Innateness Hypothesis

It is an indisputable fact that every normal human being has the ability to talk and acquire any natural language without special training or carefully selected and sequenced linguistic input.


Every normal human being achieves this remarkable feat quite rapidly, even though his linguistic experiences may vary considerably from those of other human beings. Furthermore, every child, whether he is English, Italian, or Japanese, has been proved to follow much the same stages in language development, constantly forming and testing hypotheses as to what is grammatical and permissible in the language that he happens to be exposed to. Moreover, we are all aware that a three-year-old child (or even younger) cannot perform arithmetic calculations or understand the spatial and temporal relations such as up and down or yesterday and in two days’ time that adults take for granted, yet he can, most of the time, use adult-like vocabulary and grammatical constructions he has seldom encountered. Given all this, we could contend that language ability is the child’s ‘biological birthright’, to quote Pinker (1994: 19). According to him and many psychologists and linguists, human beings are genetically “prewired” or predetermined to acquire language—a view that has sparked considerable debate but has eventually become the norm in psycholinguistics and cognitive psychology. In the present study, we will be concerned with this view, often called the innateness hypothesis, discussing and shedding light on the evidence held to corroborate it.


That human language is a mystery and can spring serendipitous surprises on the expert and layman alike is even more acutely felt when one realises that no one has ever contrived to simulate it or build a ‘Great Automatic Grammatizator’, as Mr Knipe (a character in a story by Roald Dahl) would have us believe (see Aitchison, 1989). Technology has helped us set foot on the moon and furnished us with many a facility such as computers that play chess and do innumerable mind-boggling calculations in the twinkling of an eye. Nevertheless, all these achievements are a far cry from our language ability, for language is a unique faculty that nature has endowed us with. This question of whether language is a product of nature or due to conscious learning or nurture, often referred to as the nature-nurture controversy, has loomed largest for centuries, and it was some decades ago, in 1959, that this issue resurfaced—when Noam Chomsky wrote a critique of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour, dismissing the latter’s views on behaviourism as irrelevant to the nature of language.

In the 1950s, behaviourism, a school of thought inculcated by J. Watson and B. F. Skinner, reigned supreme, and under its sway terms like “mind,” “innate,” “know,” and “think” were unacceptable, if not downright pernicious. According to them, language is solely a kind of behaviour, a set of habits accumulated over the years, and the stimulus-response learning evinced by rats pressing buttons can, with slight modifications, be applied to and reinforced in human beings. All that is necessary is to provide the necessary stimuli that will prompt the speaker, i.e., the child, to engage in talking. Skinner’s claim to grasp the nature of language was predicated upon his experiments with rats and pigeons and, more specifically, upon two principles that he followed. Firstly, the activities that the animals engaged in must form carefully graduated steps and, secondly, the animals must be rewarded for every correct response. This type of learning was called operant conditioning, that is, ‘training by means of voluntary responses’ (Aitchison, 1989: 8). Apparently, Skinner lost sight of two fundamental facts about language, which Pinker (1994: 22), throwing in his lot with Chomsky, succinctly explains:


First, virtually every sentence that a person utters or understands is a brand-new combination of words, appearing for the first time in the history of the universe. Therefore a language cannot be a repertoire of responses; the brain must contain a recipe or program that can build an unlimited set of sentences out of a finite list of words. That program may be called a mental grammar (not to be confused with pedagogical or stylistic “grammars,” which are just guides to the etiquette of written prose). The second fundamental fact is that children develop these complex grammars rapidly and without formal instruction and grow up to give consistent interpretations to novel sentence constructions that they have never before encountered. Therefore, he argued, children must innately be equipped with a plan common to the grammars of all languages, a Universal Grammar, that tells them how to distill the syntactic patterns out of the speech of their parents.


A new era began. Chomsky attacked the “Standard Social Science Model,” which placed emphasis on cultural environment as a determining factor in educating and forging the human psyche (Pinker, 1994), and introduced the idea of language as a blueprint built-in to the human mind and the child as a hypothesis maker who ‘has internalized a system of rules that relate sound and meaning in a particular way’ (Chomsky, 1972a: 26, cited in Aitchison, 1989: 92). It is these rules that allow a human being to ‘make infinite use of finite media’, as Wilhelm Von Humboldt once said, thus presaging Chomsky (Pinker, 1994: 84). As Pinker notes, ‘[i]n a discrete combinatorial system like language, there can be an unlimited number of completely distinct combinations with an infinite range of properties’ (ibid.: 84). Therefore, a human being can come out with whatever crosses her mind, without having to regurgitate words or constructions repeated in the past. For example, “Someone, whose name escapes me, gave me a piece of chalk and kicked me in the loins” or “My uncle Peter, whose seventieth birthday party I attended last Monday, was run over by a car yesterday.” Chomsky’s famous example, Colorless green ideas sleep furiously, shows that we can come up with improbable and nonsense word sequences without doing violence to grammaticality. 


