Role of Nature and Nurture in Language Development Essay Sample
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Role of Nature and Nurture in Language Development Essay Sample
How do both nature and nurture interact in the promotion of language development in young children? The debate between many researchers is the argument of whether nature or nurture play a more important role in development. In this essay I will be looking into both aspects of nature and nurture focusing specifically on their influence towards language development in children. A main controversial question I will be looking into is the question of whether are we born already equipped with mechanisms which help us to learn language, or is language learned throughout a child’s environment by, for example, imitation and repetition? Studies done by some opposing researchers claim to show that nature and nurture promote language development by interacting together which I will explain in greater detail in my essay. The meaning of the term language is sometimes overlooked. Young children don’t suddenly acquire the ability to speak full words; instead language is composed of phonemes, “the smallest units of sound-consonants and vowels.” Phonemes, as described by Crosser (2002) in her article, can then combine to form the smallest meaningful units of language called morphemes.
Therefore, it is necessary for the brain to distinguish and identify the phonemes of the child’s own language. This differentiation is accomplished by the work of neurons in the auditory cortex within the brain. When infants hear the same phoneme repeatedly, a cluster of neurons becomes wired to respond to that phoneme. Subsequently, the assigned neuron cluster automatically fires when the ear carries that particular phoneme to the brain. This process forms a brain map for the sound of the language in an infant’s environment (Begley, 1996). Over time there will be millions of neuron clusters each resembling different phonemes and when the child matures these phonemes will be put together to assemble the native structure of their language. Knowing this reinforces the important role of nature in promoting a child’s language development as without the language function centre of the brain and our genetic make-up, we would not be able to develop our language capabilities.
The role of parents in facilitating language development researchers have found that in all languages, parents utilize a style of speech towards their children known as infant-directed speech, or motherese. It is characterized by a higher-pitched intonation, shortened or simplified vocabulary, condensed sentences and exaggerated vocalizations or expressions. Infant-directed speech has been shown to be more effective in getting an infant’s attention as well as aiding in language development (Fernald & Morikawa, 1993). Researchers believe that the use of motherese helps babies learn words faster and easier. As children continue to grow, parents naturally adapt their speaking patterns to suit their child’s growing linguistic skills (Shore, 1997). This aspect of promoting a young child’s language development relies heavily on the part of nurture in the sense that positive social communication between parent and child is beneficial. Contrastingly, the interaction of ‘nature’ in terms of promoting language development is backed up by Nativist theorists. Noam Chomsky (1968,p120) expresses his view that, “all humans are born with a language acquisition device (LAD)” meaning all children are born with internal mechanisms in the brain that allow them to acquire language naturally.
To Chomsky, it is the brains mechanism which promotes a child’s language ability as it allows the child to subconsciously process language structure when exposed to new words throughout their early years, thus leading to their development in language capability. Chomsky pointed to the evidence that children say words or sentences which aren’t completely grammatically correct e.g. ‘eated’. By ruling out learning theory ideas like imitation as most adults are grammatically correct, the word ‘eated’ wouldn’t be an imitated word which exposes us to the idea that the child, to some extent, already knew basic grammatical structure as in some sense the child is correct, as we do use –ed for past tense words. This discovery enlightens the idea that to promote language development in a child is not fully down to environmental factors and instead the basic principles of grammar are contained within our brains when we are born. As a way of responding to Chomsky’s LAD learning system, Bruner (1964) theorised the language acquisition support system (LASS).
Bruner states that through LASS, parents often use books and images to develop their child’s language abilities and their ability to get involved in conversation thus further developing their language skills. So unlike Chomsky’s LAD theory where language acquisition was determined by a mechanism in the brain, Bruner’s theory acknowledges the role of nurture where parents or guardians act as the ‘support system’ to promoting a child’s language development. Within the LASS theory there are four main components; gaining attention, query, label and feedback, which all require social interaction between adult and child. Contrasting to learning theorists approach, Bruner (1964,pg78) believed that simply listening to language is not a sufficient way to acquire language skills. Instead he thought that, ‘the child needs to be exposed to the mutual eye gazing and turn taking that are needed for conversation’. So language, according to Bruner, relies heavily on the role and exposure to social context. Evidence for this can be provided by looking into the cases of deprived children. In one case, a boy named Jim was born to parents that were both deaf and dumb and until the age of three, Jim’s only exposure to language was through the television.
