How children learn language is one of the oldest controversies in linguistics. But speaking may just be a matter of grasping the relationship between things
By Freddy Jackson Brown and Nic Hooper
SIXTY years ago, renowned Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner published one of the most important books ever written about language. Verbal Behavior offered a comprehensive account of our unique capacity for symbolic communication, arguing forcefully over nearly 500 pages that it was learned rather than innate. The culmination of years of work, it was certainly influential – although not in the way Skinner anticipated. Rather than propelling his ideas into the limelight, it sparked a counter-revolution that catapulted a rival theory to worldwide acclaim.
Now, though, that rival theory is in decline and some of Skinner’s ideas are making an unexpected comeback. In recent years, psychologists have discovered that language really is learned, emerging from some general skills that are taught to children in the first few years of life. Surprisingly, these are not grand intellectual feats. Rather they can appear almost trivial – as simple as grasping the relationships between things, such as a large ball and a small one.
The debate over the extent to which language is learned or innate is one of the most enduring in linguistics. Most children start to speak around age 2, and within a few short years are proficient, often prolific, users of language. Do they simply listen and learn, or are they born with some language facility that is filled in by the specifics of their native tongue? Learning is obviously involved – children pick up the language(s) they are brought up with.