Another point that Chomsky emphasises is that language is not a sequence of words strung together to make sentences; rather, it makes use of structure-dependent operations. Let us illustrate this by showing that, say, the formation of questions in English is not a matter of adding or moving around particular words or phrases in the sentence but ascribing mental labels such as Noun Phrase (NP) or Verb Phrase (VP) to groups of words. Suppose that a child hears the following sentence:

• Paul has got a new car

and its related question:

• Has Paul got a new car?

He would guess that there is a rule for the formation of questions in English stipulating, “In order to form a question, find the word has and bring it to the front.” On the face of it, it seems that this rule is right since it has generated sentence 2, which is a well-formed English question. However, this superficial rule soon collapses, if we consider sentences 3 and 4:


• I am sick

• *Has I am sick? (The * is used to show that the sentence is ungrammatical).


Obviously, making questions in English does not involve bringing has or any other word to the front of the sentence; it requires looking at the internal structure of a given sentence and recognising that words belong to distinct categories such as verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, auxiliary verbs […] and these words can be assigned roles such as subject, object, agent, etc. In this light, any sentence can easily yield a question form:


• The girl who was stung by a bee yesterday is the tallest girl I’ve ever seen.

• Is the girl who was stung by a bee yesterday the tallest girl I’ve ever seen?

Amazingly, all children know that language is structure-dependent and never produce sentences like 7:

• *Was the girl who stung by a bee yesterday is the tallest girl I’ve ever seen?


According to Chomsky et al., children do not make such mistakes because they are innately “programmed” for language. All they have to do is set the switch on to a particular language (e.g., Spanish or English) and adjust the principles of Universal Grammar (UG) to the parameters or requirements of each language. What is more, every child seems to know facts about language which she has never been explicitly taught or exposed to by her parents. One such example is her ability to interpret sentences containing the pronouns he or she. For instance:


a) The Ninja Turtlei danced while hei ate pizza

b) Hei danced while the Ninja Turtlej ate pizza

c) While hei/j danced, the Ninja Turtlei ate pizza

(these examples are taken from Bloom, 1993: 366)


In sentence 8a, the pronoun he may be taken to refer to the Ninja Turtle, i.e., the Ninja Turtle and he are coreferential. In sentence 8b, though, this is hardly the case, since we cannot interpret he as referring to the Ninja Turtle. As for 8c, it is possible but not necessary to regard he as referring to the Ninja Turtle.


Other evidence corroborating the claim that the child is equipped with a Language Acquisition Device (LAD) or ‘Universal Grammar’ (UG) is that he is aware that it is possible to use the contracted form wanna in 9b but not in 10b.


a) Who do you want to see?


b) Who do you wanna see?


10) a) Who do you want to see you?

      b) *Who do you wanna see you?


In this case, notwithstanding the fact that speakers have a strong tendency to use the contracted form wanna, children are never led up the garden path in assuming that it is a verb in itself; on the contrary, they exhibit knowledge, albeit unconsciously, of deep structure (for further details, see Aitchison, 1989; Bloom, 1993; Pinker, 1994).


Besides, children seem to be aware of the existence of the pro-drop parameter, which is set appropriately and consistently in a given language, for example English, a non-pro-drop language. Let us see the following sentences:


11) a) It is raining cats and dogs

     b) *Is raining cats and dogs

12) a) It seems like a very good idea to me

     b) Seems like a very good idea to me


Once again, the child is proved to be a ‘grammatical genius’ (Pinker, 1994: 19), as she can ‘determine in which environments null subjects’ are permissible (Roeper, T. & Wesenborn, J. in Frazier, L. & J. De Villiers, 1990: 150). Apparently, she knows that the ‘dummy’ subject It is necessary in 11a but not in 12b, even though she is aware that English requires the use of pronouns in, say, declaratives or questions, which stands in stark contrast to Italian, whereby pronouns are not necessary, as in 13 and 14:


13) Piove

      ‘It is raining’

14) Parlo Italiano

      ‘I speak Italian’


Another major premise underlying the innateness hypothesis is the belief that language ability is separate from other cognitive abilities. As was hinted at in the introduction, a three-year-old cannot make calculations, tie his shoelaces, or understand the difference between less and more, but she can speak quite fluently. Chomsky (1972: 100, cited in Aitchison, 1989: 18) contends that only if someone is brain damaged will his language ability be impaired:



      If some individual were to restrict himself largely to a definite set of

      linguistic patterns, to a set of habitual responses to stimulus

      configurations…we would regard him as mentally defective, as being less

      human than animal.


