Nativist Approach to language learning

Briefly discuss the Nativist Approach to language learning.

Answer: Nativism is a current concept rooted in innatism. It is grounded in the fields of genetics, cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics. The advocates of nativism are mainly philosophers working in the field of cognitive psychology or psycholinguistics: most notably Noam Chomsky and Jerry Fodor. The nativist’s general objection against empiricism is that: the human mind of a newborn child is no tabula rasa at all, but equipped with an internal structure. Nativist Approach to language learning

This generative approach to child language or the nativist approach asserts that knowledge is innately determined. Innateness hypotheses gained support from several sides. Eric Lenneberg proposed that language is species —specific behavior and language learning mechanism are biologically determined.

homsky claims that children are born with a language acquisition device (LAD) in their brains. They are born with the major principles of language in place, but with many parameters to set. According to nativist theory, when the young child is exposed to a language, their LAD makes it possible for them to set the parameters and deduce the grammatical principles, because the principles are innate. Mcneill and other Chomskyan disciples believe that without postulating such a device it is impossible to understand how children master their native language in such a short time in spite of the highly abstract nature of the rules. This achievement would be particularly difficult without LAD in view of the fact that the everyday speech to which children are exposed is full of irregularities and defiance’s. According to the nativist, it would be impossible for a child to learn the abstract system of a language from such degenerate data unless he had some prior knowledge about the general character of natural languages. They argue that since children must be equipped to learn any languages as a native language, the prior knowledge embodied in LAD must constitute that which is common to all languages, in other words, LAD must contain language universals. Universal Grammar specifies the allowable mental representations and operations that all languages are confined to use.


Mark Baker’s work, The Atoms of Language (2004) presents, arguments that there are not only certain “parameters” that are innate switches in our LAD, but we are very close to the point where these parameters could be put together in a “periodic table of languages” as determined by their parameter features. Baker’s work is very controversial, however, because he has argued that principles and parameters do not have biological or sociological origins, but instead were created by God. Chomsky does make it clear in a reply to John Maynard Smith that he does believe that the innate capacity for language can be explained by biology when he states that language “… can be studied in the manner of other biological systems.”

In addition, there are significant studies in biogenetics that strongly suggest that the genetic factors that combine to build the brain contain redundant systems for recognizing patterns of both sight and sound.

One idea central to the Chomskyan view is the idea of Universal Grammar, which posits that all languages have the same basic underlying structure, and that specific languages have rules that transform these underlying structures into the specific patterns found in given languages. This is important in 20th Century philosophy because it directly counters Wittgenstein’s key assertion that grammar is just surface and arbitrary, like the rules of a chess game.

Another Chomskyan argument is that without a propensity for language, human infants would be unable to learn such complete speech patterns in a natural human environment where complete sentences are the exception. This is sometimes mischaracterized as the poverty of the stimulus argument. Psychologists such as Catherine Snow at Harvard, who study parent-child interaction, point out that children do not have to deduce the principles of language from impoverished and ungrammatical scraps of talk. Many studies of child directed speech or CDS have shown that speech to young children is slow, clear, grammatical, and very repetitious, rather like traditional language lessons.