Is Language Learning Innate

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The issue of language ability being innate or learned is in essence, a special case of the nature vs. nurture debate.  Some people believe that language is a biological ability, or a gift from God that is wired into our being. Others believe that it is an acquired skill or that the ability evolved over time. Nevertheless a fascination with this concept is nothing new, as the ability to communicate through the complex rules and regulations that define language is in essence human’s unique gift. Interest on the ability to learn a language has existed since the fourth century, where Plato pondered upon the origin of words and their meanings (Bloomfield, 1933).

In order to look at the differences in theories, one must first understand that the ability to speak is a complex process. In essence, the air breathed in is converted into the sound waves that form speech. The vocal cords then release air in short bursts, making sound waves. The brain processes and refines the sound waves into an acoustical pattern that makes them understandable. The surge of sound flows through the vocal tract in the nose and mouth. Muscle and tissue that are controlled by the brain alter the shape of the tract walls in the nose which lifts a soft palate that shuts off air to the nose. The tongue then changes shape and position, and the lips spread to direct air to flow between the teeth (WebMd, 2008)

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Chomsky’s Innateness Hypothesis states that the human brain is programmed at birth in a specific and structured aspect of human language, and children have an ability to learn languages without reinforcement, although linguistic skills are independent of intelligence levels.  The book, The Language Instinct, illustrates this concept. It shows and defends the theory that the ability to acquire language is innate in the human child’s development.  The theory points out that language is not just another learned skill that we learn in the same method as one might learn computer or play a guitar. According to this theory, the human body, especially the throats and brain, are highly adapted and in tune with languages. The author argues that by studying the method and results from how a child acquires their first language one can see clear evidence that language is innate.  Through statistical references and charts, the author demonstrates the thousands upon thousands of words that a baby learns from its first beginning to babble until puberty, in addition to the rules, exceptions to those rules, semantic fields, tenses, conjugations etc. The book, however, does show that without reinforcement one could never learn the particulars of the language. The language to be learned, be it English, Spanish, Indonesian, or a sign language, for that matter, depends upon the environment in which the child grows up. This fact opens up the argument by others than the environment is actually what is affecting the child vs. an “innate” ability (Pinker, 1995).

Critics of this book and its theory itself, claim the complete opposite. They believe that language is entirely a learned process or a cultural phenomenon, and that the ability to learn a language is limited to the years before puberty, after which as a result of neurological changes in the brain the ability is lost (Kolada, 1992)

Once a child reaches a certain degree of cultural and cognitive ability, they will develop the language through cultural evolution. Fossils that have been found have lead some scientist to believe that the brain in early humans such as the cave men may not have been sufficiently evolved in the areas of speech to sustain language.  Due to evolution since then that was caused by the use of language from our ancestors; our vocal cords and ears have developed into intricate and complex organs. Critics support their argument with numerous arguments.

Musical ability is one of the supporting arguments. Learning music is actually much like learning a language as there is a natural progression in development. Exposing a child from birth to different types of music in a broad range of tones and pitches helps them to tell differences in music apart. This is very similar to an infant’s ability to distinguish their parent’s native language from a foreign one. Children are born with little to no musical ability such as the ability to carry a tune, yet through conditioning and practice the child is able to develop a musical ear. If language were an innate ability, wouldn’t all children be born with a certain musical ability? Children born without a musical ability nevertheless have been able to develop it through assimilation and or practice. This demonstrates a learned process.

Critics also point to cases that show the ability for a human being to theoretically be able to live its entire life without ever developing a language. The discovery for example of children left or lost in the wild is one of their supporting arguments. The particular case of a child that was lost or abandoned at a young age but survived by living with pigs and imitating their behavior is an example. The child was able to find food, and survive in the same way that the pigs did.  Upon discovery of the child, scientists and doctors found that she had no sort of language. The only sounds she made were those of the pigs. Her ears throat and vocal cords were all in present and working and after some time she was taught how to speak (Seidenberg,  1986)
In reviewing this case along with studying how a child acquires a language, one might easily note that children learn mainly by imitation of the sounds made by others. In the case above the child learned to imitate the sounds of a pig.

However, in considering the above argument, could one not assume the child had the biological ability to develop the language since she had the ability to imitate the sounds of people? She would not know the structure of a specific language, however not all language is audible.  Pinker does explain that with the absence of culture or the particulars of language, it is difficult if not impossible to learn the language. Perhaps the innate part of language acquisition is not an innate possession of a language particulars but an innate ability to actually develop a language once it is able to be observed. Although this in essence can be considered a learning process, the innate ability is already present from birth and it just needs to be developed. In the same way that a bird has the innate ability to fly, one has innate language ability. An ability to form sounds from birth and the ability to learn the particulars of a language to put those sounds into correct context. Although a bird has the instinct to fly at birth its wings are weak. The reason that birds are able to fly is in part due to their feathers and wing structure.  The feathers in particular do not develop until some time after birth. After the formation of the feathers, the bird takes to flight. It has the innate ability to flap its wings from birth and pushing a baby bird out of the nest before it’s ready would result in the bird trying to innately but unsuccessfully flap its wings (Carrollton Veterinarian, N.D.) The same concept can be applied to a child’s ability to speak. It may have the innate drive and ability however it has to be developed through culture.

All humans have the same ability to learn a language no matter what society they are from, and  all languages have a set of grammar rules and some nonfunctional rules. This suggests that one factor is not culture but nature in the form of the brain. Consider language disorders that are caused by damage to portions of the brain that are responsible for language, such as Broca’s Aphasia, a stroke which causes damage to the frontal lobe of the brain. This section of the brain controls the motor aspects of speech.  Without this section of the brain, learning a language would be near impossible. The frontal lobe is in one way specifically to assist with the development of language (Clark, 2003).

In examining the evidence presented by studies, it appears conclusive that although culture, environment and reinforcement has a large part in developing a person’s ability to communicate, the ability itself would not come about without the initial presence of an innate ability to form speech and present ideas. A child newly born communicates, although in a rudimentary way, by emitting crying sounds. This ability was not learned but was already present at birth. It would be expounded upon and sharpened later, by the responses given to the baby at each newly learned sounds and gesture. However, without the initial emotional and biological capability present at birth, language would never be developed.

Clark, E. (2003). First Language Acquisition. Cambridge, U. K.:Cambridge University Press.

Bloomfield, L. 1933. Language. New York: Henry Holt.

Carrollton Veterinarian (N.D) Patient Education available online:

Kolada, G (1992) Linguists Debate Study Classifying Language As Innate Human Skill.

Available online at:

Pinker, S (1995) The language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Languages, Harper Perennial

Modern Classics

Seidenberg, M. 1986. “Evidence from great apes concerning the biological bases of language”

Language learning and concept acquisition. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

WebMd (2008) Stuttering and Speech. Available Online:


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