Although Jim did learn speech it became noticeably odd to others around him as he had developed his own, unique grammatical characteristics and his poor articulation meant he didn’t acquire normal language skills (Sachs et al 1981). Bruner suggests that this was due to lack of social interaction in his learning of speech, which again highlights the importance of nurture in promoting a child’s language development. However, it can be argued with (Bruner 1964) that social interaction doesn’t explain all the complexities of language acquisition. Almost every day the language we hear is often incorrect, poorly defined, incomplete and full of hesitations, mispronunciations and other errors, and yet despite this we still learn to talk following the correct grammatical rules. Again this indicates the idea of Chomsky’s (1968) LAD model that children are born ‘hard-wired’ with the innate knowledge of linguistic rules and so these rules help the baby make estimations and presumptions about the language it is hearing. From these estimations and presumption the child can work out grammatical sets of rules and when more language is exposed to them, the more their language develops.
Even within Chomsky’s (1968) LAD theory, undoubtedly he believed the role and promotion of the ‘nature’ aspect is the core foundation on which language can develop. But his theory also requires the role of nurture as social interaction within a child’s environment is crucial for the child to interpret and broaden their language skills. Due to new advances in brain research, it has allowed scientists to understand and acquire the crucial solid evidence, (which early theorists lacked) of how the brain enables children to learn language. It becomes clear when looking at observations on children who live in an environment characterized by trauma, neglect, stress, or abuse that both nature and nurture interact in the demotion of language development. Begley (1997,pg32) observed that children living in these negative social environments experience abnormal physical changes in the structure of the brain which affect normal language acquisition. The stress hormone cortisol is increased due to the physical changes and brain scans show areas of the brain appear like black holes, undeveloped, and inactive.
In looking at how nurture can influence nature, in this case brain structure, it shows how important both aspects are and can influence the potential promotion or demotion of language development. Learning theorists promote the idea of ‘behaviourism’ where language is just another type of behaviour which is learnt through interactions between our society and environment. A study done by Rhenigold and Adams (1980,pg 119) concluded that speech between hospital staff and new born babies which was, “extensive and grammatically well formed” meant that exposing grammatically correct language to children since birth can suggest that this human interaction or nurture helps promote language development. The social learning theory, classical and operant conditioning are all elements of the Learning Theory and all highlight the similar idea that positive parental nurture result in the promotion of language development in children. Learning theorists, as previously stated, believe positive nurture is a crucial role in promoting a child’s language development. Such theorists believe that the key to promoting a child’s maturation in language is parental regard and reward to words, sounds or sentences a child makes which will hopefully be repeated in the future.
This in other words is called positive reinforcement which Miller and Dollard (1941) state, “By imitating these observed actions the individual observer would solidify that learned action and would be rewarded with positive reinforcement.” So, through observation or imitation children acquire language and are more likely to repeat the language through positive reinforcement thus promoting language development. Similarly, another theorist Skinner (1957,pg 187) states, “language is also shaped through operant conditioning, or reinforcement.” Skinner believed that psychologically, reinforcement has the influence to change or affect a child’s language capability being that the more positive reinforcement a child receives then it is more likely the child will have a wider vocabulary when they are older. Skinners (1948) test of reinforcement was undertaken on rats, being that when the rat pulled the lever a food pellet would drop out which resulted in the rat pulling the lever more frequently because it was rewarded with food.
Although this can’t be fully related to a child’s language development it still poses the same idea that when a child is rewarded for doing something correct it is more likely to be repeated. So when the child also realises that repeating or imitating words exposed to them is a good thing, it then allows the child to build upon their vocabulary and develop their language skills over time. Critics of the learning theory argue that a behaviorist explanation is inadequate. They maintain several arguments undermining the fact that promoting language development cannot be a learnt behavior which is acquired through imitation. Firstly learning cannot account for the rapid rate at which children acquire language. Secondly there can be an infinite number of sentences in a language and so all of these sentences cannot be learned through imitation. Thirdly, children make errors such as overregularizing verbs, for example, a child may say, “Billy hitted me”, which is incorrect as they have added the usual past tense suffix -ed to hit.
