How do humans acquire language?
In 1966, Allen and Beatrice Gardner undertook an experiment to find out whether humans’ ability to acquire language is innate or whether it is learnt; the ‘Nature vs. Nurture’ debate. To help them understand whether it is innate or not, they chose an animal known for not only being intelligent, but also for being sociable and able to form strong bonds with human beings: the chimpanzee. They made sure to emphasise the importance of sociability when they chose their subject, as it is essential for the development of language in human beings. In June 1966, Gardener and Gardener began to train a female infant chimpanzee named Washoe the gestural language of the deaf. They used sign language because the research done by Hayes and Hayes in 1952 had already established the fact that chimpanzees cannot be taught to speak. They concluded their study in 1969, by which time Washoe had learned enough sign language to have simple conversations with humans. She also developed the capacity to create her own signs if she didn’t know the word for something, however, the most amazing thing was that she used signs to communicate with other chimpanzees and even taught her adopted son Loulis to sign. Gardener and Gardener chose a chimpanzee as a subject because of the sociability of the animal. It is apparent that without any other human contact, humans do not develop language. This is shown in the case of Genie, the feral child, who was subjected to severe abuse and isolation from the age of 20 months to 13 years. When she was discovered, mental examinations showed that she had the mental capabilities of a 1 year old. She couldn’t speak or chew; she was incontinent and couldn’t fully straighten her arms or legs. Linguist Eric Lenneberg suggested that language acquisition has a ‘critical learning period’. He claimed that this period lasts up until the age of 12, and after the onset of puberty the brain cannot learn or utilize language in a...
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