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10) The origins of language: Language Acquisition

The question of the origins of language has two parts, which do not easily connect to each other.

1. On the one hand, the question is one which relates to human development – the natural history of language. How does language start? Where does it come from? We have already seen that human language is totally unique from the animal kingdom. How did this happen?

2. On the other hand the question is one which deals with the cultural history of known languages. We speak English – but where did English come from? How did all the languages in world evolve, and is there such a thing as a ‘first’ language?

In this entry, I will only be looking at the first part of this question.

A Universal Grammar?

When attempting to address question 1, the traditional arguments have always assumed that the development of language in human beings is all to do with cultural evolution and cognitive development. We learn language when we are children because we are surrounded by language, and it develops because children have a natural instinct to imitate.

This traditional view has, within the last fifty years, been almost eclipsed by a new theory which was most significantly developed by the linguist Noam Chomsky in the 1950s. Chomsky recognised (as we have done) that one of the key things which distinguish human language from animal language is the grammatical structures which it uses to expand the basis of lexical meaning – but he recognised, as well, that these grammatical structures are used instinctively, more than as part of a cognitive process of learning acquisition.

For example, consider the following sentence (these examples have been ruthlessly nicked from Prof. John McWhorter):

This sentence can be re-phrased by placing the ‘what’ at the beginning instead of at the end, and it will still make the same amount of sense:

By contrast, consider the following sentence:

This sentence makes sense, and ends with the word ‘what’. Unlike the previous example, though, we cannot place the ‘what’ at the beginning of the sentence and maintain the sense of the sentence itself:

This new sentence makes no sense. We know this, can recognise it, and can incorporate the grammatical understanding into the ways in which we use language – but can you explain the grammatical rules which are at work and which explain why we cannot treat the two sentences in the same way?

You could try - but it is certainly a complex thing to explain. Indeed the more you might think about it, the more you might realise that your ability to make sense of language is really rather puzzling.  You might start to realise that there are many aspects of language - particularly in terms of grammar - which you have never really understood, but which you exploit with an extraordinary deftness in your everyday conversations.

How can we explain the ease with which we master something as complex as language and grammar?

Well, the conclusion which Noam Chomsky reached in relation to this question, was that human beings must be somehow pre-disposed, or genetically programmed, to acquire these rules.  He has frequently offered this illustration:

Imagine that an alien came to Earth and observed the way we humans communicate with each other. According to Chomsky, this alien would perceive all languages on Earth as pretty much the same, with only superficial variations distinguishing, for example, English from Chinese. (Allen, 2000

The complexities of grammar, then, is a feature of our species - like long necks are a feature of giraffes.  But what evidence is there for the idea that language originates in anything more than social interaction?  After all, for many years it has been assumed that we learn language simply because we are surrounded by language.

Six arguments against language being learned solely through interaction

There are, of course, many arguments we could make, and perhaps the most eloquent expression of those is Steven Pinker's fantastic book The Language Instinct.  Here though, we are going to consider just six that have been highlighted again by McWhorter.

1) The speed of acquisition


Children learn language fast. When we consider the difficulties of learning a new language when we are adults, it seems incredible that children are able to learn something so complex with such seeming effortlessness. Can this really be explained solely by saying the children learn by listening to adults around them?

2) All human societies use language

This effortless acquisition of knowledge is not dependent on anything. It is not just exceptionally bright Oxbridge graduates that learn language.  Indeed, those with no education at all can still be an expert at it.  And that expertise is gained within the first few years of their life.  All children, of whatever ability, manage to learn language. Unlike academic ability, sporting ability, or the ability to play the piano; the ability to learn language is not something which varies from individual to individual.

Neither does it vary from culture to culture.  Different societies throughout the world vary from each other in almost every conceivable way.  There are variations in how communities dress, act, eat, drink, sleep, worship, hunt, grow old, etc., etc..  However there is one thing that all human societies have in common: They all have language.  If language was something which was cultural, surely there would be some place, hidden away in some corner of the world, where language was simply not something which they did – where they used hand gestures instead? 

