Mkandawire B. (2010). How Nature and Nurture Determine Cognitive development and Language Acquisition. Article written at the University of Zambia in Lusaka.
It is impossible to describe how normal human beings become both linguistically and cognitively without considering the existence of nature and nurture. The conspiracy between these two aspects is very strong that they can hardly be neglected in determining what a normal human being becomes linguistically and cognitively. This paper aims at describing how nature and nurture conspire in determining what a normal human being becomes both linguistically and cognitively. A description of how nature and nurture influence cognition and linguistic development will be given independently while reflecting on the other to justify the conspiracy.
Evidence to show that linguistic and cognitive development in normal human beings is determined by both nature and nurture is manifested in different ways. From nature’s point of view, it is the biological foundations of language and cognition that support language development and thought patterns. Human beings are naturally born with abilities to process and store information in the memory particularly in the brain. In 1969, Chomsky introduced the concept of language acquisition device (LAD) arguing that humans naturally have a facility that facilitates language acquisition. From nurture’s point of view, it can be pointed out that it is the social foundations of language and cognition that make our thought patterns develop into maturity. The environment help us develop our vocabulary, know rules of the language through the experts our neighbors. In acknowledging the significance of the environment, Vygosky developed the language acquisition support system (LASS) to justify that the development of language and cognition requires a rich environment.
A normal human being becomes linguistically and cognitively firm by the support of nature. Cognition and linguistic development would not be possible if the biological foundation of language and cognition like the brain and the vocal organs or speech apparatus are not supportive.
The basis of the biological foundations of the human language and cognition are based on physiological system, neurological system and the pulmonary system. In the physiological system and the pulmonary (respiratory) system, the physical oral cavity of the human being, the lips, nasal cavity, larynx and the lungs in coordination with the brain naturally supports the articulation of the human language and thereby helps an individual develop linguistically. The brain plays a critical role in the neurological system. It facilitates language and cognitive abilities and virtually controls everything a human being does. This view is supported by Encarta as explained in line with the brain below.
Human Brain. Source: Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation. “The brains of all mammals, including those of humans as shown above are dominated by a dome-shaped cerebrum (top). The cerebrum, which is responsible for intelligence and reasoning, varies in size among different mammals. It is most highly developed in the primates, which are considered to have the greatest cognitive abilities”. Linguistic and cognitive abilities develop in human beings due to the presence of the brain. The brain has certain parts like the brocas, cortex and the hemispheres, portion of the central nervous system contained within the skull supports language and cognition. The brain is the control center for movement, sleep, hunger, thirst, and virtually every other vital activity necessary to survival. All human emotions including love, hate, fear, anger, elation, and sadness are controlled by the brain. It also receives and interprets the countless signals that are sent to it from other parts of the body and from the external environment. The brain make us conscious, emotional, and intelligent. “The frontal Lobe is part of the brain in the cerebral cortex responsible for motor control and higher mental processes like reasoning, decision making and problem solving”, Raven and Johnson (1999:1007). Raven and Johnston (page 1010) says the left hemisphere is the dominant for language. This demonstrates that linguistic and cognitive abilities depend heavily on nature.
Based on biological foundations, One evidence showing that linguistic and cognitive abilities are determined by nature in normal human beings lies in the contrast between humans and animals. Some researchers selected the chimpanzee to be studied because they said it is closer to a human being in many ways. The table below shows the details of the studies carried out.
Year of study Name of the researchers Aim of the study and named Chimpanzee under study Results
1930s A couple called Kellogs To teach Gua how to articulate a human language Gua did not try to articulate even a single word
1950s Professor Hayes To teach Vick to articulate a human language After serious lessons, vick made some progress by uttering four words; mama, papa, up, cup. The conclusion for this study was that the chimpazee’s oral cavity was not mearnt for language articulation.
1960s Two Gardeners To teach Washoe the American sign language The study was successful. Washoe used American sign languages creatively.
1980s Premarck To teach Sara how to use some metal baked plastic chips to communicate on a magnetic board The project was also a success. Sara was able to use particular symbols to communicate but Sara could not use them creatively.
These studies suggests that nature plays a big role in cognition and linguistic development. The teaching from the environment would be meaningless like the study of Gua and Vick above if nature (The genetic makeup of the human brain and the oral cavity) does not support those teachings from the environment. Above all, human brains are biologically different from the brains of other animals and part of this difference is due to innate, inherited differences in phylogenies. Cognition and language development are dependent on the brain which should support and coordinates most human processes.
Linguistic and cognitive abilities are not entirely taught or dependent on the environment. Human beings have a natural facility that help them interpret messages from the environment cognitively and acquire a language naturally. This perception is in agreement with Wood (1998:120) “a child knows that the speech signal is a product of another similar system which generate sentences, words and so no. Thus, the child does not have to learn that speech is belt out of words and sentences that posses’ components like subject and predicates or verbs and objects”. This suggests that children cognitively process the linguistic elements they hear in their daily lives without necessarily being taught. Chomsky’s (1959) theory indicate that all normal children acquire language in the same way. They have a language acquisition capacity that act like a mental organ in the brain called Language Acquisition Device (LAD) because he sees this process as a maturation of the language faculty just like the growth of a heart or kidney. Gardner (1983) also agrees that children have a natural facility that helps them acquire language.
Infants begin babbling not too long after birth, and the sounds produced
during this period contain the basic sounds they hear spoken around them
as well as phonemes not present in their native tongue. This is strong evidence
for an innate language faculty. By the time the child turns two years old, he or
she will speak single words in the native language, and soon thereafter, will
begin to form very simple, two-word “sentences.” These word pairs are
meaningful and often novel combinations of words known by the child.
