The Nativist Theory – Quick and Clear Guide

The nativist theory of language acquisition became very popular in the late 20th century through Noam Chomsky who claimed that language is an innate faculty. The theory holds that children learn their mother’s tongue through their natural ability to organize the laws of language, but are only able to fully utilize this talent with the aid of other humans. However, this does not mean that the child requires any kind of formal teaching.

By saying that Language is an innate faculty, Chomsky implies that children are born with a set of rules about language in their head which he calls the “Universal Grammar.” According to him, the “Universal Grammar” is the foundation upon which all human languages are built on. Chomsky claims that if a Martian linguist finds his way to earth, he would conclude from the evidence that only one language exists, with several variants. He gives many reasons to prove this. One of the most important reasons he gives is the ease with which children acquire their mother’s tongue. Chomsky claims that it is nearly impossible for children to learn mathematics or how to ride a bike the same way learnt their language (stages of language acquisition). This is possible because;

• The language children are exposed to is very little correctly formed. When people talk, they make slips of tongues, they often interrupt themselves, change their minds and so on. Yet, children still manage to have a firm grasp of the language.

• The language they hear around them are not just simply copied. They learn the rules of the language and use them to produce sentences they’ve never heard from anyone or anywhere.

Baby talking on phone

A child unconsciously begins to recognize the kind of language he is dealing with as he listens to his parents. He will also set his grammar to a correct one, which is known as “setting the parameters”. The child intuitively knows some words behave like verbs and others like nouns. This is not a piece of information that his parents or people around him directly teach him, but information that is given. It is almost as if the child is offered several hypotheses at birth which the child then matches with what is happening around him. Chomsky calls this set of learning tools provided at birth “Language Acquisition Device“.

If you look at children, you would realize that even when they make wrong sentences, the sentence is still in the right order. For example, no child will say “Biscuit mummy”, instead the child will say “Mummy, biscuit”. The reason is thus, when a child starts to put two words together, the child has already mastered the basic rules of syntax. And even when the child makes an erroneous sentence, he applies them correctly.

Furthermore, children absorb an enormous number of sentence and phrases and instead of parroting them back, children abstract the rules from them and construct their own grammar which they then apply to create new sentences that they have never heard before.

Over the years of age two to seven, when children begin to master a language, they continuously modify their language until it matches that of the adult speaker population. Therefore, age two to seven is a critical period in the life of a child and it suggests the first language learning. Language according to the Nativist theory is like walking, an innate capacity of human beings incited by a level of development, more than feedback to the environment. What this means is that, as long as a child hears a language (any language) when he or she reaches this critical period (age 2-7), the child will learn it perfectly.

The Nativist theory is very controversial. An argument against this view is that without a propensity for language, children will not be able to learn such complete speech patterns in a natural human environment where complete sentences are the exception. Researchers have also recently discovered that parents don’t react the same way to children’s grammatically incorrect and correct utterances. This shapes the behavior of the child and therefore challenges the notion that language is innate.

Lear about other theories of language development!

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