The nature-nurture debate is a consistently prominent area of interest in psychology and has in turn sparked a considerable number of studies investigating the extent to which our genes and the environment shape developmental processes. The psychological research supporting nativist theories will be compared with the contrasting empiricist views, which highlight environmental experiences, in a discussion to examine whether infants exhibit evidence of innate cognitive abilities in the developmental area of language acquisition. Children, despite having no knowledge of words themselves when they are born, are able to acquire language quickly and with apparent ease, and many ideas have been put forward to examine and understand the processes that lie behind the acquisition of language. The main theories include those of Nativism and Empiricism. Nativism is the theoretical position which argues that language is acquired so quickly as the result of a built in, innate mechanism, that makes infants predisposed to learning language (Harris, 2006). The opposing Empiricist position on the other hand holds that language is not built in but rather that it is learnt through children’s experiences and interactions with their environment. Chomsky, who supports the ideas of Nativism, has argued that a Universal Grammar exists, and that children are able to learn language so quickly because of an innate understanding of syntax rules (the rules for combining words in to sentences); he proposes that through the use an innate ‘language acquisition device’ language specific features of utterances (the surface structure of language) are translated into the innate deep structure of language with which children are born (Mitchell and Ziegler, 2012, p206). Chomsky built upon the idea for an innate mechanism in language development by highlighting the universality of its acquisition by children, despite the poverty of input from the environment; the argument that children are often exposed to grammatically imperfect, ‘degenerate’ language, which alone would not fully account for language development (Mitchell and Ziegler, 2012, p208). The social constructivism perspective contrasts with Chomsky’s perspective of degenerate language by explaining how the home environment and surrounding culture of a child acts as a language acquisition support system (Mitchell and Ziegler, 2012, p210). Bruner (1975, 1993) highlighted how parents have the tendency to talk to their children in a way which facilitates language learning; known as infant directed talk, or ‘motherese’. Children often hear language in familiar social contexts, where the speech directed to the child often names the objects or people currently in view and where the general focus of speech if focussed on what is currently happening (Harris, 2006). In this way motherese facilitates learning words and their meanings through association, so if the word apple is always spoken upon presentation on an apple the child should find it easier to make an association between the name of the fruit and the fruit itself. In the same way children can learn to associate words or phrases with actions, such as if a parent always says ‘upsy-daisy’ before picking up their child, the child is likely to learn that this phrase is followed by the action and expect to be picked up. Children are believed to pay such attention to the utterances and actions of their carers because they are motivated (have a social drive) to communicate, particularly as the fulfilment of their needs depends upon their carers (Mitchell and Ziegler, 2012, p210). Another approach which offers support to environmental factors in language acquisition draws on connectionism to further challenge the Nativist argument; connectionist networks are essentially computer models that attempt to simulate the ways in which children learn a language. For example children tend to go through a stage of using language accurately, to a stage of mistakes, and back again to accuracy. These artificial computerised neural networks have been able to replicate this development pattern, and the findings have suggested it occurs because children initially imitate the words they have heard from others, but when they move on to trying to use words for themselves in sentences mistakes occur, over time children improve at their language and exhibit perfect use of words again. Connectionism has also been able to replicate the ‘vocabulary spurt’, a stage many children go through where there is a sudden increase in comprehension vocabulary size (Harris, 2006). The spurt appears to occur simply because learning a certain amount of information reinforces the learning process making it easier to learn more things quickly (Plunkett and Wood, 2006). Whilst this offers excellent support to the empiricist view that environmental factors predominate in language development behaviourist explanations by Skinner appear over simplistic. Skinner believed that languag
e acquisition arises from the reinforcement of reward and punishment, such as if a parent takes delight in an utterance from their child, the child is likely to find the positive feedback from the parent a pleasurable experience, and so the child is likely to emit the same behaviour again in the future (Mitchell and Ziegler, 2012, p200). Skinner’s view that behaviour is learnt through reinforcement suggests that even animals, if their physiology allowed them, would be able to learn language; however attempts to teach language to animals have had very limited success, with communication being devoid of meaning and largely arise by way of imitation rather than through reward and punishment, (Mitchell and Ziegler, 2012, p201). Therefore it is clear that the complex communication system of language is a distinctly human trait. A further empiricist approach to understanding the development of language has been put forward by Tomasello (2000), who’s distributional approach to syntax theorised that children are able to acquire knowledge of the rules of grammar in a piecemeal fashion based on regularities in the way in which words are used (Plunkett and Wood, 2006). Tomasello puts forth the usage-based language theory which argues that vocabulary and an understanding of the rules of one’s own language arises from the use of that language (Mitchell and Ziegler, 2012, p211). Also important to Tomasello’s ideas about children’s acquisition of language is the development of theory of mind skills. Theory of mind refers to the ability that the majority of human beings have to take the perspective of another in order to understand their mental state and to both explain and predict the actions of others and oneself (Clegg, 2007, p133). Children with autism are known to have less advanced theory of mind skills than normally developing children and perform less well on theory of mind tasks; such individuals lack the usual drive to be social and tend to struggle with social relationships and understanding the mental states of others (Frith, 2008, pp 69,73). This helps to illustrate how theory of mind significantly aids communication skills in everyday interactions as it allows for the understanding of others behaviour and beliefs. Support for this comes from Tomasello’s ‘find the toma’ experiment, which has shown how children’s sensitivity to the intentions, emotions, and pragmatic cues made by the speaker contribute to the learning of labels for novel objects (Mitchell and Ziegler, 2012, p211). For example, Baldwin’s (1995) research shows how pointing, along with naming and association can significantly aid learning. She found that infants spent longer looking at a novel object when it was pointed to in comparison to when it was not pointed to, and the amount of time a child spent looking at an object was even longer when it was simultaneously named and pointed to (Harris, 2006). This research shows how important the environment is for language learning but could also suggest that children have a natural predisposition to spend longer observing objects that are singled out in this way (Harris, 2006), and further research has shown a strong correlation between the age at which children appear to come to understand object names and the age at which they begin to point at things themselves Harris et al (1995). In conclusion the Nativist view points, such as the existence of a Universal Grammar, provide compelling arguments for the existence of an innate mechanism driving language development. However not all phenomena in language development can be fully explained by Nativist theories. Empiricist use of connectionism has provided significant support to the Empiricist theories of phenomena such as the vocabulary spurt, and the language acquisition support system in social constructivism illustrates the importance of children’s environment, and so there appears to be greater emphasis in psychology on the environment with regard to language acquisition, however Nativist theories do continue provide useful insights.
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