If human beings used their intelligence to learn language just as they would to acquire any other skill, such as driving a car or solving a math problem, why is it that they master language so early whereas it takes them so long to fend for themselves or go to college? The linguist Geoffrey Sampson is far from convincing when he says:


Individual humans inherit no ‘knowledge of language’…they succeed in mastering the language spoken in their environment only by applying the same general intelligence which they use to grapple with all the other diverse and unpredictable problems that come their way (Sampson, 1980: 178, cited in Aitchison, 1989: 20).


However, a caveat is called for at this juncture. By holding that language ability is ‘innate’, we do not assert that it is ready for use. It goes without saying that the environment in which the child grows up makes an important contribution, as we shall see later on. What we mean—and this is the concern of the present study—is that language is, or is most likely to be, innate because, inter alia, children’s output is as often as not more sophisticated than the simplified and, at times, ambiguous input they get from their parents (what has been dubbed the “poverty-of-the-stimulus” argument).


Undoubtedly, just because language is held to be an ‘instinct’ (Pinker, 1994), we cannot say that there is such a thing as a ‘language gene’ (ibid.). Nevertheless, it has been proved that our language ability is seated in the brain, and more specifically in the left hemisphere (see Aitchison, 1989). Furthermore, the sections of the brain involved in speech production and comprehension are separate. On the one hand, there is Broca’s area, situated in front of and above the left ear, which is involved in speech production; and on the other, Wernicke’s area, found in the region around and under the left ear, which is involved in speech comprehension. It is noteworthy that, while damage to Broca’s area leads to problems in speech production and damage to Wernicke’s area destroys speech comprehension, damage to other parts of the brain does not usually affect language, as the Phineas Gage case shows (ibid.). In other words, one could surmise that our brain has evolved to cope with the “exigencies” of language.


This becomes manifest in the cases of three isolated children, Genie, Chelsea, and Isabelle, which lend support, albeit tentative for many, to the existence of a ‘critical period’, i.e., that language ability ceases at 13-14 years of age. Quite a few strands of arguments have been proposed in favour of a ‘critical period’; we will dwell upon two: the aforementioned cases of the three children and the synchrony of the critical period with lateralisation.


Genie had been confined to a small room for almost 12 years when she was found at the age of 14. She was punished by her father whenever she made any sounds or noise and she was always ‘harnessed into an infant’s potty chair’ (Curtiss et al., 1974: 529, cited in Aitchison, 1989: 86). As one would expect, she was totally without language. Nevertheless, she learnt to speak in a rudimentary way and progressed at a slower rate than a normal child. Many would argue, though, that it was by virtue of her brain damage that she failed to acquire language. 


Chelsea is a different case. She is an adult with hearing problems who began learning language in her early thirties. She, like Genie, is quite good at learning new words but syntax seems to be beyond her ken. For example, she says: “The woman is bus the going” or “banana the eat” (Aitchison, 1989: 87). Again, one could ascribe her poor syntax, not to her late start, but to her hearing problems.


Pertaining to Isabelle, we should note that she was the illegitimate child of a deaf mute. She was bereft of speech and produced only a croaking sound when found at the age of six and a half years. Once found, though, she progressed very rapidly and ‘covered in two years the learning that ordinarily occupies six years. By the age of eight and one half Isabelle was not easily distinguishable from ordinary children of her age’ (Brown, 1958: 192, cited in Aitchison, 1989: 85). Her case clearly shows that her “young” brain managed to overcome her problems and acquire language normally.


Let us now consider the claim that the critical period coincides with lateralisation, that is, ‘the specialization of language to one side of the brain’ (Aitchison, 1989: 88). Lenneberg believes that lateralisation occurs between 2 and 14, thus supposedly proving that the brain is capable of acquiring language only during this time span. But he is wrong. Lateralisation occurs in the first few months of life, as even babies show evidence of it.


In some respects, though, Lenneberg has drawn very interesting conclusions about the nature of language in his book, The Biological Foundations of Language. Specifically, he argues that language emerges even though it is not necessary. At the age of one or two years, the baby is still looked after by her parents—which should obviate the need to communicate with a view to satisfying her “concrete” needs—yet this does not preclude her from engaging in talking. If the aim of language was to help children survive, ‘it would emerge at different times in different cultures, and this would lead to vastly different levels of language skills’ (Aitchison, 1989: 67). But this is hardly the case. ‘Language emerges at about the same time in children all over the world’ (ibid.: 66). 


