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In this lesson, learn how we develop language according to the nativist perspective.

Discover Noam Chomsky’s idea of the language acquisition device (LAD) and its role in this process.

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Introduction and Definition

Imagine a young child just beginning to talk. Let’s call this child Will. At first, Will could only make sounds, but he soon learned to form those sounds into meaningful words.

Now he’s starting to put the words together to form sentences and communicate in a more complex way. What processes are driving Will’s language development?In this lesson, we’ll consider how language development occurs according to the nativist theory. The nativist perspective is a biologically based theory, which argues that humans are pre-programmed with the innate ability to develop language. In other words, Will was born with the ability to develop language.

Noam Chomsky’s Ideas

The main theorist associated with the nativist perspective is Noam Chomsky. Chomsky is a strong advocate for the nativist theory of language development. Before Chomsky’s time, language development was largely accepted as being purely a cultural phenomenon that is based solely on imitation.

To illustrate this let’s think about Will again. Will has learned to make sounds, associate sounds with words that have specific meaning, and is beginning to put the words together to form sentences. According to the popular belief during Chomsky’s time, he has accomplished all of this by imitating the speech of those around him.Chomsky felt differently. He believed that greater attention should be given to children’s innate ability to learn language. He came up with the idea of the Language Acquisition Device (LAD).

The LAD is a language organ that is hardwired into our brains at birth. Because of this, we are born with the ability to understand and develop language. Once a child is exposed to language, the LAD activates. It allows them to understand the rules of whatever language they are exposed to.Let’s consider Will’s language development using Chomsky’s theory. Will was born with an ability to understand language.

He begins to form sounds in an attempt to communicate with those around him and his LAD activates. Words and sentences follow quickly because he already has an innate knowledge of the basic rules of language.

Pros and Cons

So, are we born with the ability to communicate through language or is it learned after we’re born? This is a question that linguists have debated for a long time.There are arguments for the nativist view of language development. For example, the nativist theory is supported by the idea of universal grammar. Universal grammar means that all languages have the same basic structures and are only transformed into different languages by specific rules. Another argument in support of the nativist theory is the idea that without an innate predisposition for language, infants would be unable to learn the complex speech patterns that surround them.

Arguments against the nativist theory exist as well. For example, the idea of universal grammar may not hold up among all of the languages spoken throughout the world. Another argument against the nativist theory is the fact that language does not develop as quickly as the nativist theorists predict that it should. Instead, it develops in a more gradual process and is shaped by the reactions of others.

Researchers have used ideas such as these in an attempt to discredit the theories developed by Chomsky. The nativist theory is still a controversial idea, and many linguists do not believe that language is as innate as the theory suggests. However, the nativist perspective has caused us to consider the possibility that there is some biological component to language development that needs to be investigated further.

Lesson Summary

The nativist theory is a biologically based theory, which argues that humans are pre-programmed with the innate ability to develop language. Noam Chomsky is the main theorist associated with the nativist perspective.

He developed the idea of the Language Acquisition Device (LAD). This is a language organ that is hard-wired into our brains at birth. The LAD activates when we are exposed to spoken language and allows us to understand and develop language from the time that we are born.The nativist theory is controversial. Many linguists feel that language development is not as innate as the theory suggests.

However, the nativist perspective has brought some consideration to the fact that there may be a biological component to language development.

Learning Outcomes

When you have completed this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Recognize Noam Chomsky as the father of the nativist theory of language
  • Remember what the Language Acquisition Device is
  • Compare the arguments against the theory

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