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Nativist

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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.

What is Nativist Theory?

In the nature vs nurture debate, which has been ongoing since 1869, Nativist theorists are typically team nature .

Innate (adjective): Existing from the time a person or animal is born.

In terms of language acquisition, Nativists believe that children are born with an inbuilt ability to organize and comprehend the fundamental laws and structures of language. They believe this is why children can learn a native language quickly.

The nativist theory is often contrasted with the behaviorist theory . Influential behaviorist theorists, such as Skinner and Watson, argue that language (verbal behavior, as they call it) is learned through exposure to language, say, at home or at school. This means language behaviors is modeled, 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 behaviorist theorists fall?

Nativist theory nature vs nurture image StudySmarterNature vs Nurture, Hannah Morris - StudySmarter Original

For many years, behaviorist 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 perhaps the most influential nativist theorist 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

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

The term Universal Grammar has been used to describe the knowledge contained within the LAD. Let's take a closer look at Universal Grammar.

Universal grammar

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 StudySmarterUniversal grammar, Hannah Morris - StudySmarter Original

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 went' 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 StudySmarterVirtuous error, Hannah Morris - StudySmarter Original

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.

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 behaviorist 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.

Nativist

 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.

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.

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.

According to Noam Chomsky, the universal grammar theory suggests that every human language shares the same basic grammatical structures. For example, most languages: Differentiate between verbs and nouns, have a way of talking about the past and present tense, have a way of asking questions, and have a counting system. Chomsky suggests that every child has an innate ability to understand the basic universal grammar of human language.

Final Nativist Quiz

Question

True or false - Nativists believe that children will learn a language depending on the environment in which they grow up.

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Answer

False. Nativists believe that children will learn a language regardless of the environment in which they grow up.

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True or false - Scientists of the nativist theory believe that children are born with the ability to understand basic rules of grammar, like combining nouns and verbs to form sentences.


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Answer

True

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What is the concept regarding the brain area used in the interactionist theory?


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Answer

Instead of having just one area of the brain dedicated to language, interactionists believe that children use the same area in their brains to learn the language and any other skill.

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Question

What is the language acquisition device (LAD)?


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Answer

LAD is a tool in the child's brain that allows them to learn and develop the rules of the language quickly.


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What are the three factors in the development of the language that Chomsky believed in?


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The three factors are genetic endowment, external data and independent principles.

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What does Chomsky mean by a genetic endowment?


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For genetic endowment, he means genes inherited from the parents, which sets the limit on the language, making it possible to learn. 


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True or false - For nativists, learning the language is all about the child’s direct experiences with the environment.


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Answer

False. For behaviourists, learning the language is all about the child’s direct experiences with the environment.

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Question

True or false - The universal grammar theory affirms that we have to learn a language faculty that knows these grammar rules, making it easier for children to learn and speak than it otherwise would be.


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Answer

False. The theory proposes that we have an innate language faculty that knows these grammar rules, making it easier for children to learn and speak than it otherwise would be.

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Question

What is that Chomsky doesn’t believe?


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He doesn’t believe in the rule of imitation as it could mislead the child that hasn’t used that adult’s structure yet.

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Question

What is the resolution of the Nicaraguan people regarding the nativistic theory?


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Answer

 The development of postnatal growth of the brain is associated with persistence in language learning.

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What was the discovery in the Nicaraguan deaf children?


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Answer

They started to communicate with each other with signs never learnt or known before.

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Question

Read this sentence and write the theory that sustains it: “Language learning depends on essential interactions with parents and caregivers that motivate children to understand and use language.”


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Answer

 It is part of the interactionist theory.

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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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True.

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What is Chomsky’s theory based on?


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His theory is based on biolinguistics, which is the linguistic’s side believing in the structure of language biologically present in the human mind, genetically inherited.

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Question

True or false - Language development is instinctive, and Chomsky believes that every child has a Language acquisition device (LAD). 


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Answer

True.

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Question

What is analytic philosophy?

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Answer

Analytic philosophy helps to analyse logical concepts emphasising the study of language.

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What does cognitive science study?

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Answer

Cognitive science is the study of mind and intelligence.

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True or false: Chomsky is a firm believer that syntactic knowledge is gained with inputs and feedback.

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False. Chomsky is a firm believer that syntactic knowledge is partially innate.

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What is syntactic knowledge?

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Syntactic knowledge is how we can combine words to create meaningful sentences.

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What are the “special properties” acquired by universal grammar?

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Children will distinguish function words from content words or distinguish nouns from verbs.

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True or false: If children have experienced sensory deprivation, they still validate the universal grammar theory.

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False. If children have experienced extreme sensory deprivation they won’t prove the theory.

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True or false:Chomsky argues that unless children have a significant innate knowledge of grammar, they can’t learn the language as quickly as they do.

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True.


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True or false:LAD by Chomsky states that languages have finite sequences of words and grammar.

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False. LAD by Chomsky states that languages have infinite sequences of words and grammar.

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What are the four limitations of Chomsky’s theories stated in this article?

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A: Inconsistent evidence

B: Based on hypothesis and not on behavioural observation

C:Lack of universal characteristics between languages

D: Unproven link between innate structures

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What do constructivist researchers believe?

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Constructivist researchers believe that we build our knowledge.

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True or false: Chomsky observed that all children tend to make the same language mistakes, regardless of the spoken language.

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True.

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Does the “innate ability” have the knowledge of vocabulary of any particular language?Does the child learn words?

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No, it doesn’t. The child has to learn the meaning of words.

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True or false: The child is conscious of the innate ability and it is fully formed at birth.

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False. It is not to say that the child is conscious of it or that this innate capacity is fully formed at birth.

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Choose the correct answer: What does LAD stand for?

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Language Acquisition Device

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Is Chomsky’s theory of language still considered valid?

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No, it is not. He was considered valid between 1960 and 1990, then it got rejected.

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Who proposed the Language Acquisition Device?

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It was proposed by Noam Chomsky

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When was LAD proposed?

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1957

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What type of theory is LAD?


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Nativist theory

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What is nativist theory?


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Answer

It is the theory that humans are born with the innate ability to acquire and develop language

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True or False: nativist theory argues that language acquisition is part of humanity's genetic makeup


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Answer

True! Nativist theory argues that language acquisition is part of humanity's genetic makeup

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What is behaviourist theory?


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Answer

It argues that children learn language through the adults around them

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 Who do children learn language from in behaviourist theory? 


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Answer

Themselves

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Question

What does the acronym LAD stand for? 


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Answer

It is an acronym for Language Acquisition Device

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What is LAD? 


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Answer

LAD is a proposal that human beings have an innate ability to understand language

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Where in the body is the LAD supposed to be found?


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Answer

Toe

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Question

What is universal grammar?


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Answer

It is all the important characteristics of all the world's grammar

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What is the purpose of universal grammar?


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It acts as an encoding system that provides children with a baseline understanding of the important characteristics of all the world's grammar

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Does behaviourist theory reject LAD?


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Behaviourist theory rejects LAD

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True or False- There is evidence in neuroscience that LAD exists


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Answer

False! There is no evidence in neuroscience that LAD exists

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True or False - LAD theory believes nurture over nature

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Answer

False! LAD theory believes in nature over nurture

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What does PoS stand for? 


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Poverty of Stimulus

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What is Poverty of Stimulus?


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It is the theory that children are not exposed to enough linguistic data within their environment to learn every feature of their language

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How can Poverty of Stimulus be used to prove LAD?


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It helps prove LAD as it argues that a language acquisition device would be integral for children to learn a language.

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