How do individuals acquire and develop language?
Language acquisition as an area of study has garnered profound interest, more so in the last two to three decades, by linguists and researchers interested in child psychology, cognition and development. Linguists and other researchers interested in child language acquisition from the perspective of phonology, morphology, syntax and even pragmatics, are separated by their theoretical perspectives as well as their understanding of child language data. Broadly speaking, there are at least two different camps that explain language acquisition and development.
The nativists believe that the child is endowed with innate linguistic abilities that make highly complex language acquisition and computation possible, that too rapidly and effortlessly within comparatively few years of time. The empiricists, on the other hand, focus on the role of child’s environment and general learning mechanisms and heuristics based on statistical regularities in the language input. In doing so, they pay attention to what the child actually says and how it changes over time, unlike their nativist counterparts who are more driven by theoretical procedures and abstract language learning goals.
The nativism versus empiricism debate has been further complicated by studies that show certain aspects of language development start happening even before birth. Using foetus heartbeat recording tools, it has been shown that especially during the last phases of the third trimester, the foetus can differentiate between mother’s voice and any other voice, familiar and unfamiliar language, and even between familiar and unfamiliar story/syllables. These preferences are recorded in infants as old as one day also.
The role of prenatal syntax acquisition has not been confirmed, however, as aspects of syntax are carried in high frequency acoustic signals that get filtered out (along with high amplitude acoustic sounds) by the amniotic fluid surrounding the foetus. The low frequency signals that do make it to reach the foetus carry prosodic features of the language only.
In any case, when it comes to language acquisition and development, there is a clear, impatient division between the nativist and empiricist school of thoughts. In my view, a complete, exhaustive study on acquisition and the course of language development should invoke both innate and input-driven accounts, and, thence, would be incomplete if one overlooks either the child’s genetic, species-specific capacity to acquire language or the role of experience and language input during language acquisition.