How is it possible that children are able to learn a language so effortlessly, just a few years after birth? Some theorists believe this is due to nature, while others argue that it's because of nurture. This article will review the Nativist theory, which argues that important elements of our understanding of the world, such as language, are innate and do not necessarily need to be learned from experience. 

Nativist Nativist

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Table of contents

    What is Nativist Theory?

    In the nature vs nurture debate, which has been ongoing since 1869, Nativist theorists are typically team nature. They believe that language is innate.

    Innate (adjective): Existing from the time a person or animal is born. It is inherent and is not learned.

    Therefore, in terms of language acquisition, the nativist theory proposes that children are born with an inbuilt ability to organize and comprehend the fundamental laws and structures of language. Nativist theorists believe this is why children can learn a native language quickly.

    Nativist learning theory

    The nativist theory is often contrasted with the Behavioral Theory. Influential behaviourist theorists, such as Skinner and Watson, argue that language (verbal behaviour, as they call it) is learned through exposure to language, say, at home or at school. This means language behaviours are modelled, usually by an adult, and then reinforced through reward (for 'correct' language uses) or punishment (for 'incorrect' language use).

    Nativists, on the other hand, believe that children are 'wired' to learn a language, almost regardless of their environment.

    Which side of the nature vs nurture debate do you think behaviourist theorists fall?

    Nativist theory nature vs nurture image StudySmarterNature vs. Nurture

    For many years, behaviourist theorists were winning the debate, mainly due to a lack of scientific evidence behind the nativist theory. However, all that changed with the arrival of Noam Chomsky. Chomsky is one of the most influential nativist theorists and helped revolutionize the field of linguistics in the 1950s and 60s by treating language as a uniquely human, biologically based, cognitive ability.

    Chomsky and the Nativist Theory

    Chomsky is often regarded as the father of nativist theory. During the 1960s, Chomsky questioned the idea that the human mind begins as a 'blank slate' and rejected the behaviourist theory because children receive 'impoverished language input' (baby talk) when growing up.

    Chomsky also questioned how children could demonstrate signs of learning grammar before receiving any formal education on grammatical rules. He suggested that the human brain must have evolved to contain certain linguistic information from birth which helps children figure out the basic structures of language.

    Chomsky believes that the basic concepts of language are innate and are influenced by language environments. For example, children growing up in England would hear English and therefore learn English. He suggests that a child's predisposition to learn a language is triggered when they hear speech and that their brains begin to interpret what is heard based on underlying structures and principles it already 'knows'.

    According to Chomsky, this innate ability to easily learn a native language is due to two things: the language acquisition device (LAD) and Universal grammar.

    The Language Acquisition Device (LAD)

    The language acquisition device, or LAD for short, is a hypothetical 'tool' in the brain that contains specific knowledge about language and grammar. Chomsky proposed the LAD to help explain how children are able to comprehend the basic structures of language from such a young age. Chomsky suggests that a child's LAD is triggered once they hear speech.

    Chomsky stated that this part of the brain is a uniquely human trait and cannot be found in other animals, which helps explain why it is only humans who can communicate through language.

    Universal grammar

    The term Universal Grammar has been used to describe the knowledge contained within the LAD.

    Of course, all languages are different, and humans assign different meanings to different sounds worldwide. Chomsky does not believe that a child born in England has an innate ability to speak English or that a child born in China can miraculously speak Chinese. Instead, he suggests that all human languages share many of the same common grammar principles.

    For example, most languages:

    • Differentiate between verbs and nouns
    • Have a way of talking about the past and present
    • Have a way of asking questions
    • Have a counting system

    This sharing of common grammar principles is what Chomsky refers to as Universal Grammar. According to Universal Grammar theory, the basic grammatical structures of language are already encoded in the human brain at birth. It is a child's environment that will determine which language they will learn.

    The nativist theory Baby dreaming about grammar StudySmarterFig 1. Chomsky argued that children have an innate ability to learn a language.

    Chomsky has since gone on to revise his own theory on the LAD. Whereas he used to believe the LAD contained specific knowledge about language, he now believes that it works more like a mechanism for working out the rules of language.

    Here are the key principles of Chomsky's model of language acquisition:

    • Everyone is born with the innate ability to learn a language.
    • Learning a language is instinctive.
    • Every child is born with a Language Acquisition Device (LAD).
    • The LAD is a tool in the brain that facilitates the learning of language and grammar.
    • All human languages share basic grammatical rules that humans have a subconscious ability to learn.
    • Grammar is a necessary skill needed for learning any language.

    Examples of the Nativist Theory

    Let's take a look at some examples of the nativist theory in action:

    Chomsky suggests that all humans are born with a LAD, and other species are not. This theory is supported when examining our closest living relatives, the ape. Pinker (1994) ¹ found that while some chimpanzees can learn singular words and communicate through signs, none have been able to master syntax or the intricacies of forming grammatically correct sentences.