Errors like these are unlikely to result from imitation, since adults generally use correct verb forms. These arguments point to the fact that nurture cannot individually be responsible for promoting child language development. The question that has been raised many times within psychological debates is again about whether or not social interaction/nurture alone, is enough to explain how children learn and develop language. The cognitive processing theory includes another point of view stating that learning language is a complex process of “data crunching,” in which children take in the language they hear and then process the language (Hoff & Naigles, 2002, p. 422). These theorists argue that young children are processing language even during the first year of life, before they can speak (Naigles et al, 2009). Therefore, this implies that their understanding of language is learned and is not innate as Chomsky’s theory asserts. These theorists would argue that although the learning and developing of language skills may be motivated and promoted by social interaction, the actual process of learning words and their meanings may rely more on the computational ability of the human brain.
Hoff and Naigles (2002) found that childrens’ language learning was not related to the level or nature of social engagement between them and their mothers. Rather, the children they studied learned more words when their mothers exposed them to more direct verbal language; that is, they talked to them more and used a variety of different words. Cognitive processing theorists argue that language learning happens independently of mothers’ responsiveness to their children’s speech and of children’s social abilities. They point to the fact that even socially limited children with autism can still develop language as evidence that language development is not dependent on social interaction. Again, this theory provides us with another controversial conclusion that it is not solely nurture or social interaction between adult and child alone which promotes their language development, but it is the exposure to new words which is then processed in the brain which helps to further broaden a child’s language ability.
Interactionism is another approach which includes both aspects of behaviourism and nativism, or nature and nurture, in promoting language development. Interactionist’s believe both children’s biological readiness to learn language and their experiences with language in their environment come together to promote language development. In other terms, language development is both biologically based and socially based. Such theorists argue that children desire to communicate with others and this influences or aids the development of learning language. “Children are born with a powerful brain that matures slowly and predisposes them to acquire new understandings that they are motivated to share with others” (Bates, 1993, Tomasello, 1995, p.362). Interactionism also includes the aspect that language is created socially, in the interaction between infant and adult. For example, adults naturally simplify their speech to young children because they want the child to interact and communicate with them so the child then understands and responds to what the adult is saying.
By being sensitive to the effectiveness of adult communication so that when the child does not understand, the adult further simplifies their language until the child does understand (Bohannon & Bonvillian, 2005). Research on mother-infant speech in a variety of cultures has found that mothers make many of the same modifications in their speech to younger children, perhaps because these changes produce a good fit between the mother’s speech and the child’s perceptual and cognitive capabilities (Fernald & Morikawa, 1993). The main theorist associated with the Interactionism theory is Lev Vygotsky (1934). Interactionist’s focus on Vygotsky’s model of collaborative learning. Collaborative learning is the idea that conversations with older people can help children both cognitively and linguistically (Shaffer,et.al,2002). Vygotsky (1934) created the model of human development now also known as the sociocultural model. He believed that language development originates through the social interaction of cultural development in children.
Depending on the cultural context in which a child is brought up, Vygotsky assumed the role that the child observes interactions between other people which then leads to that observed behaviour developing inside the child. Thus meaning that the child first observes the adults around them which then leads to them later developing the ability to communicate within themselves. Vygotsky also theorized that a child learns best when interacting with those around them to test or attempt their own ability of language. Normally it is the adult who interacts with the child and is responsible for leading the child in a ‘conversation’, and so eventually, the child becomes more capable of learning langauge on their own, being that perhaps gargling or mumbling moves to the more developed language of ‘baby-talk’. This theory of Interactionism gives us another root into the insight of the debate of concluding whether or not the interaction of nature or nurture within a child promotes their language development.
In this specific theory it is both the brains biological ability to process its native language and the exposure of language to the child due to social engagement which helps them to learn and develop language. In conclusion to my essay I think there is enough evidence or proposed theories to state that both factors of nature and nurture are involved in the promotion of language development in young children. Whether language is developed through our innate, hard-wired brain ability to learn language as such Nativist theorists would suggest, or whether it is infact due to the amount of language exposure and positive nurture interaction we acquire as children, we could never truly agree that one factor is truly responsible. The environmental influences and biological traits I think are both equal partners in promoting language development as without one or the other there would be too many questions un- answered and too many theories left without explanation.
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