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Many consider the use of a complex language as a uniquely human feature (maybe with the exception of some whale species). Furthermore, we are able to learn this complex skill quite quickly. The average child has a vocabulary of six-thousand words by the time it turns five years old. It is this ability of language acquisition that is a particularly interesting field in the nature-nurture debate. Is language acquisition and development innate or taught? This debate about nature versus nurture in language acquisition has drawn heated testimony from both sides.
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The idea that language acquisition is an innate ability is called ‘nativism’. People supporting this view believe that the human brain is prewired for language acquisition and use. Linguist Noam Chomsky is a strong proponent of this perspective. He has spent a lot of time on developing a theory of grammar that is called universal grammar. Basically, it states that underlying all the different languages there are some basic principles. The nativists consider this universal grammar too complex to be acquirable through environmental stimuli (nurture).
The proponents of this innateness believe that the human brain developed certain brain structures for language acquisition and use as a result of Darwinian evolution and the ‘survival of the fittest’ tenet. The innate knowledge of language is also called the language faculty. Chomsky considers this language faculty as a biologically autonomous system in the brain that has an initial state which is genetically determined.
The fact that every known human culture developed some sort of language suggests that there is a genetic basis for the ability to construct and produce language. Furthermore all human languages seem to have some characteristics in common. They all have large vocabularies of words whose meaning is mediated through a phonological system, they all have a grammatical system that governs the way in which words are combined and they change through time by adding new words and losing old ones.
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The second position concerning nature and nurture in language acquisition is defined by the premise that language is a consequence of our large brains with the ability to learn many things and the fact that we are extremely social beings. This is called ‘empiricism’. One the most prominent proponents of this approach is psychologist B.F. Skinner, who believes that humans are capable of language because we have the time, the opportunity and the brain capacity that is required to learn it.
Empiricists explain the universal presence of language in human cultures otherwise. They state that the beneficial quality of language is responsible for the ubiquitous distribution. People who came in contact with it, adopted it because of its beneficial effects and in this way, language spread across the earth.
Last, they claim that the ability of the human brain to understand and produce language can also be a consequence of neuronal connections that are made in early childhood. When a baby makes a certain sound that is followed by an action of a parent, there will be a neuronal connection in his brain that will be excited. After a lot of repetitions this will lead to a neural path which connects a sound with a meaning.
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Or a Little Bit of Both?
Is it truly nature versus nurture in language acquisition, or is it nature and nurture? Many aspects of human behavior can be explained by a collaboration of genetic and environmental aspects. Maybe this is also true for language acquisition. Perhaps some genetic features, such as our large brain or nutritional requirements have predestined us in some way to develop vocal communication, which in turn has grown to a full language as a consequence of environmental factors, such as upbringing, social system or the use of symbols.
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Bates, E. (1999). On the Nature and Nurture of Language. In R. Levi-Montalcini, D. Baltimore, R. Dulbecco, & F. Jacob (Series Eds.) & E. Bizzi, P. Calissano, & V. Volterra (Vol. Eds.), Frontiere della biologia [Frontiers of biology]. The brain of h. sapiens Rome: Giovanni Trecanni.
Duke University: Exploring the Mind
National Science Foundation: Language Learning