How do we learn language?

How do we learn language?

One of the biggest questions over human behaviour is whether our actions are determined by our natures, or by our nurtures. In other words, do we act the way we do because of genetic programming – innate qualities that we have no power over – or is it the way we are brought up, treated, educated, and so forth. This will be discussed in more detail in human sciences, but the debate interests us in language in the question over how we learn to speak. Is it an innate human capacity, or is it purely a result of our environment, as we first imitate our parents and family members, and then apply the rules of grammar to perfect our powers of communication?

Human versus animal language

First, it’s perhaps useful to distinguish human from animal language. Clearly, what is innate to all of us – something we share with most animal life-forms – is the instinct for communication. As soon as we are born, we know how to communicate, and generally do so as soon as we exit the womb by giving a startling cry that announces our arrival in the world. We are at this point communicating our needs to our mother, the result of a combination of feelings, including fear, hunger and pain. Most animals share this most deep-rooted of instincts to ‘talk’ to our mother. Furthermore, many animals are able to communicate surprisingly sophisticatedly, and stories of chimpanzees being taught how to express themselves are proverbial (check out this link a story by the Skeptic Society for one such example)
But clearly, humans go far beyond this inarticulate (though not ineffective) wailing, and very soon are able to string sophisticated sentences together to vividly express what we are thinking, and what we require. Where, however, is the line between what we can do and what animals can do? What separates the way we communicate with sounds to the way animals do?
Here are four suggestions for what separates human from animal language:

  • Arbitrariness: Most words are a collection of letters that have no rational relationship with what they represent, instead, they are arbitrary. In other words, there is nothing in the word ‘tree’ that has any inherently ‘tree’ qualities about it.
  • Reordering: Language is made up of different units (ie letters, words, phrases, etc.) that can be broken down and reordered to create different meaning. These units are finite, but their possibilities are effectively infinite.
  • Abstractness: Human language can express and describe concepts that are not based on objects in the immediate vicinity.
  • Metalinguistics: Language can be used to describe itself.


Language acquisition

But are these four characteristics ‘natural’ to us, or do we have to learn them? Once again, this is a question with no easy answer. Our opinion on this huge question has changed constantly through history. Plato believed that our capacity to use language was innate. Empirical thinkers such as John Locke felt believed that we begin as ‘blank slates’, so there was no innate ability in this respect. This position was challenged by nativist thinkers (such as Noam Chomsky and Stephen Pinker) who believe that certain skills and abilities – such as language learning – are ‘hardwired’ into the brain.
Modern theories include the Rational Frame Theory, developed by Steven C. Hayes and Dermot Barnes-Holmes. This is based on the work of B.F. Skinner’s Behaviourist ideas, and posits the idea that our language acquisition is purely a result of our interaction with the environment.  Finally, the Competition model of language acquisition, proposed by Elizabeth Bates and Brian MacWhinney, argues that neither nature or nurture alone is sufficient in the process of acquiring a language. Instead, innate cognitive functions are activated by interacting with the environment, allowing us to build up our language abilities.Where you stand, in other words, depends on your philosophical standpoint, because the evidence is inconclusive either way.
One argument that we must have some innate language-learning skills point out that although children learn between 10 and 15 new words every day, only one of these can be accounted for by direct experience. Noam Chomsky gives a great deal more evidence, saying that almost every sentence that we speak is a brand new combination of words that has never before appeared. To be able to create something like that, the brain must have some kind of programme enabling it to create infinite combinations out of finite resources (ie lists of words).
Those who say that the environment is the more important ingredient in the process merely point out the effective of direct teaching upon children – especially when it comes to second language acquisition.

When do we begin acquiring our language?

New research has suggested that we begin learning languages even before we are born. In a international study carried out by German researchers, babies’ cries were found to be made in the same accent as the language their mothers spoke.

Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. How do we learn language? (10th May 2013). Last accessed: 20th March 2018


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