What aspects of language, if any, are innate?


Human language is a remarkable symbolic communication system through which knowledge, belief, and behavior can be experienced and shared. The number and variety of human languages in the world is stunning – there are thought to be around 7,000 distinct languages. Human language is flexible, meanings can be changed and new symbols created.

Humans speak a variety of different languages, and children appear to learn language effortlessly just from hearing it from their environment. By a very young age children can normally command their native language with great fluency and accuracy. Across cultures there is a universal pattern of language development in children. Children produce their first word sometime at the end of their first year. After this language acquisition appears to happen rather fast – normally developing children master language with a speed that makes learning it in an empirical sense unlikely. However does the fact that all humans exhibit certain behaviour prove that that it is innate rather than learned?

Learning a language requires, amongst other things, learning the phonology (sound patterns), the lexicon (the words), as well as the rules of syntax, all of which can vary substantially across languages. This essay will attempt to understand just how much of language is innate by analyzing various aspects of language and looking at evidence from studies on language innateness.

According to Chomsky (1980) there is not enough information in the child’s environment to facilitate all necessary learning. This so-called “poverty of the stimulus” led to the idea that there is an innate knowledge that serves as a starting point for learning the language.

From their birth infants begin engaging in communication with their parents and siblings and listen to their speech. The child will unconsciously recognise which kind of a language they are using and will ‘set the parameters’ of a correct grammar. Infants use these principles and parameters to guide their perception of speech. The child senses that some words refer to objects and some to actions and that there is a distinctive set of rules for ordering words in a sentence. Chomsky referred to this innate mechanism as ‘Language Acquisition Device’ (LAD). LAD helps infants to pick up the complex grammatical principles of their language and facilitates fast learning (Harley, 2008).

Evidence supporting the existence of LAD comes from that fact that all languages share a similar underlying “deep structure” of grammar – Universal grammar as Chomsky called it. Universal grammar provides a set of basic grammatical rules that are common in all natural languages, which explains how children acquire and master their language in a brief time period. For example all languages have words for “water” and “food” because all people need to refer to water and food. All language use nouns and verbs, have prefixes and suffixes and use a certain type of word order.

Syntax comprises rules for how words are combined into sentences. If syntax was innate in us all, then teaching language would be merely the process of making conscious what was held in a level of subconsciousness the whole time and we should be able to learn language at any time.

According to Chomsky Universal grammar is the basis upon which all human languages are built (Harley, 2008). Children do not simply copy the language that they hear from their environment. They deduce rules and they use to these rules to produce sentences that they have never heard before.

The abstract representations of grammatical rules are language universals. Some universals might be part of the innate component of the grammar or the cognition. Languages evolve so they are easy to understand. Linguistic universals are features that can be found in all languages. They include categories of syntax, semantics and phonology. Semantics refers to the meaning of language. Chomsky viewed all semantic notions as innate. This means that even novel concepts were considered to have been latent in some sense.

If children assume that semantic and syntactic categories are related they can use semantic properties of words and phrases to analyze the rules of their language and form associations between semantics and syntax. For example, a child can infer that a word that refers to a person, place or thing is a noun, the word describing an action is a verb and so on (Harley, 2008). Some view that a large dictionary (lexicon) is needed before one can understands syntax.

When starting to speak children begin with simple lexical items for people, food, toys and animals. As they get older their lexicon grows in complexity. From a historical perspective lexicon undergoes its own evolution – unused words die out and new expressions are added. New words are invented to describe novel concepts and foreign words are borrowed from other languages. For instance terms such as ‘texting’ and ’apps’ were not in general use two decades ago but they are commonly present in our lexicon now.

One of the criticisms of Chomsky’s theory is that he relies upon children’s intuitions as to what is right or wrong in language- but it is not clear that all people will make the same judgements, or that their judgements actually reflect the way people use the language. Chomsky also appears to reduce language to its grammar. By ignoring social context and meaning he neglects the importance of particular cultural and historical frameworks in which the child learns his first language.

