Nature vs. Nurture
“Oh he is just like his father, the apple did not fall far from the tree.” “She learned it from her mother.” These are typical exchanges taking place between friends and family members in an attempt to explain why our offspring behave or react in certain ways. Early scientists, philosophers and psychologists tried to determine whether these traits originated from the child’s unique genes (nature) or if it was all due to learned behaviour (nurture). Finding an answer to the nature vs. nurture debate is no easy task and up to this day no definitive answer has been found to the question: “what matters more, our genetic makeup or the environment in which we grow up?”.
In order to make sense of this debate and to understand the relevance of nature and nurture in the acquiring of language we need to define each construct which forms part of this debate. The nature factor in this debate refers to the biological aspect of human development and includes our genetic inheritance and other biological influences. The nurture factor in this debate refers to the external factors which affects us after conception and includes factors such as life experience and learning.
This debate has been drawn in to numerous other arguments in attempts to find answers to some of life’s most complex questions. Therefore it is to no surprise that this debate has also been used in an attempt to explain how infants acquire language.
The learning perspective (nurture)
“Say, ma-ma, ma-ma, ma-ma…” This approach to language formation in infants is called the learning perspective and this perspective holds that children acquire language by imitating what they hear and it is reinforced when the child uses proper grammar and the child is corrected when he says things wrongly. According to this school of thought caregivers teach language to a child through modelling and reinforcing grammatical speech.
This theory is very useful and fairly accurate due to the fact that our children learn their native language down to the regional accent. Studies also found that reinforcing the correct words and the correct use of words will lessen the time it takes to learn the language.
The nativist perspective (nature)
The nature approach to language formation in infants is called the nativist perspective and this perspective holds that all humans are biologically programmed to acquire language and that the structure of even the simplest language is too complex for children to acquire simply by being taught by parents or to be discovered by trial-and-error processes of immature toddlers and preschool children. The nativist perspective believes that all humans are born with a language acquisition device (LAD), which is an inborn linguistic processor which is activated by verbal input.
The LAD is said to consist of a universal grammar or knowledge of rules which are common to all languages. The LAD therefore allows humans to acquire a sufficient vocabulary, combine words into rule-bound utterances and to understand much of what we hear, irrespective of the language we are exposed to.
A second believe held by this school of thought is that all humans are born with a language making capacity (LMC) which is a set of cognitive and perceptual abilities which is highly specialised for language learning.
This school of thought therefore believes that these mechanisms allows children to process linguistic input and to infer the phonological regularities, semantic relations and rules of syntax which characterises whatever language they are exposed to. The nativist perspective is thus of the opinion that language acquisition is natural and relatively automatic provided that the child possess linguistic input to process.
Various studies have found evidence in support of this school of thought with the most broadly used evidence being the fact that most children start to talk around the same age, irrespective of the language and/or culture.
The interactionist perspective
The interactionist perspective proposes that language development is brought on by a complex interplay between biological maturation, cognitive development and an ever-changing linguistic environment which is influenced by the child’s attempts at communication. This perspective is thus a combination of the learning and nativist perspectives.
Nature vs. Nurture… Which perspective is the most accurate?
The answer is quite simple, neither! Research has found that both the learning and nativist perspectives are partially correct and that language acquisition is in actual fact brought on by a complex interplay between these two perspectives. Thus the interactionist perspective provides the most accurate explanation as to the how of language development.