The study of language development, one of the most fascinating human achievements, has a long and rich history, extending over thousands of years (Chomsky, 2000). As the nature-versus-nurture argument is inevitable to arise whenever human behaviors are discussed, it is not surprising that language experts have debated the relative influences of genetics and the environment on language development (Hulit & Howard, 2002). Among the various proposals concerning the mechanisms involved in acquiring a language, two opposing theoretical positions, the behaviorist and the nativist, are the most prominent and influential ones (Ayoun, 2003; Garton & Pratt, 1998; Owens, 2001). Due to the indefinite explanation of the exact process, the continuous interest of the inquiring people, and the sheer significance of the precise result, the controversy remains ongoing and popular. In view of the more obvious limitations of the behaviorist interpretation and the prevailing contributions of the nativist interpretation, the latter one is more rational to accept.
Limitations of the behaviorist interpretation
As the name implies, behaviorism focuses on people’s behaviors, which are directly observable, rather than on the mental systems underlying these behaviors (Narasimhan, 1998). Language is viewed as a kind of verbal behavior and it is proposed that children learn language through imitation, reinforcement, analogy, and structured input (Fromkin, Rodman & Hyams, 2003).
Do children learn language through imitation?
Imitation is involved to some extent, of course, but the early words and sentences that children produce show that they are not simply imitating adult speech. Since there is an infinite number of potential sentences implied, children’s complex and creative utterances cannot be explained by a passive response to the language of the environment. In addition, imitation cannot account for common child language mistakes, which are highly unlikely to be failed imitations of what adults would say (Cattell, 2000).
Do children learn language through reinforcement?
Another proposal is that children learn to produce correct (grammatical) sentences because they are positively reinforced when they say something right, and negatively reinforced when they say something wrong. Roger Brown and his colleagues at Harvard U...
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...d to determine exactly which part of the language is innate and universal so that humans can further uncover the valuable mechanism.
Ayoun, D. (2003). Parameter setting in language acquisition. London: Continuum.
Cattell, R. (2000). Children’s language: Consensus and controvery. London: Cassell.
Chomsky, N. (2000). Knowledge of language: Its mature, origin and use. In R. J. Stainton (Ed.), Perspectives in the philosophy of language: A concise anthology (pp. 3-44). Peterborough: Broadview Press.
Fromkin, V., Rodman, R., & Hyams, N. (2003). An introduction to language (7th ed.). Boston: Heinle.
Garton, A., & Pratt, C. (1998). Learning to be literate: The development of spoken and written language (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Hulit, L. M., & Howard, M. R. (2002). Born to talk: An introduction to speech and language development (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Meadow, S. G. (2003). The resilience of language. New York: Psychology Press.
Narasimhan, R. (1998). Language behaviour: Acquisition and evolutuionary history. London: Sage Publications.
Owens, R. E. (2001). Language development (5th ed.). Needham Heights: Allyn & Bacon.
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