Pinker supports Chomsky’s view that syntax is innate. According to Pinker children are equipped with innate syntactic categories that allow them to understand that nouns refer to objects and verbs refer to actions. On top of this, children are predisposed to induce rules. Children are also innately capable of linking rules to semantic categories of thematic roles. Although the child might not know syntactic rules they able to distinguish the words in simple spoken sentences. If the child knows the surface structure of a sentence and the meaning of the sentence it can infer the underlying structure. This is known as ‘semantic bootstrapping’ (Harley, 2008).

Goldin-Meadow (2003) studied deaf children in the United States and Taiwan who communicated with gestures rather than conventional sign languages. Goldin-Meadow discovered that in the absence of recognized sign language children developed complex sentence structures on their own without having to learn them first from their parents.

Further evidence that there is biological drive to develop syntax comes from studies of a community of deaf children in Nicaragua. In 1981, a school for deaf children was opened in Nicaragua. The children were not initially taught a sign language, but they began developing a system of gestures helping them to communicate with one another. Over time a sophisticated sign language developed. This evidence suggests that children can instinctively break information down into independent units and then flexibly put them back together to form more sophisticated utterances with a wider range of meanings. This implies that basics of language are part of the innate gift (Kegl, Senghas and Coppola, 1999) and supports Chomsky‘s idea that children are born with an innate sense of grammar and syntax.

Studies of pidgin and creole languages (Bickerton, 1981) support an idea of innate drive to learn syntax. Pidgin are basic languages invented to allow communication between speakers of different languages. Creole is the language of the children of pidgin speakers. Creole utilizes the vocabulary derived from pidgin, but has its own complex syntax and morphology. Creole speaking children were capable of creating an entirely new language from the bits and pieces of information taken from pidgin. This suggests that there was a starting point for all of today’s languages. In a course of time, languages then evolved under different circumstances and hence are different today.

Recent research by Dunn et al. (2011) contradicts Chomsky’s theory that there is set of universal rules, applicable to all languages. Dunn et al. were interested in exploring the evolution of word-orders across different languages. They analysed over 300 languages belonging to different language families including Indo-European and Austronesian. They found that word orders from different language families evolve differently. For instance, some languages place the verb at the beginning of the sentence and some at the end of the sentence. Dunn et al concluded that syntax is determined more by the historical and cultural context in which a language develops than by universal factors. These results indicate that different processes occur in different language families.

And how about the phonetics of languageEach language consists of hundreds of phonemes (sounds). Distinguishing between these sounds allows us to recognize and identify subtle differences in dialects and accents and see beyond the obvious meaning of words.

Using the High Amplitude Sucking Technique, Eimas et al. (1971) showed that in the first few months of life, babies reliably discriminate many different phonemes, whether or not they occur in their language. Infants one and four months old could discriminate between ‘ba’ and ‘pa’ sounds. At the age of nine months the infants were able to discriminate virtually all phonetic contrasts presented to them. Eimas et al concluded that the ability to distinguish phonemes must be innate as it would appear unlikely that the infant could have learned to categorise phonemes at such a young age.

In order to investigate whether human ability to distinguish between different phonemes is innate Golestani (2011) used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to compare the brain structures of seventeen phoneticians against sixteen control participants. Findings showed a brain area involved in speech production and analysing and distinguishing speech sounds correlates with the amount of time spent analysing phonemes. The shape of the left auditory cortex was also different between expert phoneticians and controls. These findings suggest that a person’s ability to successfully distinguish between phonemes could stem from birth.

Our bodies, particularly throats and brains, appear to be adapted and specialised to the tasks of language. Our vocal cords and ears allow us to perceive and use language. Language production and comprehension are complex tasks, involving various brain areas. Certain regions in the brain appear to be specialized for commanding language tasks, such as Wernicke’s area for language comprehension and Broca’s area for language production.

Lesions to certain regions of the brain cause distinctive language problems – aphasias – these are in the same area the same across species. This supports the view that language localization in the brain is innate. Specific Language Impairment (SLI) is a disorder in which language falls below person’s mental age without an accompanying brain damage. An example is a case of an English family in which a type of hereditary impairment was observed that only affects certain morphemes with other aspect of language and cognition being unaffected. However more comprehensive studies showed that the participating family members suffer from a number of other deficits inside and outside of language (Harley, 2008).

