Does evidence support the argument that children are biologically programmed to learn language?

Authors Avatar

Developmental Essay                                                                Page

Does evidence support the argument that children are biologically “programmed” to learn language?

Developmental and psycholinguistic theorists are constantly contrasting views on how children develop and acquire language. Some theorists believe that it is purely innate,  or as Pinker (1994) suggest that it is an 'instinct'. Other theorists suggests that we acquire language through imitation, or operant conditioning Skinner,1957( as cited in Radford & Govier, 1995). Social interaction also has a great influence on language acquisition.

        There are many theorists who believe that language is biological. As humans, we are the only species to have a communication system which is extremely complex. (Elman, 1996, cited in MacWhinney, 1999). The Biological approach suggests that language is innate, that we are born with a specific type of genome which allows us to speak. Research has been carried out investigating the relationship into language and specific genes.  The research has shown that although there is no specific genome for language, the interaction between different genes help participate in the production of language (Greenspan,1995, as cited in MacWhinney , 1999.)

        When discussing whether or not language is derived from a biological process, it is important to understand all the factors involved. The most comprehensible approach for language development is that of the behaviorists. Although this is not evidence to support that children are biologically programmed, it does provide an understanding to where the key theorists, Noam Chomsky, developed his ideas.

Interactionist approaches, focus on the social context of a situation, and argue that language development must be studied with social factors included. The act of reinforcement and imitation, is a key element of the behaviorist approach of language acquisition. Skinner, 1957 argues that children develop language through the reinforcement that he/she receives when using the correct word or sound. Skinner, 1957 wrote in his book, Verbal Behaviour  that language consisted of a stimuli containing different attributes about a situation. By the response of the stimuli, it calls up the organism, and therefore by reinforcing the stimulus this develops their consequences. For instance, a child looking at a “dog” acts as the object which is the stimulus, thus the child says “dog” which responds with the parent saying “clever boy”(Cook & Newson, 2001)  Through Operant conditioning Skinner believed that the most significant part of the theory was the ability to learn through experience (Radford and Govier, 1995). According to this theory, the random baby cooing and babbling or imitative sounds voiced by infants are progressively shaped into words by parental attention and praise. This develops through selective reinforcement, praising the random sounds or when they sound most word-like. The verbal responses are shaped by the adults or primary caregivers, who for an amount of time withholds rewards until the sound of the word matches the adult. (Skinner, 1957)

Join now!

Skinners view on language acquisition is the same as his views on child behaviour, similar to that of Bandura, as he suggests that imitation takes a large role in behaviour and also language acquisition. (Smith, Cowie & Blades, 2003)    

Evidence that supports this theory are those that are with us everyday, as children  learn the same language and accent as those in their social groups, along with learning new words after reproducing. Clarke-Stewart, 1973 produced a study in which it investigated the different vocabulary sizes by looking a mothers and children who talk a lot to each ...

This is a preview of the whole essay