Is Human Language an Instinctual Behaviour?

In this essay I discuss whether human language is an instinctual behaviour or a learning behaviour by considering Eric Lenneberg’s criteria for instinctual behaviours (1967). This has been argued for years and although some follow Skinner`s theory of language acquisition as a learning behaviour, there are still people who consider language as an innate ability, and those people follow Noam Chomsky`s theory of language as an instinctual behaviour. After a deep consideration of Eric Lenneberg’s criteria and Noam Chomsky`s theory of instinctual behaviours, I suggest that humans have an innate ability corresponding with learning a language.

In Nicaragua, deaf children created a new signed language, and this signed language-Nicaraguan Sign Language (I.S.N) – was created by children, not adults. Therefore, it is important to state that young children are much more effective in language because according to the theory of instinctual behaviours there is a critical period for language acquisition, and in this period children can learn a language more easily than adults (Osborne, 1999). And this implies that human language is an instinctual behaviour because there are specific rules and stages of learning a language.

Language acquisition is something that we learn unconsciously and the best example of this unconscious process is that children begin learning language long before they actually need it to communicate. This should tell us what Lenneberg argued years ago as criteria of emerging before necessary, in which language acquisition is explained as an instinctual behaviour.

The second criteria of Lenneberg’s theory -no conscious decision- proves that language acquisition is an innate ability, because children cannot decide that they want to learn speaking, this ability also happens unconsciously. Moreover, children can give up tying their shoes or playing an instrument. However, they cannot give up learning a first language. Therefore, learning a first language is a no conscious decision for humans.

Thirdly, as another Lenneberg`s criteria for instinctual behaviours, the uniform sequence of milestones, in which we see that all children learn instinctual abilities in the same way, for example, there are specific stages of learning how to walk such as rolling, rocking, creeping. And, of course, there are specific stages of language acquisition such as babbling, first word stage, and first two-word stage. These stages are universal; every child has to pass these stages to be able to communicate. This also does not matter if a child is deaf or not. Deaf children learn sign language as following the same stages of spoken language such as babbling, first-word stage and first two-word stage (Petitto, 2000). Therefore, language acquisition is an innate ability. Otherwise, these stages would differ from child to another and even there would be different stages for different languages .

Fourthly, the most interesting criterion of Lenneberg is the fact that direct teaching has no effect on baby learners. It does not matter how hard parents try to correct their children`s mistakes, they will keep making the same mistakes as if they have never been corrected. The reason is that, as aforementioned in the third criterion, children have to follow some particular stages of language acquisition. Therefore, despite parent`s efforts to correct mistakes of their children, they must make the same mistakes over and over to be able to learn a language, which proves that language acquisition is an instinctual behaviour.

In summary, some instinctual characteristics of human nature are explained as innate abilities and one of the most important instinctual abilities of humans is language acquisition. I consider language as an innate ability in respect of analysing Eric Lenneberg’s criteria for instinctual behaviours. Lenneberg`s criteria and the fact that signing and speaking children follow the same stages of language acquisition are strikingly important, because they explain that humans have something special from birth that enables us to learn human language and it does not matter if we use our hands or tongue to learn a language.

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