Nativist Theory V.S. Social Interaction: Can we put the debate to rest?

It is interesting to see how many of the same arguments and discussions come around over and over again throughout time, usually with different names, but the same theories or disputes nevertheless.

One such is the nativist theory versus social interaction theory in regards to language development.  We see these terms bandied about lately, and there is much discussion, but neither theory is a new one.  In fact, the nativist theory has been around since at least the 1950s when it gained wide interest as it was discussed by Noam Chomsky.  In this theory, all human beings are hard-wired for language in and of itself and the different languages we see are molded by the societies children grow up in.  It is all based upon a Universal Grammar, and all the languages we hear are basically subsets of this language grammar.  On the other hand, the social interaction theory purports that children’s language is formed by the exposure to and molding of their language skills in their home communities and families.  Parents and others praise the child’s attempts and overall mold the child’s simple sounds into a complex language structure.

At one point, this discussion would have been termed “nature versus nurture” and many other pairings, but all basically state the same issues.  Were we, as humans, born with an innate ability for language that was shaped into our native language, or was our entire language system something we were trained into by those closest to us and our social circles?

Honestly, when one looks at these two discussions rationally, we must agree that in all likelihood, our language abilities are a combination of the two concepts.  We were born with the ability to form or understand a complex language, and that innate ability and drive for communication was shaped by those around us into a conventional language system.  The arguments for this often give the examples of apes who were taught language – sign language- but could never take it beyond a rudimentary level, or rather not into the rich complexity that we consider competent communication.  They were trained but lacked the innate language ability to truly utilize language.  And we see children who have suffered from severe neglect, or lack of exposure to a wide variety of language, who also, while they develop the rudiments of language, never are able to master it to a fully complex level – consider the histories of feral children.  We have also seen those who are able to master multiple languages.  They clearly utilize both innate and external forces to increase their language competence and skills.

It is difficult to consider fleshing out the truth in these situation, because in order to prove one theory right and the other wrong, a human being must be deprived of something, and the risk taken that they will suffer from lifelong communication deficits that could have been prevented.  So, we can discuss our reasons for leaning in one direction or the other, but it is doubtful that scientific testing will ever quite settle the disagreement between the theories.  What do you think?

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