Besides, it is patent that language appears without there being any conscious decision on the child’s part. Children do not decide to learn language; nevertheless, a child may set her heart on learning how to drive a car or how to play chess.


Another aspect of biologically triggered behaviour touched upon by Lenneberg is the fact that no external event induces the behaviour, i.e., language. We cannot say that the emergence of language is due to a change in the child’s environment. After all, no one has ever made a baby talk. As Aitchison (1989: 68) insightfully remarks, ‘[a]n inner biological clock is ticking away, set for the right time’. It should be reiterated that, although no particular event causes language behaviour, the environment in which a child grows up must be “rich” and stimulating.


Apart from this, the fact that language ability is not honed by dint of direct teaching attests to its ‘innateness’. However, most parents try to teach their children to speak, and they do this by means of ‘overt correction’ and unconscious ‘expansions’ (ibid.: 69). Let us see the following example, where the father overtly corrects the child:


Child: Want other one spoon, daddy.

Father: You mean, you want the other spoon.

Child: Yes, I want other one spoon, please daddy.

Father: Can you say ‘the other spoon’?

Child: Other…one…spoon.

Father: Say ‘other’.

Child: Other.

Father: ‘Spoon’.

Child: Spoon.

Father: ‘Other spoon’.

Child: Other…spoon. Now give me other one spoon? (Braine, 1971: 161, cited in Aitchison, 1989: 70).


What is more, overt correction may put paid to a child’s progress because children are not parrots learning language in a mechanistic way. As Pinker (1994: 39) notes, ‘let us do away with the folklore that parents teach their children language’.


Equally unsuccessful are ‘expansions’. An adult usually ‘expands’ the child’s utterances. For example, when the child says, “The boy is run,” the mother is apt to expand this to “Yes, the boy is running,” instead of attending to the truth and content of the child’s utterance, saying, “Yes, I can see him” or “No, the boy is standing.” An experiment conducted by Cazden showed that children exposed to frequent expansions are less advanced than other children.


Finally, according to Lenneberg, there are some stages or ‘milestones’ as language develops, and these are usually related to age and other aspects of development. We will only briefly mention some of the developmental stages that children follow. First and foremost, crying is the stage that all human beings go through. We could say that it constitutes a kind of instinctive communication. Later on, at approximately six weeks, the cooing stage begins. Cooing is universal and may help babies gain control over their vocal folds. By around six months, the baby reaches the babbling stage, when she gives the impression of stringing together syllables such as “mama,” “papapa,” etc.


When the baby reaches the twelfth month of his life, he begins to utter single words, such as “da” (‘doll’), “uf” (‘dog’), etc. By the time he celebrates his second birthday, he has reached the two-word stage. Later come the inflections, such as the progressive –ing, plural –s, the copula am, is, are, the articles a and the, the 3rd person singular –s, past tense –d, and so on. At the age of 5 he is deemed to be a fluent speaker, though his language acquisition is still continuing, albeit more slowly. Experiments have shown that children of 5 or 6 cannot understand the difference between “The rabbit is nice to eat” and “The rabbit is eager to eat” (Aitchison, 1989: 83-84). It is not until the age of 10 that the child’s language resembles mature speech.


In conclusion, we could say that language seems to evince the characteristics of a biological programme set to begin at the right time. In the light of the evidence we have expatiated upon, it is reasonable to assert that human beings are equipped with a Language Acquisition Device (LAD), which makes hypotheses about language and almost always produces the right linguistic output, even in the absence of explicit input from their environment. Furthermore, language behaviour emerges when least called for, and follows the same stages all over the world. Steven Pinker has certainly made a probe of this ‘language instinct’ that we are all endowed with, when he admits that [k]nowing about the ubiquity of complex language across individuals and cultures and the single mental design underlying them all, no speech seems foreign to me, even when I cannot understand a word…I imagine seeing through the rhythms to the structures underneath, and sense that we all have the same minds (Pinker, 1994: 430).



  • Aitchison, J. 1989. The Articulate Mammal. London: Routledge.
  • Crain, S. 1993. Language Acquisition in the Absence of Experience, in Bloom (ed.), Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
  • Pinker, S. 1994. The Language Instinct. London: Penguin.
  • Roeper, T. and Weissenborn, J. 1990. How to make Parameters work: Comments on Valian, in Lyn Frazier and J. De Villiers (eds.). Language Processing and Language Acquisition. Dordrecht: Kluwer.


Source: Dr. Dimitris Thanasoulas