Language is an important method of communication for people. According to Innatist theory, the ability to understand a first-language creates the opportunity to unlock knowledge that a human is believed to be able to process innately. Innatist theory is an idea that has had many pioneers over the decades, but much of the credit for this theory is given to Noam Chomsky.
Chomsky looked at the current theories about behavior in children and found that something was lacking in them. Many arguments suggested that children tend to learn language by imitating those who are close to them, such as their parents. If imitation was truly the foundation of first-language understanding, the Chomsky had an important question to ask.
Why do children often say things that they have never heard before?
To solve this issue, Chomsky formed the foundation of the Innatist theory. He suggests that children are born with a built-in ability to learn a first-language. He refers to this ability as LAD – a “Language Acquisition Device.”
Do People Have Built-in Rules for All Human Languages?
Within the Innatist theory, Chomsky suggests that there is a template for learning a first-language. He puts for the idea that everyone is born with a common set of rules that are followed to learn this language. Called “Universal Grammar,” this theory suggests that infants can pick up on grammatical language rules as communication occurs around them. Because they hear words spoken in a specific way, they can construct their first-language grammar on their own.
Children then test out their grammar templates as they get older so they can refine their language. A classic example of this testing process occurs when a child is referring to something in the past tense. Many children, when referring to a previous snack or meal, recognize that they were eating. They can also recognize that in English, a past tense of a verb ends with “ed.” For this reason, you’ll see many young children learning English as a first-language saying that they “eated” something.
Of course, a parent or adult who is fluent in the first-language will correct the grammatical error. “It’s not ‘eated,’ but ate.” The child then learns different past-tense grammatical rules to specific words and will become more fluent in their first-language.
This means children, even before they make it to school, are creating sentences that are based on the rules of language so they can speak that language fluently. Schools, when teaching grammatical rules, aren’t specifically teaching a “language.” They are teaching children how to translate their knowledge of a spoken first-language into a writing-based communication method.
The Idea of Innatism is an Ancient One
Although Chomsky is often credited as a pioneer of Innatist theory, he was far from the first theorist or philosopher to suggest that the human mind has knowledge which is thought to be universal in concept. Innatism is at the foundation of the nature vs nurture debate.
One of the first ideas that could be considered an Innatist theory comes to us from Plato. He suggested that there are concepts which humanity believes to be universally true, but that truth doesn’t come from knowledge that is conveyed from one person to another. In “Meno,” Plato talks of a situation when Socrates spoke with a boy about geometry. The boy, who had no knowledge of geometric theorems, could answer the questions accurately.
Descartes also suggested that humans have innate knowledge that presents itself in the thoughts that each person forms over the course of their life. Even sensory ideas are shaped by an innate ability or knowledge that is present from birth.
Criticism of Innatist Theory
John Locke is often referenced when criticizing Innatist theory. Locke suggests that there is no universal assent. He suggests that people are born with a blank slate. Their knowledge comes from sensory data that is formed through empirical knowledge that is obtained through observation and inquiry.
Where one person might see no explanation for a statement from a child, Locke suggests that people are collecting information from the moment they are born. This information is retained by the brain and can then be accessed when there is a first-language capability available to them.
What seems innate is instead empirical learning, which would then make Innatist theory irrelevant.
As environments change, new information must be obtained to allow for survival. When an environment is stable, the only information that would be required is that which would be required for survival. Stability would mean that information could be obtained once and then used throughout a lifetime.
How one sees the world will likely depend on how they view Innatist theory. If the world is a place of constants, then Innatist theory makes sense. If the world is ever-changing, then this theory could not apply.