The use of language is a necessity for humans and many believe it to be the primary ability that separates us from all other mammals. While the ability of humans to acquire language at a very young age is significant, the process of this acquisition is under much debate. Nativists like Noam Chomsky believe that language comes from innate knowledge, thus explaining how we acquire it so quickly, but behaviorists like B.F. Skinner theorize that we acquire language like any other learned behavior. Other individuals assert that children create constructions of languages that develop over time. Perhaps the most common theory existing within this debate of language acquisition is the notion that children learn language by imitating adults and modeling their speech based on what they hear others saying.
This is supported by Skinner’s foundation of behaviorism, which claims that any behavior is learned from experience and consequently there is no such thing as an innate ability; this includes the ability to acquire language. In 1957 Skinner conducted a study that showed how a rat can learn a path through a maze (with experience); he proclaimed that language acquisition was similar in that it is a matter of imitation, reinforcement and association. At first glance, this commonsense view may seem reasonable because of the claim that children who experience a large amount of spoken language from their parents had a larger vocabulary compared to those who experience little spoken language. For example, when a mother says “Ew, that’s gross,” the child might repeat “That’s gross!” Due to the child copying what their parent is saying, Skinner concludes that all children learn language from their experience and by imitating the utterances of those around them.
Regardless of the popularity of this belief, language actually comes from an innate knowledge rather than from imitation or experience itself. The I-language perspective of language illustrates how this explanation of imitation must be misguided. First, babies know more than they can produce. Their language is also not dependent on their experience. Finally, there is individual variation in the rate of universal patterns of acquisition and children do not obey corrections to their speech and language. This essay aims to explore the popular belief that children learn language from imitation and that all knowledge of language comes from experience, and to further disprove this misconception from an I-language outlook.
The first piece of evidence that deconstructs the argument of imitation is that babies have more language in their mind than they know how to speak. Before they can even speak or put two words together, babies can comprehend a sentence using its syntax; since there is more going on in their minds than what they are able to produce, this knowledge must be innate. In one experiment noted by Steven Pinker in his book The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, babies who were only able to speak in single words were put in front of two television screens, each featuring a pair of adults who were dressed as the Cookie Monster and Big Bird from Sesame Street. One of the screens displayed the Cookie Monster tickling Big Bird, while the other screen showed Big Bird tickling the Cookie Monster.
A voiceover then came through a speaker and announced “Look, Big Bird is tickling Cooking Monster!” (or vice versa). The babies must have comprehended the meaning of the ordering of subject, verb, and object; they looked more at the screen that depicted the sentence in the voiceover despite the fact that they can’t produce that sentence themselves. For various neurological reasons, children are sometimes incapable of speaking but can still comprehend what others say. This is occasionally caused by having grown up “in the wild,” or by their parents raising them silently in dark rooms, attics, and basements, therefore depriving them of language input. Although these individuals generally end up mute and cannot generate speech, words, or grammatical constructions on their own, their innate grammatical abilities are still present.
Pinker acknowledged a recent test that was done by Karen Stromswold on a four-year-old who could not speak, but further demonstrated that language comprehension can accompany muteness. The little boy could identify which image portrayed “The dog was bitten by the cat” and which showed “The cat was bitten by the dog.” He could also distinguish between pictures that showed “The dogs chase the rabbit” and “The dog chases the rabbit;” the young, mute child could differentiate between these subtle syntactic and grammatical differences. The boy also responded appropriately when the interviewer asked him, “Show me your room,” “Show me your sister’s room,” “Show me your old room,” “Show me your new room,” “Show me your sister’s new room.” Based on this experiment, it is evident that grammar development does not depend on an overt practice; it depends on internal, innate knowledge.
The use of Motherese also illustrates how language is not learned by imitation. As Pinker states, “Compared with conversations among adults, parents’ speech to children is slower, more exaggerated in pitch, more directed to the here and now, and more grammatical”. Motherese is therefore easier to learn than a typical conversation between adults. However, Motherese is not grammatically simple; it is full of questions containing who, what, and where, which are among the most complicated constructions in English. For example, to assemble the question “What did he eat,” based on He ate what, one must move the what to the beginning of the sentence, leaving a trace that indicated its semantic role of “thing eaten,” insert the meaningless auxiliary do, make sure that the do is in the tense appropriate to the verb, in this case did, convert the verb to the infinitive form eat, and invert the position of subject and auxiliary from the normal.
