Development of Language
Knowing a language means one can speak, be understood and understand others who know the language. Although I have taken three years of Spanish, I would not say that I definitively know Spanish. I would not feel comfortable going to Spain alone and trying to survive merely with the three years training that I received. I would inevitably make mistakes, conjugating verbs improperly or stringing nonsensical sentences together. Knowing a language means knowing the things that you aren?t taught. I could spend five more years in a Spanish class, learning all the rules and vocabulary, but I still would not feel I knew the language. Knowing the language means understanding the unspoken rules behind that language. It is in understanding what is possible and, conversely, what is impossible in a language that one can truly know that language.
Logically it follows then to ask; if this unspoken knowledge is not taught, how is it learned? Prior to the lecture on language competence I would have said, purely from an observational standpoint, that those rules of language are learned chiefly through imitation. A child hears what his or her parents say and mimics them. Through correction and over time, these rules are then conditioned into that child. When asked, however, how do you explain the fact that children do not make random mistakes, but rather predictable ones, this theory begins to break down. Allotting sole propriety to imitation as the means by which we learn a language also brings to light further problems. If children are merely imitating, why do they make mistakes and simplify rules, applying them in the wrong context? Furthermore, how can children, if merely imitating, make up words we don?t have or form sentences they have never heard before? While I still believe that the role of imitation holds credence as a factor in language acquisition, there must be some other explanation.
Since the imitation explanation of language acquisition falls on the side of nurture in the whole nature/nurture debate, one must then logically conclude that its opposite, nature, must also play a role. One could posit that learning a language is unlike learning how to ride a bike, being instead much like learning to walk. Language is an innate biologically programmed human ability. Learning to ride a bike is a conscious decision; it is not an ability that one just picks up along the way. Language, on the contrary, does not appear as a conscious decision. I don?t remember deciding one day that I wanted to learn how to talk, I do, however, remember wanting to learn how to ride a bike. Talking is just something babies start to do before it is even necessary for them to learn. Children start talking when they are still in the loving care of their parents, when it is not yet necessary for their survival. Furthermore, language does not appear to be triggered by external events. Something like riding a bike is learning inspired by external events. Had I not seen my older brother riding his bike around the yard, had I never seen a bike, I would probably never had the want to learn how to ride one. However, even if I did not learn how to ride a bike when I was little and wanted to learn today, I (think) I could still pick it up. When looking at language this is not the case. Take, for example, the terrible story of the girl who was locked in a closet without human interaction until almost a teenager. She never learned to talk properly. When scrutinizing language and its origins a little more closely, the role of imitation seems to play a much lessor role than I had originally assumed. All of these factors lead me to agree that language must indeed be derived to a greater extent from nature than being merely something nurtured.