Learning to Speak
The mystery of language acquisition was tackled by philosophers and linguists from ancient times. Plato proposed that words mapped onto objects in the external world from some innate knowledge. Sanskrit grammarians debated on whether the semantics of a word came from innate knowledge or tradition passed on from one generation to the next (Matilal, 1990).
In The Twilight Zone episode “Mute” (1963), several children are raised without exposure to language in an effort to foster telepathic abilities. It may surprise you to know that such experiments have actually been carried out, albeit not to foster telepathy but to study language acquisition. This experiment is now known as “the forbidden experiment” (Shattuck, 1980/1994).
Herodotus (ca. 485 – 425 BCE) reports in his Histories (II.2 “An Account of Egypt”) the Egyptian pharaoh Psamtik I carried out an experiment where a child was brought up without exposure to language in an effort to see what they spoke. The hypothesis being that whatever words came out would be the primordial language. They apparently concluded that the original language of humanity was Phrygian because the child said bekos, the Phrygian word for bread. Salimbene di Adam in his Chronicles reports a similar experiment carried out by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the 13th century. James IV of Scotland did a similar experiment where the child apparently spoke good Hebrew.
While these previous experiments seem to be based on the assumption that some original language would emerge from the subjects, an alternative hypothesis was postulated by the Mughal emperor Akbar. He claimed that language came from hearing and a similar experiment by his found the child to be mute (Campbell & Grieve, 1981). Such experiments are obviously highly unethical and should not be attempted under any circumstances.
From the descriptions above, you may have discerned two major themes: language acquisition as innate and as a socially acquired skill. The former was supported by rationalists such as Plato and Descartes while the latter was adopted by empiricists such as Locke and Hume. Locke (1690/1975) argued that knowldeg was acquired from experience with the famous image of the mind as a tabula rasa or blank slate onto which experience writes through sensations. The debate is alive and well today with the empirical camp being supported by the works of Piaget and the rationalist views supported by Chomsky. Perhaps the most influential voice today in this debate is Chomsky’s. He argued against the views of the Behaviourists who claimed all behaviour was a product of rewards of punishments (operant conditioning). B. F. Skinners Verbal Behavior (1957) was perhaps the seminal work of the empiricist view on language acquisition. Skinner suggested that the successful use of a sign or symbol (such as a word) by a child elicits positive reinforcement from the listening adults resulting in the behaviour of linking the sign with an object more likely. This association of a word with an object gets reinforced over time to develop as language. This view was attached by Chomsky (1959) in his review of Skinner’s book. He argued that children often ignore language corrections from adults and Skinner fails to explain the fundamental role of syntactic knowledge on language competence.