Is the acquisition of a first grammar guided by an innate, grammar-specific device?

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2005

12 Pages, Grade: A-



1. Introduction

2. The Nature vs. Nurture Debate

3. The Innateness Hypothesis

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Children all over the world seem to acquire their first language in much the same manner. The stages in their highly structured First Language Acquisition (FLA) process that involve making hypotheses and testing them against the linguistic input they are exposed to, appear to be universal in all children. However, Chomsky’s nativist theory of a Language Faculty that is innate in every healthy human being has been challenged vigorously – especially by advocates of the behaviouristic school.

Alas, there are certain arguments that strongly support the Innateness Hypothesis (IH) and the existence of a Language Faculty[1]:

1. FLA is uniform
2. FLA is untutored
3. FLA is underdetermined by exposure/data
4. FLA draws from degenerated input
5. FLA features no negative evidence
6. FLA is always successful

This essay attempts to give an insight into the debate that has been going on between behaviourist and nativists in terms of first language acquisition. It will then explore Chomsky’s IH in detail and give proof of its value. The main emphasis of the essay will be placed on the acquisition of syntax.

2. The Nature vs. Nurture Debate

A debate that has been going on for centuries is to what extend genetics influence human behaviour. In the field of linguistics it is debated how much of our ability to construct and understand language is programmed into our genes, and how much we acquire only through environmental exposure. (Brown. 2000.35)

On the one hand, nativists such as Howard Gardner or Noam Chomsky, consider that parts of the brain have evolved over time specifically for the purpose of producing and understanding language. This approach proposes that linguistic abilities have developed over time as a result of Darwinian evolution. Chomsky, Gardner et al. believe that infants are born with a significant prewired knowledge of how languages work and how they do not work. (Knezek.1997[2] ).

On the other hand, behaviourists such as Andy Clark and Jean Piaget, believe that language utilizes brain structures and psychological functions that were already present before the development of the language tool. Their position opposes the belief of an innate linguistic ability. Instead it suggests that linguistic evolution occurs as a result of learning and cultural evolution. (Knezek.1997).

The debate of “nature” vs. “nurture” is still being fought to this day. While the linguistic and social environment in which children are acquiring a language without a doubt plays a significant role in their linguistic development, the behaviouristic approach appears to fail to explain how it comes that children all over the world acquire language in pretty much the same way, conquering milestone after milestone in their linguistic development. (Lenneberg. Cited in Knezek.1997). Although there have been many attempts to fully understand and explain language acquisition, it appears that no theory or hypothesis has so far managed to seriously challenge Chomsky’s Innateness Hypothesis.

3. The Innateness Hypothesis

One argument supporting the IH is that FLA is uniform. Throughout the process of acquiring their first language every healthy child goes through identical stages of acquisition at a more or less identical age.

All hearing children start of with the perception and production of speech sounds. When exposed to speech sounds not phonemic in the target language, babies will still be able to respond to these phonetic contrasts. Infants distinguish between such allophones of one phoneme such as [ba] and [pŽa], even if this differentiation does not occur in their language. (Fromkin et al. 2003. 353). Furthermore, babies do not differentiate distinctions that are not in accordance with phonemic contrasts in any language, such as variation in the loudness of a sound, or the realization of sounds lying between two phonemes. (Fromkin et al. 2003. 353)[3]. This could be an explanation why children can learn any language they are exposed to. “Human brains are so constructed that one brain responds in much the same way to a given trigger as does another brain, all things being equal. This is why a baby can learn any language; it responds to triggers in the same way as any other baby.” (Hostadter, cited in O’Grady. 1996. 464)

At the age of six months children start losing the aptitude to differentiate sounds that are not phonemic in their native language. Fromkin states that Japanese infants can discriminate between the [r] and the [l], which do not contrast in Japanese, but lose this ability when they reach the age of six months. English children, however, retain this perception. Babies at this age have started to learn the sounds of their language, whereas before they seemed to have known the sounds of the human language in general. (Fromkin et al. 2003. 353)

At the age of about six months babies start producing speech, in the form of babbling. Early babbling may contain sounds not spoken around the baby, but gradually the baby only includes sounds and sound combinations that happen in his native language. Since babbling is related to auditory input, deaf children’s babbling differs from that of hearing children. Hearing children copy the intonation curve of adult speech, while the deaf babies produce random and nonrepetitive vocalizations. Correspondingly, deaf children repetitively use hand motions that are elements of their sign language, while hearing babies move their fingers randomly. (Fromkin. 2003. 354). Fromkin states that “the generally accepted view is that humans are born with a predisposition to discover the units that serve to express linguistic meanings, and that at a genetically specified stage in neural development, the infant will begin to produce these units – sounds or gestures – depending on the language input the baby receives” (Fromkin. 2003. 345)

At the age of one the majority of children are able to produce one-word utterances, or holophrases. These phrases are used to express meaning that an adult speaker would express with an entire sentence. This suggests that children’s syntactic competence is ahead of their productive abilities. (Fromkin. 2003. 363). Dada can be a statement such as I see daddy, but it can also be request such as pick me up daddy.

At the age of two to two and a half, children may form more complex sentences. By the age of 3 onwards, they are able to correctly form complex sentences, including such features as, for example, complementizers and their language resembles adult speech. (Knezek.1997[4] ). Despite the emergence of complex new syntactic structures, children make virtually no word order errors which suggests that the children have acquired a system of productive grammatical rules that are applicable to novel cases. (O’Grady et al. 1996. 464)


[1] According to Dr. Malcolm Edwards. Second Language Acquisition Class. Birkbeck College. 13/01/05.

[2] [Accessed 12/02/05]

[3] The response to different phonemes has been tested by measuring infants sucking rate. (Fromkin et al. 2003. 353)

[4] [Accessed 12/02/05]

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Is the acquisition of a first grammar guided by an innate, grammar-specific device?
University of London  (School of Languages, Linguistics and Culture)
Linguistic Anakysis
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Linguistic, Anakysis
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Sandra Beyer (Author), 2005, Is the acquisition of a first grammar guided by an innate, grammar-specific device?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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