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When people start thinking about language, the first question which often occurs to them is this: is language natural to humans? – in the same way that grunting is natural to pigs, and barking comes naturally to dogs. Or is it just something we happen to have learned? – in the same way that dogs may learn to beg, or elephants may learn to waltz, or humans may learn to play the guitar. Clearly, in one sense, children ‘learn’ whatever language they are exposed to, be it Chinese, Nootka or English. So no one would deny that ‘learning’ is very important. But the crucial question is whether children are born with ‘blank sheets’ in their head as far as language is concerned – or whether humans are ‘programmed’ with an outline knowledge of the structure of languages in general. This question of whether language is partly due to nature or wholly due to learning or nurture is often referred to as the nature–nurture controversy, and has been discussed for centuries. For example, it was the topic of one of Plato’s dialogues, the Cratylus. Controversies which have been going on for literally ages tend to behave in a characteristic fashion. They lie dormant for a while, then break out fiercely. This particular issue resurfaced in linguistics in 1959 when the linguist Noam Chomsky wrote a devastating and witty review of Verbal Behavior, a book by the Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner (Skinner 1957; Chomsky 1959). This book claimed to ‘explain’ language as a set of habits gradually built up over the years. According to Skinner, no complicated innate or mental mechanisms are needed. All that is necessary is the systematic observation of the events in the external world which prompt the speaker to utter sounds.