Students Against AddictionSAA – Language Acquisition: Inherent, Cognitive, or Sociocultural

A submission by Students Against Addiction. Language Acquisition: Inherent, Cognitive, or Sociocultural.


This essay investigates identifies the three aspects of language acquisition- cognitive, inherent, and sociocultural- and evaluates the utilization of each; it also evaluates which aspect is implemented in actual mental development.

Language is not simply a tool for the communication of thoughts or ideas; it is a method to utilize the cognitive capacities of pattern recognition and transformation in ways to move forward. Humans can further exploit their skills and abilities to create new ideas on the basis of pre-existing ones, allowing for a cognitive movement rather than a movement towards the manipulative scope. The use of language creates a medium for the facilitation of a common ground to comprehend various perspectives and ideas.

However, there remains controversy as to the actual acquisition of language. There are many theories that attempt to explain the development of language with infants and children. There are three theories of language acquisition: cognitive, inherent, and sociocultural. Each theory has specific aspects that make each of them unique in its development of language. There is evidence to support each one; however, there is no one theory that contains all the aspects of the actual development of language. The theories are investigated and evaluated throughout the essay for the beneficiary factors and factors that would hinder the progress of language acquisition. Throughout this essay, support will be given to each of the theories in the form of case studies and observational studies, and in addition, evidence that each of the theories is not holistically true will be given to support opponents to each of the theories.  This essay will investigate the cultural-validity of the case studies that have been performed while referencing known figureheads in the field of neurolinguistics and developmental psychology.

Chapter 1

Elements of Language


“Human knowledge is organized de facto by linguistic competence through language performance, and our exploration of reality is always mediated by language”[1]. The study of neurobiology has led to the exploration of neurolinguistics, the study of the structure of the brain in relation to language production and comprehension. It must be recognized that the brain is a structure with a contra-lateral neural-control arrangement[2], meaning that the two hemispheres of the brain control differing functions. However, in relation to language, the left hemisphere controls most of the processing (this is specific to right-handed individuals), and the opposite can be said of left-handed individuals. The utilization of the Broca’s area along with the Wernicke’s area allows humans to process language, and current studies have shown that the parietal-cortex is used to complete the processing of language[3].  The biological aspect of language assess that there is in fact proof of physical alterations of the body to allow language processing and application.

The importance of understanding the aspects of the language acquisition is the forerunner of comprehending the human mind. The ability of communication is unique to the human species; therefore, there is significance in understanding the formation to the uniqueness. By analyzing the procedure of language acquisition, not only could an individual learn how to raise his/her children in a manner that would be cognitively stimulating, but it could also allow the progression of the human thought in a manner that would lead to further evolution of mental processing.

The various theories each have their own special background and support; yet, there are limitations to each one. The theories of language acquisition are not holistically applicable; however, they have formidable support from case studies, neurological research, and observational studies. The cognitive theory of language acquisition is based on the aspect that a child develops language as he develops intellect. The inherent theory focuses on the innate aspects of the brain that allows children to formulate verbal processes. The sociocultural is the idea that the interactions that a child has with his environment leads to the development of language. As a child interacts with environment, he develops a series of hypotheses that he then implements into his verbal speech (Berko 1958). The study done by Berko is a widely known study that shows the way that children develop language skills from a trial and error mentality. This use of hypothesis is universal for all children learning their native language[4]. The basis of this theory is formulated around the idea that infants create hypotheses in their minds to characterize certain aspects, such as dog or cat. The reaction that would be yielded from the child’s “experimentation” in language would determine whether the child would set that term into his foundation of language. A positive reaction would cause the child to repeat the action to see whether the result would remain positive and from that judgment, he can make alterations to his statements. The use of hypotheses allows children acquiring language to make connections from prior information to discover new possible uses of language. This concept is universal to all the theories of language[5]. This process aids psychologists and linguists in isolating various factors that are present in the process of language acquisition.


Chapter 2

The Cognitive Theory


“Children progress through various landmarks in their understanding of mind and emotion. They eventually understand that people’s actions, utterances, and emotions are determined by their beliefs.  Although these insights emerge in all normal children, individual children vary in their rates of progress.”

