The question how human being is able to learn his native language has always been a great interest of linguistic science. There have been various different ideas and hypotheses questioning the explanations either if this learning process was a part of social/cultural relations or rather if it was a complete innate property already built in. However, none of these narrow scope approaches looks quite enough to explain the problem. Instead, because both sides have some parts where they are individually right, the idea of combining the two sides and bringing a more logical solution sounds better. Therefore, it would be more realistic if we talk about taking the language learning process as a combination of merging the embedded patterns in human brain and learned sound patterns/words/sentence structures together. Here, it is referred that there exist some learning patterns in human brain as he is born, however, which are not enough on their own for the person to be able to speak. These empty and basic-structured containers must be filled by community's language specific syntax rules. By this means, human is already prepared to speak a language as he may learn base syntax to use with this base set of rules. There were also some ideas against this approach, but, if we investigate different aspects of the proposal, we will see that this idea is more logical among available alternatives according to today's knowledge.
As Chomsky also brought three models explanations of language structures , a language may simply be defined as a collection of some grammatical rules to build information containers; words and sentences. While Chomsky defines language as a set of certain (or uncertain) number of sentences and finds corresponding references for alphabet and string, he is already bringing a formal definition to the language by defining grammar as a device responsible for producing language elements; sentences. In order to use the "grammar" device, Chomsky comes up with some formulations which would also categorize languages in-between. Some kernel structures are modified by the device in order to obtain more complex outcomes which are the languages we use today. This approach also refers to the existence of the base kernel structures. Human being already has this information by the time of his birth, or it is also possible that this ability gets improved in parallel to self development of the person by time. However, in either case, it must be possible for the infant to interpret the inputs he perceives and brings them onto a base set of rules in order to understand the meaning and the structure to interpret and re-use. If we would not have such base information, which can be named as "kernel" or "blueprint", we wouldn't be able to start understanding languages even in the ages we may not be able to walk properly. This also shows us that, just like our legs are meant to be used for walking, we must have also some kind of inner capability to use for understanding a language and communicating via it.
When we talk about a built-in ability of perceiving language and several features of it such as distinguishing language among other sources, learning the active syntax and executing the grammar to use it properly, we do not only refer to single type of senses as input channels. As an example, we could consider the special cases where the children have disabilities of hearing or seeing. Normally, because of the fact that the interpretation of the sound is relevantly easier than the interpretation of an image, learning a language and searching for a pattern starts with hearing. However, if we talk about a child with hearing disability, the channel of input changes but the idea stays still. The main component which is not depending on the sense type is the main structure to be searched by the infant. Even if the source is perceived as an audio input or visual input, human brain searches for the same pattern. Similar to the noise example, after a child is able to distinguish letters, he would look for meaningful patterns on writings and he would try to match them to existing kernel structures, as he would do it for hearings. Hence, we may think of the generalization that the embedded functionality of learning a language is not directly relevant to the senses. It is rather on conceptual base and just has to be upgraded by the learned syntax, either in audible form or visual form or both.
Chomsky brings the definition of Language Acquisition Device (LAD) for the existence of related embedded behavior and Blueprint structures . LAD is accepted as an "organ" which is responsible for learning symbols in the language and become able to interpret them (by modifying/matching with the built-in kernel structures). Such an existing functionality in human brain is corresponding to the natural capability of language usage. It also means that human being is expected to communicate via languages by its nature as well. One of the main properties of LAD according to Chomsky is that it is searching for some specific language structures suitable with the kernel information. After compatibility of the information is checked, grammar is evaluated and "learning" occurs. Here, the most important part about the flow is that there must be compatibility between the acquired information and the kernel structure, which means, the observed communication must somehow be suitable with the expected syntax. This also explains how children do not just evaluate all the sounds they hear as a "language candidate" but they are selecting proper structured series and start to learn them. If infants were not aware of such a pattern to search, they wouldn't be able to distinguish a proper language within all the information they perceive including meaningless group of sounds or signs. Therefore this fact also strongly supports the existence of such functionality (LAD) in human being's brain.
