Do children show evidence of innate cognitive abilities? Discuss with reference to any topic covered in the module.
The nature-nurture debate is a consistently prominent area of interest in psychology and has in turn sparked a considerable number of studies investigating the extent to which our genes and the environment shape developmental processes. The psychological research supporting nativist theories will be compared with the contrasting empiricist views, which highlight environmental experiences, in a discussion to examine whether infants exhibit evidence of innate cognitive abilities in the developmental area of language acquisition. Children, despite having no knowledge of words themselves when they are born, are able to acquire language quickly and with apparent ease, and many ideas have been put forward to examine and understand the processes that lie behind the acquisition of language. The main theories include those of Nativism and Empiricism. Nativism is the theoretical position which argues that language is acquired so quickly as the result of a built in, innate mechanism, that makes infants predisposed to learning language (Harris, 2006). The opposing Empiricist position on the other hand holds that language is not built in but rather that it is learnt through children’s experiences and interactions with their environment. Chomsky, who supports the ideas of Nativism, has argued that a Universal Grammar exists, and that children are able to learn language so quickly because of an innate understanding of syntax rules (the rules for combining words in to sentences); he proposes that through the use an innate ‘language acquisition device’ language specific features of utterances (the surface structure of language) are translated into the innate deep structure of language with which children are born (Mitchell and Ziegler, 2012, p206). Chomsky built upon the idea for an innate mechanism in language development by highlighting the universality of its acquisition by children, despite the poverty of input from the environment; the argument that children are often exposed to grammatically imperfect, ‘degenerate’ language, which alone would not fully account for language development (Mitchell and Ziegler, 2012, p208). The social constructivism perspective contrasts with Chomsky’s perspective of degenerate language by explaining how the home environment and surrounding culture of a child acts as a language acquisition support system (Mitchell and Ziegler, 2012, p210). Bruner (1975, 1993) highlighted how parents have the tendency to talk to their children in a way which facilitates language learning; known as infant directed talk, or ‘motherese’. Children often hear language in familiar social contexts, where the speech directed to the child often names the objects or people currently in view and where the general focus of speech if focussed on what is currently happening (Harris, 2006). In this way motherese facilitates learning words and their meanings through association, so if the word apple is always spoken upon presentation on an apple the child should find it easier to make an association between the name of the fruit and the fruit itself. In the same way children can learn to associate words or phrases with actions, such as if a parent always says ‘upsy-daisy’ before picking up their child, the child is likely to learn that this phrase is followed by the action and expect to be picked up. Children are believed to pay such attention to the utterances and actions of their carers because they are motivated (have a social drive) to communicate, particularly as the fulfilment of their needs depends upon their carers (Mitchell and Ziegler, 2012, p210). Another approach which offers support to environmental factors in language acquisition draws on connectionism to further challenge the Nativist argument; connectionist networks are essentially computer models that attempt to simulate the ways in which children...
References: Harris, M. (2006). ‘First Words’. Milton Keynes. The Open University.
Oates, J. Greyson, A. (2006) Cognitive and Language Development in Children. Milton Keynes. The Open University.
Frith, U. (2008). ‘Autism A very Short Introduction’. Oxford University Press.
Mitchell, P., & Ziegler, F. (2012). ‘Fundamentals of developmental Psychology’. Hove Psychology Press.
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