The Driving Forces of Language Development

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One of the most important issues in the study of language development is the extent to which our language abilities are innate. Philosophy has produced two contrasting views on how humans obtain knowledge. The rationalists (such as Plato and Descartes) maintained that certain fundamental ideas are innate—that is, they are present from birth. The empiricists (such as Locke and Hume) rejected this doctrine of innate ideas, maintaining that all knowledge is derived from experience. The rationalist-empiricist controversy is alive today: it is often called the nature-nurture debate. important contributions:


The simplest theory of language development is that children learn language just by imitating adult language.

Learning theory

Skinner argued that language was acquired by the same mechanisms of conditioning and reinforcement that were thought at the time to govern all other aspects of animal and human behaviour. However, there is much evidence against this position. First, adults (generally) correct only the truth and meaning of children’s utterances, not the syntax (Brown & Hanlon, 1970). The second piece of evidence against a conditioning theory of language learning is that some   words (such as “no!”) are clearly understood before they are ever produced. Third, the pattern of acquisition of irregular past verb tenses and irregular plural nouns cannot be predicted by learning theory. Fourth, Chomsky (1959) argued that theoretical considerations of the power and structure of language means that it cannot be acquired simply by conditioning.

The role of child-directed speech

The language children hear was thought to be inadequate in two ways. First, they hear a degenerate input. Second, there does not seem to be enough information in the language that children hear for them to be able to learn the grammar. At least the first part of this claim is now controversial because of research on the special way in which adults (particularly mothers) talk to children (Snow, 1972, 1994). This special way of talking to children was originally called motherese, but is now called child-directed speech (CDS for short), because its use is clearly not limited to mothers. It is commonly known as “baby talk”

The language acquisition device

Chomsky (1965, 1968, 1986) argued that language acquisition must be guided by innate constraints, and that language is a special faculty not dependent on other cognitive or perceptual processes. Assistance is provided by the innate structure called the language acquisition device (LAD). In Chomsky’s later work the LAD is replaced by the idea of universal grammar. the task of acquiring the particular details of their language. For Chomsky (1981), this is the process of parameter setting. A parameter is a universal aspect of language that can take on one of a small number of positions, rather like a switch.

Evaluation of the language acquisition device

The continuity hypothesis says that all the principles and parameters are available from birth, but they cannot all be used immediately because of other factors. The second explanation is that the children do not have immediate access to all their innate knowledge.

Linguistic universals

homsky (1968) distinguished between substantive and formal universals. Substantive universals include the categories of syntax, semantics, and phonology that are common to all languages. A formal universal concerns the general form of syntactic rules that manipulate these categories.

Pidgins and creoles

Pidgins are simplified languages that created for communication between speakers of different languages that were forced into prolonged contact, such as the result of slavery in places such as the Caribbean, the South Pacific, and Hawaii. A creole is a pidgin language that has become the native tongue of the children of the pidgin speakers.

Genetic linguistics

oncerns specific language disabilities for which there appears to be a genetic basis. For example, specific language impairment, or SLI. The argument about the theoretical importance of SLI hinges on the extent to which these impairments are truly specific to language or to knowledge of grammar.

Formal approaches to language learning

Most accounts stress the importance of induction in learning rules: induction is the process of forming a rule by generalizing from specific instances. Pinker (1984) attempted to apply learnability theory to language development. First, the acquisition mechanisms must begin with no specific knowledge of the child’s native language —that is, the particular language to be learned. He argued that the child is innately equipped with a large number of the components of the grammar, including parameters that are set by exposure to a particular language. He also argued that the categories “noun” and “verb” are innate, as is a predisposition to induce rules.

More general innate accounts

Slobin (1970, 1973,1985) argued that children are not born with structural constraints such as particular categories, but a system of processing strategies that guide their inductions. He stressed the role of general cognitive development, and examined a great deal of cross-cultural evidence.

Problems with innate accounts of language acquisition

Many people consider there is something unsatisfactory about specific innate principles. Having to resort to saying that something is innate is rather negative, because it is easy to fall back on a nativist explanation if it is not easy to see a non-nativist alternative. This is not always a fair criticism, but it is important to be explicit about which principles are innate and how they operate. Innate principles are also difficult to prove. Connectionist modelling provides an alternative account of these phenomena. Connectionism emphasizes how complex behaviour can emerge from the interaction of many simpler processes without the need to specify innate language-specific knowledge. Modelling has emphasized the role of the actual linguistic input to which children are exposed.
Harley, Trevor A. (2001). The Psychology of Language From Data to Theory. USA and Canada: Psychology Press Ltd

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