Is language learning innate?

Hello everyone,


In my language acquisition courses, one of the questions I get exposed to over and over again was whether children learn the language like adults do or they have an innate system which allows them to acquire the language until a specific period. 

I wonder your views. Do you think we are wired with such a mechanism, or is it just the environment that is behind our native language acquisition process.

Thank you all


Here are some of the commonly shared views:

1. Without special training or carefully sequenced language input, every normal child acquires a natural language easily and rapidly.

2. All children, regardless of the language they are learning or the quantity and quality of input they receive, acquire the mother tongue at the same rate and by progressing thru the same developmental stages.

3. Children who are exposed to and use more than one language will acquire all the languages. Any child can become polylingual.Children learn all languages with equal ease.


4. Why dont children never say “I saw a barn red”  even when they have never heard the sentence “ I saw a red barn”.


Jan 10, 2016 11:39 PM
Comments · 9

Actually, I have another way of thinking about that. It takes children about five years of 24/7 immersion (many thousands of hours) in order to attain “native” pronunciation and fluency, and even then, they talk like a five year old ;) Adult learners usually don’t have that much time to dedicate to learning <em>additional</em> languages.

As far as “easy,” it seems to me that children do a lot of crying during their first five years of life. If you tried teaching languages to adults using similar methods, your students would voice their dissatisfaction verbally (in their first language), and look for another teacher. Little children have no such options.

January 11, 2016

First of all, Tugba, welcome to italki, and thanks for posing such an interesting question for discussion.

In your example, a child learning English always hears adults putting the adjective before the noun, so he or she unconsciously assimilates the rule. Adults can make faster progress if you point the rule out to them. This is true of every skill (as opposed to academic knowledge), not just language acquisition. The child doesn’t consciously know what a noun or adjective is, but he handles them correctly. An adult can learn to do the same thing in a second language, but only if he’s willing to accept that he is going to have to learn a new skill. If you’ve always played American football, and then you start playing soccer (international football), you’re going to have to learn a new game. It’s no harder than learning your first game, but the rules are different in soccer, for example, you can’t touch the ball with your hands or deliberately knock your opponents to the ground and get on top of them.

January 11, 2016

I guess there is a most significant point to distinguish the learning of adults and children:


# Most of the adults do not have analogus environment as children have


--> Children can have 24/7 time to immerse themself passively/actively to a target language and they do have the most various scenarios to learn a new language without interference from their primary language as an adult. However, that does not refer to children learn a language very easily without a tough course. Look at children who wish to become a sophisticated speaker and a reading. Most of the children have to consume 6-8 years to master a language which is not thought to be a short time. 

January 11, 2016

Thank you Phil, these are valuable ideas. I think so. It is really difficult to replicate native language acquisition in terms of all of its features, but maybe I thought I can provide some elements of native environment embedded in the overall design of lessons. Moreover while using this aspect of language learning, there would be more advantages which native children have to develop along with language. First one is that second language learners have already built-up world knowledge, and second one is that they have already developed cognitive skills. But I am still searching for some eclectic methods which will not frustrate the language learners as you say :)

January 11, 2016

@Tugba: I haven't studied the question exhaustively, but I am convinced that Chomsky's concept of Universal Grammar is at least largely correct. I have yet to read of any other theory that accounts for the similarities in a more connvincing manner. Do you have an opinion for or against it?

January 11, 2016
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