(Harris 2005)

The foundations of the cognitive theory of language acquisition were set by Jean Piaget, a French developmental psychologist. His theory was that language acquisition was based on the maturation of the brain. Piaget believed that children must be allowed to explore the world by themselves, allowing a first-hand experience. This exposure to the world allows the cognitive mind to develop, therefore, allowing language to develop into a more sophisticated manner[6]. However, there existed faults in Piaget’s theory and explanations. For instance, his experimentations with children are outdated and the most important limitation is that the experiments that he did conduct were very culturally bound, not constructing his theory with culture in mind.[7] Research has been conducted to study the connection between the cognitive status of an individual and the linguistic capabilities that he/she utilizes (Bohannon & Bonvillian, 2009). The cognitive language acquisition theory uses the idea that children are born with very little cognitive abilities, meaning that they are not able to recognize and process very much information. At birth, infants are limited to a very small scope of mental processes that must be developed over time.[8] As the infant grows to become a toddler, the cognitive processes of the child develop through the various experiences that the child goes through.

Jerome Bruner (1996) suggests a connection between the biological structure of the brain and cognitive growth. He theorized that as a child formulates language in his brain; the cognitive skills of that child will grow, thereby, complementing the development of more sophisticated language. The cognitive theory in the views of Bruner has a biological basis and a sociocultural activation.[9] This combination of multiple theories creates the multifaceted nature of language acquisition. However, Bruner’s theory of language acquisition relies most heavily on the cognitive skills developed after the innate aspects are used to start the rolling process of acquiring advanced linguistics capabilities. These cognitive skills are then used to create the concept that there is a cross-cultural aspect of the cognitive theory. The connections that a person makes within a collective culture allow that individual to implement personal cognition of certain circumstances to interpret various events. These connections are then transferred to language through a series of processes in which the individual creates the disposition towards language.

The cognitive elements of language acquisition remain different from the function of thought, allowing each to grow. This allows babies to develop the schema in which they can interpret the plethora of information; Vgotsky claims that when language and thought meet, “thought becomes verbal and speech rational”[10]. This development of cognitive ability will keep in sync with the language skill of the child. Vgotsky uses a bidirectional model to act as general framework to understand the interactions between culture to the mind, brain, and genes. This model is used due to the uncontrollable nature of the “experiments” that Vgotsky conducts, limiting ecological-validity. However, Vgotsky accumulates a certain amount of support up to today. “The social situation of development is a relational construct in which characteristics of the child combine with the structure of social interactions to create the starting point for a new cycle of developmental changed which will result in a new, higher, level of development”[11]. The concept of building upon that which has already been built is the idea that Cole suggests that by interpretation of Vgotsky’s works. This can be lead to the general idea of interactionist which can be defined by the idea that as the child develops, he/she will use a preconception of the social environment around him/her to trace a pattern[12]. This moves towards the realm of the sociocultural theory of language acquisition; however, Vgotsky mainly attributes the social environment in which a child grows in as a factor to the development of his/her cognition. The social environment creates a schema that is set as the framework to which the child will develop his/her language based on his/her understanding of the world.

However, there is a flaw with the cognitive theory of language acquisition in relation to individuals that express a genetic disorder or have a mental disability. Since the theory depends so heavily on the intellect of the individual, there could be a discrepancy as to the cognitive ability of an individual and the linguistic capabilities that he/she expresses. If the theory were to be regularly followed, that would support that those with lower intellectual levels, such as IQ scores, would have lowered language abilities. However, this is not always the case. There have been instances where there have been genetic disorders that have caused individuals with extraordinary talent, yet inhibited those individuals to lowered cognitive skills. An example of one those variations would be individuals that have William’s syndrome- a genetic disorder that occurs in 1:20,000 births. In William’s syndrome, individuals express extraordinary talent in verbal, social, and musical abilities while maintaining low IQ scores and having difficulty with motor and processing functions (Marini & others, 2010). Cases like William’s syndrome demonstrate that the cognitive theory is not holistically true. There are exceptions to the theory; therefore, complete validity cannot be placed onto the cognitive theory of language acquisition[13].


Chapter 3

The Inherent Theory

“No child would ever talk unless he was taught; and no child could be taught unless he already possessed, by inheritance, a particular series of nervous arrangements ready for training”[14]. Humans could have developed the biological ability to process language over 100,000 years ago. The biological capability of sophisticated language has allowed humans to progress farther than any other animal, significantly increasing the chances of survival (Pinker 1994). The process in which humans acquired the biological evolution necessary to acquire linguistic capabilities formed many millennia ago, giving the foundation of language acquisition (Chomsky, 1975). There are biological traits that are withheld in the brain that allows for the acquisition of natural language (basic vocalization). Children are able to acquire language as early as the final trimester of pregnancy[15].

