April 28, 2019


The manner in which a child acquires language is a matter long debated by linguists and child psychologists alike. During the twentieth century there has been a great deal of psycholinguistic research into how this process takes place. These research findings have revolutionized the way many linguists regard the language learning process. However, the interpretation of these investigations has always been under dispute and it consequently divided linguists into adherents of two contradictory hypotheses: behaviorism on one side and innatism on the other. The following segment presents a comparative study between these two diametrically opposite theoretical accounts of language acquisition, along with a brief inquiry into their theoretical assumptions.


The behaviourist perspective dominated the study of learning throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Behaviorism is an approach to language acquisition based on the proposition that behaviour can be researched scientifically without recourse to inner mental states. It is a form of materialism, denying any independent significance for mind. It stands on the basic premise that children learn a language in the way in which other habits are learned and that change in observable behaviours are crucial in language learning. The behaviourist perspective’s significance for psychological treatment has been profound, making it one of the pillars of psychological language acquisition theory.


Two years later, however, behaviourism came under bitter criticism when the American linguist Noam Chomsky (1959) proposed a completely different view of language acquisition. His innatist view was a direct challenge to the established behaviourist theories of the time, rekindling the age-old debate over whether language exists in the mind before experience. He argued that every human child possesses innate knowledge of language structure to detect and reproduce language. That is, language acquisition depends on an unobservable mechanism called Language Acquisition Device or LAD. Young children learn and apply grammatical rules and vocabulary as they are exposed to them and do not require initial formal teaching. The theory, in fact, has laid out an explanation of human language faculties that has become the model for investigation in other areas of psychology.

Diametrically opposite Views

Considering the theoretical principles of Behaviourism and Innatism individually, it seems that each theory accounts for different aspects of language. Both the behaviourist and the innatist theory provided some fresh insights into the psychological theories of language learning. The proponents of both schools contributed much to explain the possible logical explanation for language acquisition. But they moulded their models from different standpoints. Skinner’s behaviourism and Chomsky’s innatism are very much contradictory when they are judged in terms of their individualistic theoretical bases. The theories, indeed, stress on two distinct hypotheses of language acquisition. This divergence has created a gulf between the theories. Several differences arise between the behaviourist and the innatist theories of language acquisition which can be encapsulated in the following way :

Behaviourism Innatism
Acquisition is an outcome of experience Acquisition is an outcome of condition
Acquisition is a stimulus response process Acquisition is a congenital process
Children learn language by imitation Children learn language by application
Language learning is practice-based Language learning is rule-based
Language acquisition is the result of nurture Language acquisition is the result of nature
Stresses on observable behavior Stresses on internal thought processes
Human mind is a blank slate Human mind is no tabula rasa
Knowledge exists outside of individuals Knowledge exists inside individuals
Learning is determined by the environment Learning is determined by the individual
Learning requires formal guidance Learning requires no formal assistance
Considers the child as a passive recipient Considers the child as an active participant
Language learning is a mechanical process Language learning is a creative process
Is a theory of behaviour, not of knowledge Is a theory of knowledge, not of behaviour
Language is akin to other forms of cognition Language is a separate module

The Verdict

From the above comparative study it is obvious that the theories differ from each other in a myriad of ways. The study furthermore demonstrates that innatism is much more comprehensive and consistent than that of behaviourism.  The innatist perspective offers the promise of enhanced learning and creative thinking, both of which are vital for the child’s psycho-linguistic development.

Nowadays, however, it is hardly possible to espouse any of these two options directly. Psychological research has recently progressed in the direction of regarding the human being as a mixture of genetically determined capacities and knowledge gained by experience (Konieczna). The human child indeed, acquires language from his/her environment by imitating behaviours of other members of society. But the innatist theory exclusively ignored this issue and viewed language acquisition as the special product of LAD. Chomsky, the chief proponent of innatism opined that exposure to language is a marginal prerequisite for the activation of the LAD, and is irrelevant to the actual learning process. But this innatist claim is not entirely satisfying because history (e.g. Genie, Victor) evince that the child cannot learn language if he/she is isolated from society or human contact. Ruth Clark pointed out that:

“Situation has a fuller role to play in language learning than Chomsky implies, though not precisely the role assigned to it by the behaviourists” (Barman, Sultana, and Basu 31).

It might be possible that children are required a biological trigger for language acquisition but the genetic trigger could not be activated if there is nobody around them, from whom they could learn behaviour. That means language acquisition requires situational stimuli plus LAD:

Language Acquisition

In conclusion, neither account should be totally dismissed. They should be seen as complementary rather than contradictory. Statements about their validity should be examined carefully in the light of new available data.


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