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

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25 thoughts on “The Language Instinct

  1. Fascinating. I had one daughter who talked early and often, and the other took longer to get started and still has trouble with pronunciation. It is hard to know exactly what is going on to have them acquire language so differently.

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    • I love linguistics and language acquisition is such a wonderful area of it! There are stages of infant language acquisition which the majority of children go through (for example, the babbling stage starts at around 6 months) but as you point out, every child learns differently. Like many areas of science, there are so many unknown aspects of language which we can only speculate and hypothesise about.

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  2. Good morning/afternoon Grace!

    As I read I was thinking “language is rapidly learned in the early years yet we wait until the teenage years to let them learn a second language. Shouldn’t we allow for earlier access to a second language if we seek for people to be bi-lingual?”

    Regards

    Jim

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    • Your question is a very interesting one. I am an aspiring linguist and the study of language acquisition is quite new to me. But I will do my best to provide an answer!

      There are lots of fascinating studies about second language (L2) learning. There are also many different theories about bilingualism so I don’t think there is a straightforward answer to your query. As I sit here typing this, I re-read a study which was conducted by Asher & Garcia in 1969, “The optimal age to learn a foreign language”.

      They looked at L2 pronunciation of English by Cuban immigrants in the US. The immigrants spoke Spanish as their first language (their L1). The aim of the study was to find out whether the age on arrival affected the immigrants’ pronunciation of the target L2 language of American English.

      There are many variables in the study, for example, length of time spent living in the U.S. and age on arrival. Out of the 71 Cuban children who were analysed in the study, none of them achieved native English pronunciation. Some of them achieved a near-native pronunciation and Asher & Garcia found that children who arrived in the U.S. at a young age (for example, age 6) had a higher probability of pronunciation accuracy than older children.

      Age is certainly influential when acquiring a second language but we do not have an exact explanation of the role it plays. However, from a personal perspective, I think that as a general rule the earlier the better.

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    • Yeah, it is definitely thought-provoking! ๐Ÿ™‚ My career goal is to become a university lecturer (or college professor, as you would say in the States) of linguistics. I’m glad I have found something I am so enthusiastic about.

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  3. This is so very interesting! It’s quite mind blowing – language that is – and I often find myself astounded by the fact that I am capable of interacting with people using an assortment of sounds that work together to create meaning! As part of the year 12 Research Project I have chosen to explore how the application of Key Word Sign Language with young children can impact their development (primarily speech development). The nature of language is so fascinating and I’m really enjoying researching how a silent form of communication can be beneficial for speech development for both typically developing children and children with special needs. I would love to become a Speech Pathologist one day and put this interest in language to use! Thanks for this wonderful article!

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    • Your research project sounds very interesting. What a great topic! I hope it goes well and I wish you all the best with it. I haven’t studied much about sign language yet; most of my language acquisition study so far has been focused on (and I say this in inverted commas) ‘normal’ children. But Steven Pinker has some interesting things to say about deaf people and sign language in The Language Instinct. I recommend reading it if you get a chance.

      Thanks for your comment. ๐Ÿ™‚

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      • It’s me again, years later! I just wanted to let you know that after discovering your blog and the world of linguistics, I became completely and utterly hooked. I started my first day of Speech Pathology at Uni today and my first lecture was Linguistics and Phonetics. I am so overwhelmed with excitement about it and I wanted to thank you for fostering this a little with your blog and thoughts. I hope you are well,
        Monica

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        • Hi Monica, what a lovely comment. Thank you! ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m so glad to hear that you’ve been bitten by the linguistics bug!

          I’ve actually been meaning to write a follow-up to these posts about language acquisition and its innate origins. I am in the final year of my undergrad degree now and, since writing this post, I’ve studied modules which discuss a different approach to language acquisition, an approach that I agree with a lot more than the concept of Universal Grammar and a language ‘instinct’. My focus is on sociolinguistics and I’m going to start my Masters degree later this year, but language acquisition/phonological development is fascinating to me as well. That’s one of the things I love about linguistics: it’s such a wide academic field.

          Congratulations on starting uni — what an exciting journey! I hope you keep in touch; I’d love to discuss linguistics and hear about your uni course – you can follow my blog via email subscription (if you haven’t already). ๐Ÿ™‚ And I am on Twitter @cultureblogger

          All the best!

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