Examples may include “drink milk,” “byebye Daddy,” and “doggy run.”
By the age of three, these two-word utterances grow in length and complexity,
so that the three-year-old child can utter sentences of several words long, even
including questions, negations, and clauses. These sentences often have
grammatical errors (which can be explained by overgeneralization and remain
consistent throughout speakers of a single language), such as in the example,
“I no watch T.V. no more.” By the time the child is four or five years old,
he no longer makes these grammatical mistakes; and he “can speak with
considerable fluency in ways that closely approximate adult syntax”
Growth, maturation and the genetic makeup of a normal human being greatly determine the linguistic and cognitive abilities. For example, both cognitive and linguistic development will need the brain to mature and grow reasonably. The crying of babies when they are born immediately cannot be attributed to change in the environment from the womb to the outside physical environment. It is naturally innate because they do so to allow air enter into their lungs physically for the first time so that they can start breathing. Their crying is a symbol and manifestation that they can learn any human language due to their physiological and genetic makeup. This crying can be attributed to growth and maturation from feotus to a baby and therefore, it would be erroneous to attribute this crying to the environment because allowing lungs to take in air or breathing is not nurture but nature.
The sacking babies do to their mother’s breasts is not taught by the environment. It is inborn. The crying and sacking babies experience clearly suggests that humans are born with some cognitive abilities suggesting that some cognitive abilities are inborn while others are learnt from the environment.
It is true that a normal human being becomes linguistically and cognitively by the support of nature but the role played by nurture cannot be ignored for empirical reasons because nature and nurture conspire in influencing human behavior. Cognition and linguistic development would be complete with both the biological foundations and social foundations of language and cognition. This is because nature and nurture are the critical factors that constitute culture which in turn help us focus on linguistic and cognitive processes.
The social foundation of language and cognition greatly determine nurture. The basis of the social foundations of cognition and language start with care givers in the environment by implanting their own world into the children making them imitate and repeat after the care givers. For example, a mother enforcing words for a baby to repeat after her is a typical social foundation of language. Similarly adults, siblings and parents are critical in the social foundation of language and nurture in general.
Learning cognitive and linguistic abilities requires some support system in the environment to strengthen individual’s capabilities. Vygosky refers to this support given by the environment as the Language acquisition support system (LASS). However, there are a great conspiracy between nature and nurture as it is difficult to plainly discuss the influence of nature or nurture without highlighting on the other. Language acquisition are of interest in light of Chomsky’s theory who says that all children follow this development regardless of the language they speak supports Chomsky’s claim of an innate language organ that is maturing through this process. During the babbling stage, babies produce phonemes they have never heard, from a variety of different languages spoken around the world. Chomsky believes that this is due to the fact that the “language faculty” already contains knowledge of all the sounds that can be produced in any natural spoken language, more evidence for extensive innate language knowledge.
John Dewey in his book ‘How We Think’ indicate that language and thought patterns can be taught. This suggests that there must be an environment for these processes to take place effectively. Linguistic and cognitive development is associated to nurture because knowing levels of linguistic analysis like phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax are learnt from the environment created by someone. Cooking, dressing, dancing equally are learnt from the environment. Environment plays a critical role in the development of human beings. A person who has been brought up in monkeys environment, their cognitive abilities and language are likely to resemble that of monkeys. Knezeki (2005:7) says “Humans speak a wide variety of different languages, and very young children of any race or ethnic background can learn to speak and understand any of these if exposed to appropriate models at the proper time in development”. This suggests that it is very difficult for a human being to learn to speak a public language without this critical exposure to the environment.
The crying and sacking babies manifest immediately they are born demonstrate that humans are born with some cognitive intuitive abilities (how do they think that they are suppose to sack in and not out or cry and not smile) and a facility for learning any human language. If babies know that they are suppose to sack in and not out, John Locke’s idea of “tabula rasa,” which proposes that the minds of newborn infants are blank slates that will be differentiated and altered only through sensory experience would be ruled out because it is very difficult to associate sensory experiences to sacking and crying. These acts are purely cognitive and children are born with some cognitive abilities and a facility for language learning. Sacking and crying cannot be attributed to the environment (nurture) but they are naturally inborn (innate). Such behaviors are inherent and innate, resulting from the expression of genes.
It should be noted that language and cognition like other aspects of human behavior are a product of nature and nurture working together. The biological foundations and social foundations of language and cognition as in language acquisition device (LAD) and language acquisition support system (LASS) respectively influence linguistic and cognitive abilities in normal human beings. This amazing human ability to communicate through language is both the result and the cause of our uniqueness as human beings. Language and cognition are basic tools for humanity. They look simple enough for a child to effortly grasp, yet so complex that we may never completely understand just how genetics and experience interact to produce this most integral human trait rich both linguistically and cognitively.
Chomsky, N. (1996). Powers and Prospects: Reflections on Human Nature and the Socail Order. Boston: South End Press.
Dewey, J. (****) How We Think. New York: Dover Publishing Inc.
Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Harper Collins.
Knezeki, M. (2005). Nature VS Nurture. The miracle of Language. Article.
Raven P. H. and Johnson G. B. (1999). Biology. 5ed. New York: Mc graw Hill.
Villiers, J. G. & Villiers, P. A. (1981) Language Acquisition. London: Harvard University Press.
Wood, D. (1998) How c