Analytical Essay 3

Experience of Language Acquisition

Whether or not language is an “instinct”, or innate, is a very much alive and ongoing debate such as between the writings of Pinker and Tomasello. Beyond this point, wherever language emerges from it still needs to be acquired through experience. Language does not just appear out of thin air nor manifests on its own even if it is innate. Most importantly in the acquisition of language is that we acquire it, through experience. From Chomskyian approaches utilized by Pinker (1994) to the Cognitive and Functional approaches supported by Tomasello (1995), where they differ in where it originally comes from, they both indirectly argue that it is ultimately acquired through experience.

While Tomasello (1995) is a direct response of the opposite position to Pinker (1994) there remains an underlying similarity. Whether or not language is an “instinct”, language is attained through experience. Language has thousands of varieties, spoken and signed languages, attainable through “linguistic experiences” (Tomasello, 1995, p. 133). Though as Tomasello (1995) points out, these “communicative conventions known as languages differ from the ‘big L’ Language Pinker mentions, that of Universal Grammar (p. 133). And while UG is meant to be innate and therefore unlearnable, it does not just manifest on its own but lies dormant until accessed through experience. In his defense of language as an “instinct” Pinker (1994) puts Language as a “distinct piece of [our] biological makeup”, a very human, very complex ability which spontaneously develops in children (p. 4). But as seen in the cases of Genie and other ‘feral children’, they did not spontaneously acquire language. It was not until Genie was freed from her previous situation, a largely language-free experience, that she was able to acquire some language. Though these extreme cases of language deprivation are often used as evidence for the sensitive/critical period hypothesis, it was not until Genie gained the experience of language communication and instruction that she was able to acquire some language. Despite her eventual skill level, innate or not, language would not have spontaneously been acquired without the experience gained afterwards and Language, innate or not, would not have fully manifested if not for said experience.

For signed languages Pinker (1994) cites the example of Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) to demonstrate instinctness of language as it seemed to suddenly appear and be acquired by the deaf children. Whether the emergence and development of NSL demonstrates the “language instinct” is debatable, but something less so is that the Nicaraguan deaf children acquired their language through experience. NSL’s emergence, acquisition, and development all began with the experience of the children attending the newly formed deaf school. The opportunities of receiving some type of formal and proper language instruction combined with being able to interact and socialize with other deaf children were all valuable and crucial experiences which aided in this development. Though their language instruction was not beneficial, the rejection of the dismal instruction combined with their want to communicate with one another was ample experience for the children to create their own signs. The school itself brought the children together, a lacking experience beforehand, and the specific teaching methods of the school pushed them to seek other means of communicating, experiences not present before. NSL became a “collective product” of these shared experiences which this newly gathered deaf community pooled together (Pinker, 1994, p. 25)

Tomasello (1995) too then cites examples of signed languages for the opposite reason to Pinker, “language is not an instinct”. Using the example of home sign, children improve on their parent(s) signing which Pinker would claim is a result of an “innate syntax module”, something Tomasello obviously does not agree with (p. 148). What is not discussed here, as it also was not for NSL, is the experience which makes this acquisition possible. Home signs are a result of deaf children not receiving proper (or any) instruction of a sign language such as ASL. As a result, self-made signs arise where instructed signs would be, but like how language does not just magically appear, this includes home signs. A similar situation experienced with the Nicaraguan children is experienced here, experience driving acquisition. As Tomasello (1995) points in his rebuttal of Pinker who would use this as examples of innateness, the children’s natural experiences with their situation – experiences and observations of differences in pointing and gesturing – in combination with their human creativity leads to this acquisition (p. 148). The signs do not just magically appear nor do the children just magically create them, the acquisition is experience driven. These indirect similarities between Pinker and Tomasello and their differing views extends to others as well. Language acquisition is an interesting phenomena, but the required experience is crucial.

Language is acquired through experience whether or not it is an “instinct”. Language does not just manifest in someone even if it is innate as Pinker would argue. If it is innate, an “instinct”, then experience is required for its manifestation, to help access it inside us. If it not innate, not an “instinct”, as Tomasello would argue then experience even clearer from this perspective is required for language acquisition. Experience is key to unlock language acquisition, whatever way one believes language is acquired, it can not be done so without experience.


Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: How the mind creates language. New York, NY:     HarperPerennial

Tomasello, M. (1995). Language is not an instinct. Cognitive Development, 10, 131-156.

2 Replies to “Analytical Essay 3”

  1. Hi Joel,

    I thought your essay was interesting as I had a similar thesis, stating that input and environment affect language acquisition. I like that you took an approach that did not necessarily discount Pinker’s idea, but instead added to it by using Tomasello’s arguments. I can’t say that I believe that language is innate or instinctual, but I definitely believe we all have the prelinguistic cognitive ability to speak a language. I think that, as you pointed out, the experiences we have are what allow us to actually demonstrate such an ability. I would have been interested to hear about what you thought regarding Pinker’s example where he discusses Simon’s case: the deaf boy who grew up with parents who did not sign well in ASL, but he managed to “fill in the blanks,” without experience. What do you think could be the reason for this, if not UG or instinct? I am not by any means implying that I think this is a good defense of language being an instinct but would like to hear what your thoughts are.

  2. This was very well argued as a way of showing the minimal differences between Pinker’s and Tomasello’s arguments. It would have been helpful to have a clearer definition of innate/instinctual language. I think that you came close when citing UG and how that “lies dormant.” I think this is right in that the innateness of language, as argued by Pinker, is the predisposition to create grammar as the key element of language. If so though, how does your home signs example fit into this? Based on my understanding, home signs are not a complete language because they are lacking grammatical structure. So if grammar is the “innate” part of language, where does that input come from for deaf children who have only experienced home signs? Overall, you have definitely convinced me of the importance of experience in language acquisition (though I really didn’t need much convincing on this front).

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