Is the development of language a case of nature or nurture?

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Why is it humans cannot speak to animals and vice versa? Is this inability a result of specific genes missing in our DNA, or because we've simply never needed to acquire this skill? The basic premise of nature versus nurture has stirred up arguments regarding linguistic development for decades.
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Whether it is the garbled ramblings of a one-year-old or an expertly delivered lecture from a University professor, language is integral to how we convey our thoughts and feelings. It’s also a conduit for passing on knowledge. When was the last time your favourite song provoked a strong emotional reaction or a powerful speech moved you? Language can motivate, inspire, and oppress people in ways we never thought imaginable. With language being such a significant tool for humans, is it something naturally ingrained in all of us, or does our environment dictate the act of learning?

 

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WHAT IS NATURE OR NURTURE IN LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT?

Nature is how we develop as a result of genetic inheritance and other biological factors. Eye colour is a prime example of nature—predetermined genes are responsible. Environmental influences cannot alter the colour of your eyes on a permanent basis; it is an attribute you are born with.

Nurture is the acquisition of traits through experience and learning after we are conceived. We may not be born with a love for a particular type of music or religious affiliation, but through environmental factors, we could develop an affinity for subsects of either. There is not a pre-coded gene that decides who we choose to worship or the beliefs we develop.

Both of the examples provided for nature and nurture cover the concept in its basic form, but this principle difference has been the subject of discussion since the Elizabethan period. The origins of language and how humans evolved to develop it as a means of communication have culminated in fierce academic debate since the 1950s, all the way into the new millennium.

 

The origins of language and how humans evolved to develop it as a means of communication have culminated in fierce academic debate since the 1950s, all the way into the new millennium.

 

WHERE DID THE NATURE VERSUS NURTURE DEBATE START?

Scholars have argued for and against both sides, determined that one takes precedence over the other. Their dispute is simple; one of the two causes must be attributed to how human behavioural traits are developed, otherwise other mammals would have developed similar advanced characteristics. What is it that makes humans different from our hominid cousins, and why have they not developed a more advanced scope of language? The answer to this question in particular led two prominent theorists to go head-to-head over the idea of nature versus nurture, bringing the debate centre stage.

 

NOAM CHOMSKY

Born December 7th, 1928, Noam Chomsky is an American who many describe as the “father of modern linguistics”. Influenced by the likes of Rudolf Rocker and George Orwell, Chomsky’s theory of nature as a precursor for the development of language started with a published review of B.F. Skinner’s 1957 book Verbal Behavior. The open critique called into question Skinner’s stance on language, claiming he ignored the role of human creativity in linguistics. Unbeknownst to Chomsky, his review would elevate his status as an intellectual within academic circles.

Throughout his career, he would hold many prominent and influential positions in Universities, linguistic societies, and even contracted research with the military. Despite some of his theories failing to operate on a practical level, namely his projects with the military, Chomsky is an incredibly accomplished cognitive scientist.

 

FREDERIC SKINNER

As you can probably imagine, rival theorists don’t take kindly to having their work so publicly criticised. However, it was Skinner’s lack of retort that caused peers to be slow to adopt his ideas. Not only did he fail to address any of the points raised by Chomsky, but some of his theories lacked experimental evidence, something Chomsky had in his favour. Does that mean B.F. Skinner’s work is the weaker link concerning language development?

Chomsky’s criticism should be viewed as a positive event. Few intellectuals take the time to read, understand, and critique other scholars’ work unless they feel there is some grounding in the theory. Skinner developed and pioneered exciting new scientific tools for the time, looking to prove that human action was dependent on consequences of a previous action. His behavioural theory was far more profound than a simple case of positive and negative reinforcement, but the underlying principle remained the same—even the most complex behaviours could be broken down and identified as a result of environmental factors.

 

His behavioural theory was far more profound than a simple case of positive and negative reinforcement, but the underlying principle remained the same—even the most complex behaviours could be broken down and identified as a result of environmental factors.

 

IS IT AS SIMPLE AS ONE CLEAR WINNER?

Language, the human mind, and the way we behave would be simple to understand if we could attribute the inner workings to one theory. Fortunately for us, science, theories, and our examination of the world is a never-ending process. Increasingly, there is a notion that it is a combination of the two, both nature and nurture, that supports our linguistic development.

The arguments on both sides still hold validity though. For nature, there has since been the identification of a specific language gene, FOXP2. Research has shown that mutation of FOXP2 causes individuals to suffer from language or speech disorders as a result of disruption to the central nervous system.

If we use someone who suffers from this mutation as an example of nature, then nurture can be used in kind to demonstrate how we can develop linguistic abilities far beyond what our genes naturally allow. Although the individual in question would never possess the natural linguistic ability of an individual with a normal FOXP2 gene, the ability to learn as a result of one’s environment can help overcome some of this adversity.

 

THE TWO ARE INTRINSICALLY LINKED

If we rewind the clock to the initial conception of language, it is likely the development of our first words as a species were born out of a combination of the two aspects, nature and nurture. Whether it was the need to warn others of an impending threat—a daily occurrence in the times of prehistoric man—or a desire to pass on information from those with superior genes, it appears nurture builds on a preexisting biological foundation in order to advance communication between communities, despite any differences in genes.

 

THE FUTURE OF LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT

It is less a case of which one provides the core of language development, but rather how the two contribute to the ever-evolving entity that is language. You only need to look at society’s use of emojis in modern communication to see how strong environmental factors are in influencing the way we interact. Whether Chomsky and Skinner’s camps will ever agree to disagree remains to be seen. One summary we can be sure of is this; both nature and nurture will continue to shape our language development, and as such, the landscape of language will undoubtedly be very different in the future from what it is today.