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Language is an innate
ability and is not
developed through
To say that language is an
innate ability and is not
developed through learning, we
need to look at the theorist
arguments on language
One theorist argued that language
is an innate ability,
(Chomsky,1959), another argued
that it is acquired by
reinforcement and repetition
(Skinner, 1957), another argued
that it was part of the overall
development (Piaget, 1969) and yet
another argued that it is learned
Looking at the human interaction and
how we are able to understand each
other, especially as it relates language
development in newborn babies, has
encouraged many theories.
 De Villiers J. G. & P. A. (1978), in their book, Language
Acquisition, the question is asked, “What does a child bring
into the world with him by way of inherited knowledge or
behaviour, and what is the product of the experience?” (p.2).
 It is clear that both genetics and experience play an
important part in language development, but the underlying
question remains debatable.
 The arguments continue with Osherson, D. N., Gleitman L.
R., Liberman M, (1995) in their book, An Invitation to
Cognitive Science: Language, they state that some parts of
the capacity to learn language must be ‘innate’. At the same
time, it is equally clear that language is ‘learned’ (Gleitman
and Newport, chapter 1,p.1)
 The hierarchy of language, however complex, is influenced by the
environment and experiences.
 In babies we recognise that there is no experience, therefore the
development can only be linked or associated with their environment.
 The direct links that babies have in their early stages are only with
their parents or other close family members who interact with them
on a daily basis. Babies do not have the capacity to make audible
sounds which constitute sentences; however they do have to capacity
to make other sounds which can be interpreted as immediate needs
or wants.
 As the child develops, the verbal interaction increases and depending
on the appropriateness or the effectiveness of the interaction, the
development progress will be determined.
 This means that how the parent speaks to the child or how often word
or sentences are used will determine how quickly the child’s language
is developed.
 This is a recent example of language
development without guidance. She was not
taught to speak and was denied any human
interaction whilst in isolation and when she
was found and tested (Curtis, 1977)
 It was discovered that Genie would never be
able to master the rules of grammar. Although
she had good semantic ability, she could not
learn syntax and therefore was not able to
form complete sentences.
Did ‘Genie’s’ lack of communicative
ability give credence to Skinners’
(1957) proposal that language can
be acquired through a series of
habit forming tasks?
Skinner, 1957
 The experiments he performed were conducted on
rats and birds, which were taught to perform various
tasks successfully.
 Thistheory, known as the Behaviourist Theory,
proposes that through repetition and subsequent
rewards children learn how to communicate.
 Inhis 1957 book, Verbal Behaviour, Skinner argued
that language was like any other form of behaviour
which is acquired through conditioning. Rewards
were given once the appropriate behaviour was
 Looking again at feral children, even with
repetition and rewards they still were not able
to master the rules of grammar.
 The common diagnosis was that these children
had passed the critical period hypothesis,
which is the stage before puberty before the
brain becomes specialized in it functions.
Language functions are assigned to the left
brain, however before puberty the language
function moves from one side to the next and
after puberty this function is assigned to the
Chomsky, 1959
 Chomsky (1959) published a criticism of this theory.
 Chomsky believed that a child’s brain contained special
language learning abilities at birth which enabled them to
communicate from birth – the Innate Theory.
 He argued that a child was naturally predisposed to learn a
language. This was possible by hearing speech which is
interpreted by the brain using its natural ability to apply
structures and principles.
 Chomsky’s’ view is that ‘a child is held to be born with the
entire set of linguistic universals plus evaluation procedures,
built in, and that he somehow uses this set as a grid through
which he filters the particular language he happens to hear
around him’ (1968a, p.76).
 Chomsky critised Skinner because he used
only animals as the test subjects, and as a
result the theory was silent on specie
restrictions. Ironically, Chomsky’s innate theory
was based on no test subject (human or
 If we are to accept the innateness of language
acquisition then we would have to somehow
get into the mind of the child from birth to
determine how the brain interpreted the
speech it heard.
Using the feral children Kamala and
Amala, the two Indian girls that were
said to be raised by wolves can we
apply the innate theory?
Unfortunately Amala died shortly after
being found. Progress was slow and
after three years, Kamala had only
mastered about a dozen words.
The question then is; where does the
innate ability surface?
 Based on the innate theory, these children
should have had some ability to
understand human language, despite the
fact that they were socialized by wolves in
the early stages of development. It was
several years later that Kamala’s
vocabulary increased to forty words.
Gesell (1940) in his book, Wolf Child and
Human Child, stated that Kamala’s
situation demonstrated ‘just how mentally
naked humans are when born and how
We do not agree that language
acquisition is solely dependent on an
innate ability; there must be some
learning which takes place during the
early developmental stages. Humans
may be born with a pre-disposition for
language, however there has to be
some social interaction that defines the
language, grammar and speech.
 The feral children did not necessarily create their own
language, instead they adapted to their environment. In the
case of Genie, she had limited human interaction; therefore
it is possible that her language development was only based
on the few words spoken to her during her isolation. The
meals she was served may have just been shoved at her
with harsh accompanying words of “eat this” or “here”.
 Applying Skinner’s theory, the reinforcement may have been
the harsh words heard regularly but not enough to develop
the syntax needed to form sentences. Here Chomsky’s
theory may have been more appropriate, in that there was
some amount of innate understanding of human
communication; Genie responded to human speech
 Inthe case of Kamala, who was raised by wolves,
the innate theory is not possible. She had to be
taught everything as she did not understand
anything her adoptive parent said.
 Skinner’s theory here is more believable. It was
through constant repetition and reinforcement that
she was able to develop some kind of vocabulary
database to eventually communicate. What is
interesting is the length of time it took for her to
grasp a dozen words. In a normal three year old
child, you will find that they are most communicative

 Inconclusion, We believe that the two theories go

hand in hand. You cannot have one without the
other. We may be born with some amount of innate
ability, but it is through repetition and reinforcement
that we are able to communicate effectively.
 The necessary grammar and syntax ability requires
practice and this can only be achieved with being
 It
is our opinion that both Skinner and Chomsky were
on the right path but they needed to work together to
get the language acquisition theory more credence.
Essays, UK. (November 2018). Is Language Innate or Learned?
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