The Theories On Whether Language Is Learned

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Language is defined as “a system of communications which consists of a set of sounds and written symbols which are used by people from a particular country or region” (collins-dictonary, N/A). It is split into several key components including phonemes which are defined as “smallest unit of sound” (mitchell & ziegler, 2013) which when used in varying combinations form morphemes which are defined as the “smallest unit of meaning” (mitchell & ziegler, 2013). Language is characterised by being pragmatic meaning it is characterised by rules such as grammar which dictate how language is understood. For example, the Chinese languages rules mean that text is understood from right to left while English’s rules dictate text should be read and understood from left to right. Rules of language are not limited to humans, bees have been shown to display pragmatic language as they follow rules when communicating to one another the location of pollen. It has been reported that bees communicate via a “waggle dance” involving the bees moving from side to side in correlation with whether pollen is close to their right or left (Muntz, 2016). Thus, this shows pragmatic language Is not limited to humans but is likely to be a universal phenomime. Throughout this essay I will discuss whether language is learned, leaning on the nurture side of the debate, or if it is innate (something we are born with) which leans on the nature side of the debate. This debate surrounds the idea of language due to the variation of theories which I will debate during this essay including operant conditioning, innate grammatical structures and social constructivism.

Behaviourists such as skinner argue language is learned via operant conditioning, supporting that language is learned. Behaviourism notes that behaviours can be increased via positive and negative reinforcement while they can be decreased by punishments. (Skinner, 1938). Positive reinforcement involves increasing the likelihood of a behaviour as the individual receives a reward while negative reinforcement increases a behaviour in order to avoid a punishment. Skinner argues correct utterance of words is positively reinforced children as parents reward the child by showing excitement and love when a new word is learned. (Skinner, 1938)However, incorrect utterance of words caused a negative reinforcement as the children did not receive the same reaction and thus would not repeat the incorrect pronunciation (Lemrtyinen, 2012). The idea of operant conditioning is supported by Skinners empirical, lab based research on rats (Skinner, 1938). This research, commonly referred to as “Skinner’s box”, involved rats, who were being kept in a cage, experiencing positive reinforcement via a food pellet when they triggered a leaver. Results indicated that the positive reinforcement increased the rats likelihood of pulling the leaver, therefore suggesting that positive reinforcement increases behaviours. (Skinner, 1938) However, many would suggest that skinners evidence lacks generalisability due to only being conducted on animals and ignoring that rats lack the ability to speak. Many argue that a better animal to focus on would be a parrot due to its ability to communicate in a way that can be more human like. It has been argued that focusing on parrots can disprove operant conditioning causing language learning as parrots display learning via imitation by repeating commonly heard phrases such as “hello” (Mitchell, Fundamentals of Developmental Psychology, 2013). Thus, it may be suggested that language learning may occur via imitation of language previously heard, rather than due to operant conditioning. However, research has indicated that children may not learn language via imitation as while adults spontaneously supply physical cues to the word they are stating through referencing an object using slight body language between 69%-100% of the time they are talking to a child, it can take 6-13 month year olds at least 30 seconds to respond to these cues and at least a year to mimic correct language utterance via imitating parents words. (Baldwin, 1996). Chomsky criticized Skinners work for ignoring that children speak grammatically correctly and instead argues that grammatical structure is a deep routed, innate structure.

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As highlighted above, Chomsky argues elements of language are innate, specifically universal grammar. Universal grammar is the idea that there is a system of patterns (grammatical rules) that are common across all languages, across all countries that all humans share. (Barman, 2012). This is supported by Goldwin- Meadow’s research on deaf children whose age ranged between 1.2 and 4.10 years. (Goldin-Meadow, Wagner, & Mitchell, 2009). The children included in this research had little oral language and were tested to ensure that despite using gestures to communicate they had no exposure to conventional sign language. They observed that gestures shown by the children in an attempt to communicate showed a grammatical structure. For example, a gesture for a noun would be used after a gesture indicating an object. Goldin-Meadow noted this in a language learning journal, specifically highlighting one participant who would point at a jar and then use a “twisting” motion to indicate the jar was open (Goldin-Meadow, 2010). This suggests that grammatical patterns are innate as these children were not taught these grammatical rules despite still following them. However, many have criticised this research stating that hearing parents may teach their children grammatical rules while attempting to communicate with them. In contrast, the children’s mothers’ gestures were also analysed and it was found that the mother and child’s gestures varied. (Goldin-Meadow, Wagner, & Mitchell, 2009) Hence, there is no evidence that children have learned the grammatical rules from their mothers however fathers were not tested. Therefore, this study may suffer from gender bias as it ignores that children may learn language patterns from their father. The internal validity of this evidence can be questioned due to the Hawthorne effect which is defined as participants changing their behaviour as a result of being observed (Kenton, 2019). This may affect this research as children could change their gestures in response to the observer’s grammatical patterns. Thus, it can be suggested that grammatical patterns may not be innate as children may adjust to them in accordance to the person they are trying to communicate with. It has been further suggested that despite grammar having an innate nature, some learning must be required as no one language is universal, therefore gestures and their grammatical Patten often come In combination with language (Goldwin-Meadow & Butcher, 2003).

The social constructivist theory argues language is learned and constructed based on their understanding of assimilating knowledge (prior and new) (Wijayanti, 2013). It is argued that children play a vital role in their own language learning and communication as they are motivated to communicate and learn grammatical structures in order to be correctly understood. Tomaello notes pragmatic cues are vital in learning language as they aid differentiation. Pragmatic cueing refers to the idea that the social setting in which a child is in will motivate the child to learn language in different ways. (Wolfe, 2019). (Tomasello & Barton, 1994) presented children with a finding game in which children had to find a toy in a series of buckets. The experimenter would then pretend to look for the toy and communicated to the child finding the correct toy by smiling and ending the search, however if the wrong one was found she would scowl. Children aged 18-24 months and above knew correct toy was labelled with a smile showing children are sensitive to pragmatic cues. (Tomasello & Barton, 1994) Thus, it can be suggested children can learn communicative intentions from 18 months old and above. Overall this suggests that language learning Is probably not innate due to its link with socio-pragmatic cues (smiling and facial expressions) which are vital for communication to be effectively understood. However, this evidences generalisability can be questioned due to the age range of the children only covering those aged 18-24 months, thus communication outside of this 6-month age range may vary and may not be affected by pragmatic cues. It is also important to consider that this research ignores children with developmental disorders such as autism as despite still having a motivation to communicate, cannot understand many pragmatic cues such as speech and facial expressions. (National-Autistic-Society, N/A).

Overall, it can be suggested while language and communication is innate in terms of grammatical structure within humans as evidence shows it is present in those who have not been taught grammatical patterns and laws, it is important to consider that languages themselves must be learned as there is no one universal language that is used globally. It can therefore be concluded that innate grammatical patterns aid language learning as simple grammatical rules such as “noun”, “adjective” and “verb” are used in order to teach children specific words. Evidence such as skinners box or Tomaello’s study on pragmatic cues shows that learning is vital within language learning, however it can be difficult to pin point exactly which type of learning is the most effective as evidence often suffers due to individual differences within children’s learning, as well as a lack of generalisability and validity.

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The Theories On Whether Language Is Learned. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 16, 2024, from
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