3) The Critical Age Hypothesis


Real life examples of ducklings imprinting on a human

This theory suggests that the ability to learn language erodes as we get older. You may know of a family with a small child who has moved to a new country. The child may already speak one language, but they will pick up the language of the new country much more quickly that the adults do, and will learn to speak it usually without a trace of an accent. In contrast, children who arrive into a new country and a new language in their early to mid-teens will certainly master the language almost perfectly. Full adults, when making a change into a new country and a new language, often never master the new language at all. Even if they do achieve something like fluency, they will almost always carry a strong accent.

Actually, this critical age hypothesis can be verified by looking at the animal kingdom – where such stages of generically programmed acquisition can be seen at work already. A duckling, for example, when it is hatched, is likely to ‘imprint’ upon the first thing it sees. You've all seen the cartoons?  Well, the cartoons are in this instance quite right.  This was demonstrated by Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz, as you can see in this video:

If you put on a hand puppet of a bird, then when the duckling hatches it will see the puppet and adopt it as its mother. However, an adult duck would never imprint in this way. You could not ‘imprint’ upon an adult bird in the way that you can with a baby bird. This most probably means that the baby bird is genetically programmed to acquire certain knowledge from birth – but that by the time the bird matures that acquisitional ability has disappeared.

Part of the problem with proving the critical age hypothesis in relation to humans, is that the only way you could reliably test it would be to deprive a child of all language-acquisition stimuli until they had past the stage of maturation. This, as you can imagine, would not be allowed for the purposes of research on the basis of ethics if not sheer humanity. However, occasionally history has unfortunately thrown up brief opportunities of observing just such conditions.

One such occasion was Genie.  Genie was a girl who was discovered by social services in America at the age of 13. For the first 13 years of her life she had been imprisoned in a basement, in circumstances which were so shocking and upsetting that they were national news. After she was rescued, she was given intensive tutoring and support to attempt to recover, but she never really learned to speak properly. The words were there, but the grammatical structures were simply never acquired.

4) The Poverty of the Stimulus

This argument is designed to contest the idea that children learn language simply by listening to those adults around them. It does so by arguing that although adults can be capable of constructing sophisticated sentences in formal environments and in writing, they rarely do so in everyday conversations. Generally, people do not construct sentences in conversation which demonstrates an effective use of grammatical or syntactical construction.

Or, to put it another way, we 'don't speak proper'.

For example, this transcript is one I found on the internet (not sure of the reference, so just follow the link for the source) showing a conversation between a plumber and a teacher:

P: it’s goin (.) there
T: yeah (.) yep
P: obviously you’re goin to have to keep that there (2) keep the timber because of the
T: that was left by the last people that had the house
P: it’s a stereo unit (.) innit
T: (Laughs) looks like it (.) yes
P: I’ve seen some things (.) but eh (.) I see (3) don’t see any problems there (.) em (.) have you got taps & everything with it or are you putting these on
T: [yes (.) taps (.)
That’s the main reason I’m having it replaced ( indecipherable utterance)
P: no (.) once they go they go there’s not a lot you can do about it (.) right (.) you’re looking
at (2) roughly a mornings work (.) eh. (.) bit of pipe.. it’d be say (.) won’t cost you more than
(3) 45 quid (.) that’s fitted
T: mhm...
P: I suppose you want it done straight away
T: yeh (.) soonish (.) I’m a teacher so it’s easier to get it done just now when I’m around than
P: where d’you teach?
T: Ferndown
P: oh yeh (.) me wife teaches at um Heatherlands down there
T: I mean I’m here next week (.) until the 23rd
P: umm I think I could fit you in Saturday morning (2) that be any good
T: that’d be great
P: right if we make it Saturday morning (2) if there’s any alteration (.) what (.) what it is I’m going up to Basingstoke (.) tomorrow um I don’t know what how long I’m going to be there but hopefully it’ll be just the day and then I’ll let you know and go on from there if I don’t phone you fine Saturday morning (1) if if eh
T: what kind of time would you be here Saturday morning
P: eh I spose you want a lay in
T: no I don’t mind (.)
P: [oh
T: I just want to know
P: half nine ten o’clock (.) turning your water off is (.) it’s all up there is it?
T: yes (.) it’s just at the front
P: yeh no problem it all turns off (.) that’s what I’m saying
T: yeh
P: OK that’s lovely

Transcription code:
[simultaneous utterance
(2) 2 second pause (.) short pause

This is a normal use of language for informal conversation. You are, perhaps, able to imagine this conversation and are thinking 'yup, that's how people speak'.  However, when we see it written down it is clear that it is ‘bad English’.