If we go more in detail about the infant period of human being, we may see more clearly how this existing patterns play a great role on language learning process. For example, as we stated previously, children may start to speak a language even in times when they cannot do easier tasks. This could be firstly considered as a repeating process without consciousness. However, after gaining the ability of producing some certain different sounds, the infant starts to communicate using his not-well-developed language structure. This is accepted by the grown-ups as a not yet being able to speak situation. In fact, the infant has not yet completed shaping his kernel language system, but what he is currently using is also a language with its rules and syntax definitions. He may use this language he is currently speaking for his all needs as long as he can express himself. We can also observe this fact from the satisfaction levels of the children when they are talking in their premature language. They never look as if they are not able to express what they would actually want. Their language is simply enough for their daily needs of that time. In future, as the child gets more feedback and develops his abilities, the language he speaks becomes the language used by matures, where this last step means development of the language is mostly complete. Until reaching this level, the human was learning the language by observing the usage from the society. At this point, we should be quite careful. If we only name this process as observation, it would not be right. Because children also start to learn without being especially thought, matching some patterns from the sounds they hear, to the structures they are meant to know.
Skinner had some different ideas about how language was learned by human beings . He was suggesting that the environment in which the person exists was affecting the learning process, as well as the learned conditions from the past. It would mean that it was only possible to learn a language with the help of the society surrounding us and the learned conditions such as the things we were said to be good, bad, advised or forbidden. By this means, Skinner was thinking that being able to speak a language was rather a simpler condition of knowing how to behave in-response according to gathered knowledge. In detail, it would mean that the recommendations or warnings in a child's self-development would shape also his learning of language. He would start to learn the conditions how to behave and what to understand. This is actually a quite insufficient saying because of the fact that it is not taking the unintended learning into account. Children start to learn languages even nobody yet confirms them about what is wrong or what is right. Likewise, being conditioned about special cases would not play a specific role where completely new conditions would arise. Skinner's ideas cannot bring an explanative answer for the cases of "unexpected". It could be possible that Skinner would then suggest that person would follow what others would do in unexpected situations. However, human being is capable of dealing with unexpected conditions and is far away from a form of living just meant within the concepts of "repeating learned behaviors", even in language use. Additionally, Chomsky stays against Skinner's ideas commenting that language use is not in a direct relation to encouragement and adding that history also has not much things to do with it . He thinks that any word could be used in any context only being in relationship with the intention or willingness of expressions and a person doesn't have to be historically trained to be capable of evaluating or saying words. Chomsky also criticizes Skinner for missing the importance of linguistic rules and traditions, as well as for his ideas about the role of conditioned training in language learning phase. As also mentioned before, considering the learning process as a standalone external sourced concepts is not so realistic. Here we also come up with the fact that human being is holding a base kernel structure to easily accept new language information even in early ages.
If we compare some of the main theories about the process of language learning, we may see in detail in which aspects our approach is better. For example, Piaget's cognitive constructivism suggests that language is one of the ways of expressing thoughts and it doesn't help the development of thinking . Even though the relation between the language and thought is another deep topic, we may not simply match the development of the language ability to the cognitive development. As we already discussed in previous examples, the language ability is being developed much more ahead of general cognitive development of the children, which also refers to the blueprint approach. Vygotsky's social constructivism, however, stands for the relationship between language and thinking . His theory accepts language as a social communication which is improving both language itself and cognition. But here we also face the questions about why cognitive development is falling behind language abilities up to a certain age. Even though we investigate more theories about this process, the main thing we would look for would be if the theory suggests a kind of "template" or kernel structure mechanism already existing in human brains.
In conclusion, today there exist various ideas about how language is learned, but yet none of the approaches could reach any serious certainty for sure. However, even the evidences and approaches which are valid today may point us to some reachable logical concepts. Having a kind of embedded feature or a basic structure of knowledge in human being is also one of such aspects. We can easily see from given examples and ideas that human being has a kind of language pattern inside and he tries to match syntax as self development continues.
- Chomsky, N. (1956). Three models for the description of language. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. London: MIT Press.
- Skinner, B.F. (1957). Verbal Behavior. NY: Prentice Hall.
- Cowie, F. (2008). Innateness and Language. (Internet Document): Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/innateness-language
- David T. (2004). Talk it through. (Internet Document): Nursery World - http://www.nurseryworld.co.uk/news/716926/Talk/7