The Language Instinct

Do you ever wonder how you began to learn to speak? When you think about it, it is really quite astonishing. Rapid changes take place in the first year of life. Until the age of six months, an infant can distinguish between any sound contrast in any language. By the age of twelve months, this remarkable ability is lost as the child tunes into the language being spoken around him or her [1].

In the field of language acquisition there are many different theories about how children take the first steps on the journey of language learning. In the 1950s, the behaviorist theory was popularized by Skinner who said that native language acquisition is based on a system of imitation and reward. He carried out experiments with rats who learned to press levers in a box in order to obtain an edible reward. These experiments provided the basis for Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning which focuses on behaviour and consequence. An action which is positively reinforced will be repeated (for instance, the rats repeatedly pressed the levers because they were rewarded when they did) and actions which are negatively reinforced will not be repeated [2].

But if you think about it logically, this argument for how children acquire language has many flaws. Firstly, if children learn how to produce their language solely as a result of operant conditioning, their lexicon would be extremely limited. Imagine if you could only utter a word or a sentence which you had heard someone else say. It sounds crazy, right? Language contains infinite possibilities, for example, there is the often-quoted sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”. The linguist and theoretician, Noam Chomsky, composed it to demonstrate that a sentence can be grammatical yet nonsensical.

language acquisition wordle

Chomsky argued against Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. Language is not something which can be neatly cut and pasted from one person to another. When children learn a language, they make unique mistakes. Take, for example, the sentence “We holded the baby rabbits” [3]. The child is using the morpheme, -ed, to mark that the verb is in the past tense. Although the verb is incorrect, this example shows that children learn the rules of their language and then apply them to unique utterances. This evidence strongly goes against Skinner’s hypothesis because, according to the behaviorist approach, children imitate what they hear around them and do not create unique sentences themselves.

So, if language acquisition isn’t a case of imitation, how do children learn to talk? Chomsky’s groundbreaking approach is that we are all born with an innate capacity for learning language: a Language Acquisition Device. A key part of the LAD is the concept of Universal Grammar. It took me a while to get my head around this fairly abstract theory but it is actually quite straightforward.

Fundamentally, Universal Grammar refers to the hypothesis that children arrive in the world with grammatical principles wired into their brains. Our brains are literally programmed to acquire language. Therefore, because children are born with these principles, they simply have to note which setting their native language uses and “Huge chunks of grammar are then available to the child, all at once, as if the child were merely flipping a switch to one of two possible positions” [4]. The nativist approach hypothesises that language acquisition is like an instinct. Birds have an instinct to fly and humans have an instinct to communicate via speech. In the book The Language Instinct by the psycholinguist, Steven Pinker, he expands on this idea in an accessible and fascinating way.

in the first few years of life, children learn to talk at an astonishing rate. But how do they get started? Public domain image by Petr Kratochvil: Source

in the first few years of life, children learn to talk at an astonishing rate. But how do they get started?
Public domain image by Petr Kratochvil: Source

As well as a thought-provoking discussion of the nature of language acquisition, Pinker debunks common misconceptions surrounding language. Do you believe that Inuit people have umpteen different words for snow? Before I read Pinker’s book, I did. However, according to Pinker, this is nothing more than an urban myth. He mentions an essay written by the linguist, Geoffrey Pullum, who talks about how this myth became so widespread. If you are interested in reading Pullum’s paper, “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax”, I have provided a link to it in the references section at the end of this article [5].

The field is constantly expanding as more and more research is carried out. There are debates and disagreements, conversations and collaborations. This post mentioned only two of the theories but Chomsky’s nativist theory is certainly one of the most influential and well-known approaches. Language acquisition is a fascinating and lively area of academia because there are numerous ideas, theories and hypotheses about language learning. How do we acquire language? As infants, how do we learn to break the continuous stream of sound down into sentences, phrases, words and syllables? As the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, said: “Language is a part of our organism and no less complicated than it”.

References

[1] Kuhl PK et al. “Linguistic experience alters phonetic perception in infants by 6 months of age”, Science, vol. 255, no. 5044, pp. 606-608, January 1992.

[2] McLeod S. Skinner – Operant Conditioning [Internet]; 2007 [cited 2013 Dec 11]. Available from: http://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html

[3] Pinker S. The Language Instinct. London: Penguin Books Ltd; 1995. p. 21

[4] Pinker S. The Language Instinct. London: Penguin Books Ltd; 1995. p. 112

[5] Pullum G. The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax [Internet]; 1989 [cited 2013 Dec 11]. Available from http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/EskimoHoax.pdf