He did to the interrogative Did he. No mercifully designed language curriculum would contain these intricate grammatical rules, but that is just what mothers do when speaking to their babies. In addition, children would talk using this Motherese language if imitation were the answer to how we acquire language. Motherese has distinct and interpretable melodies: a rise-and-fall contour for approving, a set of sharp, staccato bursts for prohibiting, a rising pattern for directing attention, and smooth, low legato murmurs for comforting. These patterns are widespread across large communities, perhaps even universal, and they attract the child’s attention. They do not, however, show up in the child’s speech patterns when they begin to speak on their own; not all knowledge of language comes from experience and imitation is not the sole way that language is acquired.
The second argument against imitation as a form of language acquisition is that language knowledge is not dependent on experience. Two organisms living in the same environment and experiencing the same outside forces do not acquire language in the same way. Moreover, if everyone who grew up under similar circumstances learned language solely by the stimuli in their surroundings, then everyone in that community would grow up to speak exactly the same way, and that is clearly not the case. In addition, language is far too complex to learn starting at birth; the success of infants’ grammar must be an innate entity. In the book I-Language: An Introduction to Linguistics as Cognitive Science, Daniela Isac and Charles Reiss mention how their dog and their two-year-old baby son were raised in a very similar environment. Baby Z and Oonagh often shared the same food, they both went out on the mountain every day, they both received a lot of physical attention—including hugs, caresses, and grooming—and they both heard people speaking to them and around them.
In addition, Oonagh had had this upbringing and experienced these stimulants for about seven years longer than Baby Z. Nevertheless, each being had skills that the other did not. Without any instruction, Oonagh was an expert hunter, had extremely sensitive ears, and could understand and obey about five words in one language, while Z could understand several hundred words in three languages and could produce many strings of words in correct syntactic order from the language in which they were drawn. As time progressed, Oonagh’s skills appeared to remain the same whereas Z’s vocabulary expanded and his sentence structures became much more complex, even accounting for wh-movement and negative polarity items like turning the sentence I don’t want some into I don’t want any.
Rather than attributing Oonagh’s hunting skills and Z’s linguistic success to survival motivation or general intelligence, it is evident that these two beings were just endowed with different properties that developed as they aged. Baby Z’s property was language faculty, therefore proving that language does not depend on experience. Babies have virtually no life experience at the time of birth, yet they are still able to distinguish between the sounds of phonemes in their native language . Pinker examined a study done by psychologists Peter Eimas and Peter Jusczyk in which a baby’s attention was gauged during exposure to different stimuli. They installed a switch inside a rubber nipple and connected the switch to the tape recorder, so that when the baby sucked, the tape would play. The tape would switch auditory syllables when the baby sucked more slowly, so they could therefore differentiate the syllables when they perked up and sucked more quickly.
The tape droned with ba ba ba and the infants responded with a slow sucking pace. However, when the syllables changed to pa pa pa, the infants sucked more vigorously—to hear more syllables. These children are using speech perception, rather than just hearing the syllables as a raw sound: although the two syllables are just heard as ba by adults, infants can hear this small acoustical difference and it is noted in their peak of interest. Infants come equipped with this skill—they do not learn it by listening to their parents’ speech—therefore establishing that language is innate and does not come from experience. The third and final argument that disproves how language acquisition stems from imitation and experience is that there is individual variation in the rate of universal patterns of acquisition and children do not obey corrections to their language. Children develop their language at an individual rate that does not depend on external factors.
Nevertheless, the grammatical inconsistencies and errors that they produce are surprisingly infrequent; for any rule you choose, the three-year-old’s errors occur in only 0.1% and 0.8% of opportunities to make them. Moreover, childrens’ knowledge of language does not seem to be influenced by the input of others. Children develop language at an individual rate and correct their grammar internally. Pinker mentions a study done on a young boy named Adam and the findings that are presented with the documentation of his rapid language development. Language development can be divided into arbitrary stages, like babbling, gibberish babbling, one-word utterances, two-word strings, and rapid development. Between the late twos and mid threes, sentence length increases steadily, and because grammar is a discrete combination system, the number of syntactic types increases exponentially.
