. For instance the appearance of a daffodil does not necessarily mean that a human would shriek 'daffodil' (Aitchinson, 1998, pg.18). Finally, children who produce over-regularizations are seen frequently in the early stages of language development. Therefore one can conclude that language cannot be learned simply by imitation (Crain & Martin, 1999, pg.12). Nevertheless modern definitions of imitation are postulated as a process whereby observers can learn new language behaviors by watching others being punished or rewarded (Gleason, 2005, pg.273).

Operant conditioning is described as the frequency of certain language behaviors could be increased if positive reinforcement were applied by environmental agents. (Brian & Nina, 2009, pg.69). However, this account is challenged by Aitchison(1998), as parents do not explicitly reward their children for producing grammatically correct utterances, nor do they punish them for producing ungrammatical sentences. They would more likely focus on the semantic content of the utterance rather than the grammatical content (pg.10-11).

Though the behaviorist interpretation does explain how observable and perceivable vocabulary as well as articulations of certain speech sounds may be learned from classical conditioning and imitation processes, this interpretation has failed to explain intangible language concepts which can be learned from explicit instruction - such as grammar.

Linguistic InterpretationNoam Chomsky (1955) proposed...
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