IntroductionThe Innate Theory (also known as Innatist Theory, Nativist Theory, Rationalist Theory, Mentalist Theory) of language acquisition was developed in the mid-20th century (1959) by the renowned American linguist Noam Chomsky. It emerged as a reaction against the Behaviourist language learning theory, and contradicted its model at almost every point of basic structure. Although Chomsky is credited to be its originator, in reality, the theory has been around for hundreds of years. Chomsky’s proposal just breathed a new life into the old concept and confirmed its formalisation. Though radical in many ways, it was able to lay out some major connotations for understanding language acquisition. In the last few decades, the amount of discussion about first language acquisition in the context of the Innate Theory has grown considerably.
Theoretical BasesThe theoretical assumptions underlying the Innate Theory are as follows:
- Language acquisition is innately determined; that is, children are biologically programmed for language learning. They develop language in the same way as other biological functions. They start to speak at roughly the same age and proceed through roughly the same stages.
- Children are born with a special ability to systematically discover for themselves the underlying rules of a language system. This special ability enables them to learn the complexities of language in a relatively short period of time.
- Environmental differences may be associated with some variation in the rate of language acquisition.
Evidence Used to Support Chomsky’s Innate TheoryEric Lenneberg's concept of a critical period is the best evidence for Chomskian proposal. Lenneberg suggested that there is a biologically pre-determined period of life during which language can be acquired most easily. Beyond this time language becomes increasingly difficult to acquire. Through this statement Lenneberg provided a strong support for the Chomskian claim that language is innately determined and in the existence of an innate universal set of grammar. This is still a controversial view, and many linguists and psychologists do not believe language is as innate as Chomsky argues. Yet, he presents abundant evidence to support the view that the form of language is innate:
The Poverty of the Stimulus Argument: The first argument in favour of this statement is concerned with the logical problem of language acquisition, which the behaviourists failed to recognise. This argument is known as The Poverty of the Stimulus Argument. The argument states that:
- Virtually all children successfully learn their native language at a time in life when they would not be expected to learn anything else so complicated.
- The language the child is exposed to in the environment is full of confusing information and does not provide all the information which the child needs.
- Children are by no means systematically corrected or instructed on language by parents.
- When parents correct, they tend to focus on meaning rather than form, and children often ignore the correction and continue to use their own ways of saying things.
- Children learn to use very complex language structures without instruction or large numbers of examples of all the linguistic rules and patterns that they eventually know.
- Children produce words they never heard before (e.g. puted), this cannot be the result of imitation, but must be the result of a creative process.
- Substantive Universal: The substantive universals consist of fixed features of language like phonemes or syntactic categories like nouns (N) and verbs (V). Let us consider, for example, some distinctive phonological features. One of them is “voicing” that differentiates /p/ from /b/ in the pronunciation of such words as pin and bin, or “nasality” that makes the difference between /b/ and /m/ in bad and mad.
- Formal Universal: The formal universals are the general principles which determine the form and the manner of operation of grammatical rules of particular language.
Counterarguments on the InnateTheoryTo some extent, the Innate Theory seems complementary to the Behaviourist Theory, whose major principles are further clarified and then developed by the innate theorists. The following arguments represent the fact that some of the precepts of the Innate Theory should be refined:
- Language acquisition is not totally of inborn nature nor is it just a matter of biological make-up. There is also an undeniable effect in language learning coming from the social environment since infants grow up biologically in a social environment from which they cannot be divorced. The presence of a mother and father in front of a child establishes a natural social environment.
- The psychologist Jerome Bruner opined that language acquisition not only depend on LAD but also LASS or Language Acquisition Support System. It is possible that children have inborn capability to follow certain grammatical principles, but their acquisition of words depends crucially on their environment. For example, English children learn English because; their Language Acquisition support System is English.
- The use and influence of imitations and reinforcements cannot totally be denied or disregarded by saying that they destroy or relegate the possible creativity in language learning. For example, the role of imitations and repetitions cannot be wholly denied in such areas like learning vocabulary items and structural patterns.
CriticismAlthough this theory provides what some claim is a reasonable explanation about acquiring language, this theory lacks sufficient evidence. Some of the cases against this theory include:
Firstly, the LAD is an abstract concept and lacks adequate scientific support.
Secondly the theory is heavily based on the learner’s linguistic competence which is again abstract phenomenon.
Thirdly, the theory placed more emphasis on the linguistic competence of adult native speakers, but not enough on the developmental aspects of language acquisition.
ConclusionChomsky's work has been highly controversial, rekindling the age-old debate over whether language exists in the mind before experience. Despite its few limitations, the Innate Theory is rich enough to provide a substantial idea of how a child acquires his/her first language.
ReferencesClark, Herbert H. and Eve V. Clark. Psychology and Language: An Introduction to Psychology.
Cook, V[ivian] J[ames]. Chomsky’s Universal Grammar: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell,
Foley, Mary Ann. “Cognitive Psychology.” Microsoft Encarta. DVD-ROM. Redmond: Microsoft,2005.
“Innatism.” Wikipedia. 2008. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 20 September 2008
Konieczna, Ewa. “First Language Acquisition”. Uniwersytet Rzeszowski. 2008. univ.rzeszow.pl.
“Language Acquisition.” Wikipedia. 2008. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 20 September 2008
“Language Acquisition Device.” Wikipedia. 2008. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 20 September
Scovel, Thomas. Psycholinguistics. Oxford: OUP, 1998. 17-18.
“Second Language Teaching and Learning.” Macquarie University: Australia’s Innovative