Although Adam’s language development is slow compared to that of other children, like Eve, the other subject of the study, his sentences still become longer and more complex. As he ages he is able to embed one constituent inside another and turn a two-branch noun phrase into a two-branch noun phrase embedded in the middle of a three-branch verb phrase. This development also includes the use of unstressed function words and inflections. He grows to utilize a full range of sentence types—questions with words like who, what, and where, relative clauses, comparatives, negations, complements, conjunctions, and passives. This is an example of how rapid language acquisition is and how it illustrates the role of Universal Grammar. Inborn constraints on language acquisition facilitate its rapid and successful evolution; innate knowledge equals Universal Grammar.
Adam was not born a blank slate, but was genetically endowed with certain kinds of knowledge. Knowledge builds his brain and his brain has specialized functions because of the way it’s built. For language, this means that some aspects of mental grammar are not learned, but that he is born with it. This is why his language acquisition was so rapid without the teaching of anyone else, yet his rate of development was also different from the other child in the study. Another study found in Pinker’s book explains how children do not obey corrections to their language. Indeed, when parents or experiments provide children with feedback about their speech, the children simply tune it out. A psycholinguist named Martin Braine tried for several weeks to correct his daughter’s grammatical errors. The conversation took place as follows.
Braine noted that “further tuition is ruled out by her protest.” Therefore, in terms of learning grammar, the child must be a naturalist and passively observe the speech of others rather than being an experimentalist, manipulating stimuli and recording the results. The implications of this study show that to become speakers, children must not memorize but rather generalize about the infinite world of unknown grammar. Instead of imitating the father, the young girl does not obey his corrections; it is evident that language development is not dependent on overt practice but is rather innate.
Although it is not as popular as the theories of imitation and experience, I believe my arguments for innate knowledge as a foundation of language acquisition to be very convincing. As Chomsky indicates, children cannot learn by imitation alone as they are able to produce sentences they have never heard before; this is one of the major flaws of behaviorism. Children use grammar rules to construct these sentences, meaning they can also identify when the sentences they produce are ungrammatical and prevent those mistakes from happening in the future. Chomsky also conveys that all languages have Universal Grammar: the theory that all languages have the same basic foundation. Humans are not genetically programmed to speak a particular language, but Universal Grammar allows us to learn the patterns of any language. Therefore, I contend that my arguments for babies knowing more than they can produce and that language is not dependent on experience are my the strongest arguments, while the individual rate in language acquisition is the weakest of the three arguments.
Also, the alternative theory of a “crucial period” creates evidence that counters my argument against experience; if a child is not exposed to spoken language during the crucial period, then they will not become fully proficient in that language. Research has been conducted regarding this idea of a critical period and how it relates to the optimal time for language acquisition. The research explains that if children do not acquire the language before puberty—by not experiencing enough interaction or spoken language—then they are not likely to fully acquire it regardless of any innate mechanisms that they possess. Thus if innate knowledge were the only tool that helped us develop language, then this critical period would not exist, or at least we should be able to acquire any language at any age. Perhaps language acquisition is a combination of innate knowledge of Universal Grammar combined with exposure.
Learning is a combination of primitives already innately available—restrictions for acquisition—and intelligence requires a symbolic representation that fuels learning. Therefore, the initial state of innate knowledge and Universal Grammar, combined with the experience of exposure, creates the final state of adult grammar. Not all experiences end up in the grammar of a given individual; learners make a subset of possible hypotheses about their experience. However, language does not vary without limit: the mind is modular and within the mind there are parts that have different purposes, such as vision and grammar. Hence, one of these components of the mind is the section that is for language.
- Isac, Daniela & Charles Reiss. 2013. I-Language: An Introduction to Linguistics as Cognitive Science (2nd ed.). Offord University Press.
- Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. Harper Perennial.