Noam Chomsky claims that certain parts of the human brain have purposefully evolved to enable language production and comprehension. The opposing view is that language simply utilizes brain structures that were already present before the actual development of language.

According to Ralph-Axel Mueller (1996) the specialization of certain regions of the brain for language processing is the result not the cause of language development and it cannot be concluded that higher brain functions are innate.

One reason for innateness theories to be seriously considered is that human species is the only one that possesses language. In numerous studies effort has been made to teach animals (mostly primates) language. Chimpanzees like Washoe and Sarah have been trained to acquire sign language. Most impressive of all was a bonobo named Kanzi. Through training Kanzi had acquired vocabulary of 200 symbols and was able to construct very basic sentences consisting of few words. Compared with other chimps, Kanzi’s achievements were striking, but they were still far away from abilities of human children. The results of other studies have been similar – primates needed long and intensive training and were only able make simple constructions at the end (Fodor, Bever & Garett 1974). Chomsky explains these findings through the presence of an innate ability for language acquisition in human children. It is the lack of the LAD what makes it difficult for primates to learn language.

Pragmatics is a theory of appropriate language use in context, it studies how people comprehend and produce language and engage in a conversation. It considers the participants’ knowledge about phenomena such as social distance, relationship between the speakers and cultural knowledge.

Language is easy for humans to learn to produce and understand but this is not exclusively because our brains embody knowledge of language but also because language has adapted to us. It is difficult to distinguish whether language has evolved to fit the human brain or vice versa. Languages that are problematic for humans to learn would struggle to come into existence at all.

Language helps to shape our thoughts and emotions, builds friendships and ties and connects us to a particular culture or nation. For years, psychologists, linguists and biologists have been analyzing language and its structures and they been fascinated by an idea that there exists a universal innate basis of all languages which has been programmed into our brains.

According to Chomsky, humans have an innate potential for language. However evidence from Dunn et al. suggests that language is not completely specified in human minds from birth and that the influence of culture needs should be considered. Language is a constantly developing mechanism guided by pragmatic responses to cultural and historical needs. Humans across the world speak different languages which differ in their rules and complexity.

One of the possible explanations of structural similarities between languages across the world is that all languages attempt to communicate essentially the same semantic information. Perhaps future research could shed more light into this area.

Based on the presented evidence we can conclude that complete language innateness is impossible. There is an innate predisposition to learn language, such as brain localization and the complexity of human vocal tract. There is also some innateness to specific aspects of language such as syntax and phonetics, however infants are not born knowing a language, they are biologically equipped to learn it easily. Children are eager learners and they discover grammar rules during the course of growing up in a community. Children with French genes do not find French any easier than English, they simply learn the language they are exposed to. The role of the social environment, particularly infant’s connection with the caregivers and intention in infant communication cannot be ignored.


Bickerton, D (1981). Roots of Language. Karoma Publishers.

Chomsky, N. (1980). Rules and representations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Dunn M., Greenhill S., Levinson S., Gray R. (2011). Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals. Nature. Advance online publication. doi:10.1038/nature09923.

Eimas, P.D., Siqueland, E.R., Jusczyk, P.W., & Vigorito, J. (1971). Speech perception in infants. Science 171 (968): 303–306.

Fodor, J., Bever, T. & Garrett, M. (1974). The Psychology of Language. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Goldin-Meadow. S. (2003). The Resilience of Language: What Gesture Creation in Deaf Children Can Tell Us About How All Children Learn Language, Psychology Press, a subsidiary of Taylor & Francis, New York.

Golestani, N., Price, C.J., Scott, S. K. (2011). Born with an ear for dialectsStructural plasticity in the ‘expert’ phonetician brain. The Journal of Neuroscience, 31(11), 4213-4220.

Harley, T. A. (2008). The Psychology of Language: From data to theory (3rd. ed.) Hove: Psychology Press.

Kegl J., Senghas A., Coppola M. (1999). Creation through contact: Sign language emergence and sign language change in Nicaragua. Comparative Grammatical Change: The Intersection of Language Acquisition, Creole Genesis, and Diachronic Syntax, pp. 179–237. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Muller, R.-A. (1996) Innateness, autonomy, universalityNeurobiological approaches to language. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 19, 611-675

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