When I first heard my nephew babbled this word when he was about 6 or 7 months old, I felt so happy and excited. I was happy because my nephew was slowly developing his talking skills and I was also excited to wait for the time that my nephew would be able to utter “Tita” finally. I may not his mother though, but for me, listening to my first ever nephew is like a gift you have always been wanting for. Nevertheless, my nephew’s gradual development of his utterances is a gratifying experience for him and for us.
Upon recalling those days that my nephew and even my cousins when they were still young had started mumbling some words, I just couldn’t help but ask myself about some things that often confuse me. How were they able to mention or utter some short “words”? Were they taught? Did they learn those from the people in their environment? Were those utterances already naturally acquired by them? Is it really learned or is it acquired?
The abovementioned questions simply open our minds for us to know whether language is really acquired or learned, biologically or environmentally-determined, or natural or nurtured. Several researchers have conducted researches, studies, experimentations and the like to delve on contrasting issues such as stated above. Regardless of numerous studies conducted, people especially students and others who are into the linguistic field are still confused as to which side we should believe to. As a matter of fact, even I was (or maybe ‘am’) quite confused whether language is really “nature or nurture”. Hence, which side am I really into?
Controversy does arise, however, when one tries to examine the extent of genetic influence on human behavior. Just how many of our abilities and shortcomings are innate in nature, and how many are acquired through our interactions with the environment? This debate has been going on for centuries, and popular attitudes have varied greatly throughout this time. At one extreme, we have John Locke’s idea of “tabula rasa,” which proposes that the minds of newborn infants are blank slates that will be differentiated and altered only through sensory experience. Modern biological determinism represents the other extreme. In its strictest form, this ideology suggests that behaviors are inherent and innate, resulting from the expression of genes. Most intellectuals subscribe to a view somewhere between these two extremes, on the gradient of a controversy that is still a hot topic of debate in many intellectual fields.
One particularly interesting field within the nature-nurture debate that has drawn heated testimony from both sides is language acquisition. How much of our ability to produce and comprehend language is programmed into our genes, and how much do we acquire only with environmental stimulus? Obviously, language cannot be completely genetic. Humans speak a wide variety of different languages, and very young children of any race or ethnic background can learn to speak and understand any of these if exposed to appropriate models at the proper time in development. Similarly, children cannot learn to speak a public language without this critical exposure. However, all humans use language in one form or another, and psychologists and linguists have noted many cross-lingual universals both in how children acquire language and in the inherent characteristics of the languages themselves. (Knezek, 1997). Then, which is which?
The first position is called “nativism”, defined as the belief that knowledge originates in human nature. This idea goes back to Plato and Kant, but in modern times, it is most clearly associated with the linguist Noam Chomsky. Chomsky’s views on the innateness of language are very strong indeed, starting with his first book in 1957, and repeated with great consistency for the next 40 years.
Because this theory has been so influential in modern linguistics and psycholinguistics, it is important to understand exactly what Chomsky means by “innate”. Everyone would agree that there is something unique about human brain that makes language possible. But in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that “something” could be nothing other than the fact that our brains are very large, a giant all-purpose computer with trillions of processing elements. Chomsky’s version of the theory of innateness is much stronger than the “big brain” view, and involves two logically and empirically separate claims: that language is innate, and that our brains contain a dedicated special-purpose learning device that has evolved for language alone. The latter claim is the one that is really controversial, a doctrine that goes under various names including “domain specificity”, “autonomy” and “modularity” (Bates, 1999).
To add, Chomsky concluded that children must have an inborn faculty for language acquisition. According to this theory the process is biologically determined – the human species has evolved a brain whose neural circuits contain linguistic information at birth. The child’s natural predisposition to learn language is triggered by hearing speech and the child’s brain is able to interpret what he/she hears according to the underlying principles or structures it already contains. This has become known as the Language Acquisition Device (LAD). He also stated that all human languages share common principles, which is known as Universal Grammar (UG). It is the child’s task then to establish how the specific language he/she hears expresses these underlying principles (Theories of Language Acquisition). As what Chomsky concludes: “It is simply not true that children can learn language only through ‘meticulous care’ on the part of adults who shape their verbal repertoire through careful differential reinforcement.” (Cowie, 2008).
On the other hand, there were these people who believed that language is not acquired, yet it is learned especially when the environment becomes a great contributor of it. “Empiricism”, which is the second position, is defined as the belief that knowledge originates in the environment and comes in through the senses. This approach (also called “behaviorism” and “associationism”) is also an ancient one, going back (at least) to Aristotle, but in modern times it is closely associated with the psychologist B. F. Skinner. According to Skinner, there are no limits to what a human being can become, given time, opportunity and the application of very general laws of learning. Humans are capable of language because we have the time, the opportunity and (perhaps) the computing power that is required to learn 50,000 words and the associations that link those words together (Bates, 1999).
Those who believe that language is learned through intellectual processes common to all learning and who do not believe in an innate “language faculty” explain Chomsky’s view in another way. According to proponents of the “nurture” theory, humans are much more advanced than other animals because they are able to use language, rather than the other way around (Knezek, 1997).
Furthermore, to support, Greenspan and Shanker radically assert that symbols, language, and intelligence are not a direct result of genes, but rather made possible by social and emotional interaction with other humans, namely adults. Taking this idea one step further, they assert that social and emotional mechanisms are not as hard-wired as otherwise thought, but are rather made possible by emotional interactions learned very early (Cyckowski).
Since the two sides were already explained above with its respective views and contentions, then again, “which is which?” Therefore, for me, my answer is: “simply a part and parcel of each”. I believe that neither nature nor nurture per se can really be the main reason of one’s language development. Like my nephew’s utterance that I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I can then deem that it is neither naturally programmed in his mind nor was only taught by the people around him, but it could be both. Our genes and the environment play hand in hand with their significant roles in cultivating humans in whatever aspect. Akin to what Knezek (1997) believes, language, like so many other aspects of human behavior has proven to be the product of nature and nurture working together. This amazing human ability to communicate through language is both the result and the cause of our uniqueness as human beings. Language is a tool indeed: Simple enough for a child to effortlessly grasp, yet so complex that we may never completely understand just how genetics and experience interact to produce this most integral human trait.
Bates, E. (1999). On the nature and nurture of language. San Diego, CA: University of California Press.
Cowie, F. (2008). Innateness and language. Retrieved October 1, 2010 from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/innateness-language/#ChoCasAgaSki
Cyckowski, L. A new spin on nature vs. nurture. Retrieved October 26, 2010 from http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/neuro/neuro05/web3/lcyckowski.html
Knezek, M. (1997). Nature vs. Nurture: The Miracle of Language. Retrieved October 1, 2010 from http://www.duke.edu/~pk10/language/psych.htm
Theories of Language (from a photocopied article)