    It's perfectly obvious that there is some genetic factor that distinguishes humans from other animals and that it is language-specific. The theory of that genetic component, whatever it turns out to be, is what is called universal grammar. - Chomsky, 2012

    Children have an unconscious ability to recognize the past tense and will begin to associate words ending with a / d / / t / or / id / sound with the past. Chomsky suggests this is why children make 'virtuous errors' such as, 'I goed' rather than 'I went' when first learning a language. Nobody taught them to say 'I goed'; they figured that out for themselves. To Chomsky, these virtuous errors suggest that children are born with the subconscious ability to work out the grammatical rules of language.

    The nativist theory Girl making a virtuous error StudySmarterFig 2. Children make virtuous errors.

    The formation of creole languages appears to support Chomsky's theory of the LAD. Languages that grow and develop from mixing other languages without any formal teaching are known to linguists as creole languages.

    The linguist Derek Bickerton studied the formation of Dutch-based creoles that originated from escaped slaves. The adult slaves all came from different linguistic backgrounds and therefore had to communicate with the small amount of Dutch they had learned before escaping. The adults were past the critical age of being able to learn a language quickly, resulting in a very basic pidgin language.

    However, the children of the escaped slaves turned this basic pidgin language into a full language with its own consistent grammar rules. The children were able to do this without any formal teaching.

    The Importance of the Nativist Theory- Learning theories such as the Nativist Theory help us to study important areas of linguistics. The previous examples show how the Nativist Theory can be used to explain aspects of language acquisition and language learning such as how children develop language.

    Criticisms of the Nativist Theory

    The nativist theory has been met with several criticisms.

    Firstly, nativism is often perceived as too theoretical and lacking scientific proof. Jeffrey Elman et al. (1996) ² pointed out that it is almost impossible to judge what knowledge is innate and exactly how it could be coded in a person's genes.

    Secondly, Chomsky tended to look more at complex explanations of grammatical structures rather than studying actual children themselves, meaning there is little empirical evidence to validate his theory. Subsequently, Chomsky's theory fails to account for real-life relationships, external factors, and motivations to learn that children may face in their day-to-day lives.

    Interactionist theorists, such as Bruner and Vygotsky, examine the biological and social perspectives to explain how children develop language. This demonstrates a move away from the nativist theory as it fails to recognize the importance of social environment in language acquisition.

    Thirdly, although scientists have identified locations in the brain used specifically for language processing, such as Broca's area and Wernicke's area, a specific area that could be defined as the LAD has never been found.

    Nativistic / Universal Grammar Theory - Key takeaways

    • The nativist theory argues that important elements of our understanding of the world, such as language, are innate and do not necessarily need to be learned from experience.
    • The nativist theory is often contrasted with the behaviourist theory.
    • Noam Chomsky, perhaps the most influential nativist theorist, believes that the basic concepts of language are innate in every child's mind and are influenced by our linguistic environments.
    • Chomsky stated that children have an inbuilt language acquisition device that helps them work out the universal grammar rules of human language.
    • Interactionist theorists, such as Bruner and Vygotsky, criticized the nativist theory as it fails to account for the importance of social environment in language acquisition.

    ¹ S, Pinker. The Language Instinct. 1994

    ² J, Elman et al. Rethinking Innateness: A connectionist perspective on development. 1996

    Frequently Asked Questions about Nativist

    What is the nativist theory?

    The nativist theory suggests that language learning is an innate ability that all children are born with. Nativist theorists believe that there is a specific area of the brain dedicated to learning a language and that children have the ability to understand basic grammar without any formal teaching.

    What is Chomsky's language acquisition theory?

    Chomsky is a nativist theorist who based his theory of language acquisition on the idea that all human languages contain shared structures and rules. He named these shared structures Universal grammar. Chomsky believes that all children are born with the ability to work out the basic grammatical structures of human language.

    What is an example of the nativist theory?

    An example that supports the nativist theory is the existence of creole languages. Creole languages are languages with specific grammatical structures that develop from the simplifying and mixing of different languages, without any formal teaching.

    Why is the nativist theory important?

    Learning theories such as the nativist theory help us to study important areas of linguistics. It can help explain aspects of language acquisition and language learning such as how children develop language. 

    Who made the Nativist theory?

    There were different theorists who were influential in the nativist theory. However, Noam Chomsky is said to be the most influential and the 'father' of the nativist theory.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false - Nativist theorists believe that children are born with the ability to understand basic rules of grammar e.g. combining nouns and verbs to form sentences.

    Which theory argues for the following? “Language learning depends on essential interactions with parents and caregivers that motivate children to understand and use language.”

    True or false - Interactionists also believe in joint attention, where children and their parents focus on the same thing while also interacting.

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