Here's the point.  If this is the stimulus through which children learn to acquire language, then how has any idea of grammatical or syntactical structure been able to develop at all? How, according to the stimulus we received when learning language, did we learn to recognise that while ‘what did you do’ is grammatically correct, ‘what who do you think will say’ is not? How can children acquire such a sophisticated grasp of grammar, simply by listening to people speak ungrammatically?

The idea of the Poverty of the Stimulus has been criticised in recent times.  Cognitive scientists have argued, for example, that adults tend to modify language when talking to children, and speak more 'correctly' than they might otherwise.  Chomsky himself has tended to view such oppositions with exasperation though.  You can read an article in which Chomsky defends the Poverty of the Stimulus argument here.  What do you think?

5) Brainstuff

It has been discovered that there are certain areas of the human brain which appear to have been pre-programmed for processing language. Broca’s area has been found to affect the ways in which we control grammar and syntax. Where we find individuals who have experienced some kind of brain damage in this area, their language changes to the extent that although words are understood, and their meaning is clear, they are not constructed into any proper sentences.

Wernicke’s area, a little below Broca’s area, seems to control our capacity for comprehension, and construction of meaning in language. Were people suffer from damage to this area they will tend to speak in sentences which make grammatical sense, but in all other ways appear to be nonsense.

We can see the effects of damage to these different areas by looking at recordings of interviews with people who have aphasia or either Broca’s or Wrernicke’s area.

An example of someone demonstrating symptoms of Broca's Aphasia

An example of someone demonstrating symptoms of Wernicke's Aphasia

The sense of frustration in the participants is frequently clear. What is also clear, is that if there are parts of the human brain specifically set aside for controlling language function, it is difficult to argue that language is merely a process learned through socialisation.

6) The FOXP2 Gene

Finally, in more recent years scientists have discovered the FOXP2 gene – a gene which appears to impact upon our capacity to use language, and which weakens as we move from childhood into maturity. Evidence has been accumulating for the significance of this gene in the production of language, and there have been studies (like those by Myrna Gopnik) which have shown that where families exhibit a deficit in this gene, hereditary language problems tend to follow.

You can read more about this gene, and the research which has been conducted on it, here.

In conclusion

Chomsky’s theories of a 'inate' disposition for language are not uncontested. The most eloquent argument in favour of it has been Steven Pinker’s bestselling The Language Instinct (1994).

It is always worth, though, exploring alternative arguments. One of the most eloquent argument which considers alternative theories – the match, if you like, for Pinker’s book – is Geoffrey Sampson’s The ‘Language Instinct’ Debate (2003).


• Finch, G. (2001). How to Study Linguistics, 2nd edn.. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

• Finch, G. (2003). Word of Mouth: A New Introduction to Language and Communication. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

• Cook, V. and Newson, M. (2007). Chomsky’s Universal Grammar: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell

• Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct. London: Penguin

• Gopnik, M. (1999). Familial Language Impairment: More English Evidence. Folia Phoniatr Logop, (51:1-2). Pp. 5 - 19

• Sampson, G. (2005) The ‘Language Instinct’ Debate. Continuum International Publishing Group.

• Allen, S.R. (2010) Chomsky’s Other Revolution [Internet]. Available from: [Accessed 13 May 2013]

• Lateralisation of Language [Internet]. Available from: [Accessed 13 May 2013]

• McWhorter, J. (2004) Exploring the English language. Available from: [Accessed 6 March 2013]

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