Steven Pinker advocates the idea that language is an aspect that is centered on “instinct”. “But I prefer the term ‘instinct.’ It conveys the idea that people know how to talk in more or less the sense that spiders know how to spin webs.” Pinker claims that the predisposed nature of language is the biological adaptation to communicate information as can be seen by various animals of the world[16]. Communication is a universal aspect of nature, an ability that is unique for every species. It can be seen from observation that killer whales communicate with other killer whales to capture food.[17] The first time that the inherent theory was articulated was by Darwin in his Descent of Man when he wrote “man has an instinctive tendency to speak”. [18]It can be seen through the universal signs that mankind has created to make the foundations of communication, such as yes and no signals. These foundations create the basis of language that would proliferate into more sophisticated language across all spectrums.

According to Chomsky (1975), the inherent theory of language acquisition is a trait that is passed down by genetics. The ability to develop linguistics capabilities is prewired within a baby’s genetic code and brain development. This biological trait is best given support from the ecological-validity and the natural observation that has noted the linguistic development of children over a given time. These observations have come to a consensus that, on average, children develop language skills around the same time and cognitive development phase. In addition to the credibility that the inherent theory withholds, it holds true across a wide range of cultures.  Chomsky’s argument was that there existed a neural program, an inherent language acquisition device that prepares children to develop language capabilities from the time of birth[19]. For example, the Samoans believe that children younger than the age of five have no understanding of what he/she says; therefore, the adults tend to ignore the nonsensical mutterings of children. This view towards the language skills of children creates no notion of reaction by the parents, not creating a stimulated environment where the baby can develop cognitive processes to develop sophisticated language. However, the baby still develops language capabilities (Schiefflin & Ochs, 1986). The baby’s ability to formulate language without any form of a stimulated environment gives support to Chomsky’s theory of language acquisition.

Much of the defense comes from the genetic basis of language that was supported by Darwinian evolution of “survival of the fittest”. This defense is used to create the sense that those individuals that can communicate are more adept for survival due to the nature of human comprehension. The main proponent of the inherent theory is Noam Chomsky, who proposed that all humans are hardwired with a special psychological foundation for language. His proposition was the language acquisition device (LAD).[20] The LAD has the common groundwork that contains the knowledge of grammatical rules common to all languages. Chomsky downplayed the role of the parenting and culture to focus more on the linguistic LAD to explain how children attain language, regardless of culture. This innate concept was explored further by Jerome Bruner who introduced the concept language acquisition support system (LASS). The LASS is a concept to describe the innate linguistic knowledge that had been installed into each baby since birth.[21]

At birth, language development initiates with the infant’s inclination to react to certain aspects of verbal behavior. From a biological standpoint, genetics play an important role in that it creates the predisposition to which the baby reacts, for example to facial-vocal activity. Recent research shows that there are certain areas that are utilized for facial and vocal activity; thus, it moves towards the idea that there is a biological tendency for language since birth. A study to observe the amount of time infants expressed joint attention episodes at 15 months and the extent at which the infant could use articulate vocabulary at 21 months. The results showed a positive correlation between the vocabulary and the episodic-attention (Tomasello, 1986).

Bruner emphasizes the role of language as a method of interpreting culture. This interpretation allows for the advancement in the cognitive development of babies and children. However, the aspect of an inherent method of language acquisition creates controversy for its rather abstract ideology. Bruner (1996) makes a connection between language and development in a cultural view, stating that human minds evolve through the symbolic interpretation of cultures that are shared, allowing a collective stance. “The acquisition of a first language is very context sensitive, by which is meant that it progresses far better when the child already grasps in some prelinguistic way the significance of what is being talked about or of the situation in which the talk is occurring”[22]. This gives the concept that babies are born with some innate, prelinguistic trait that enables them to be able to develop the cognitive ability for more sophisticated language. Bruner suggests that there has to be an activation of the biological basis of human development, primarily using a caretaker that would stimulate cognitive growth. The innate predisposition to be able to speak allows for the individual to use the prelinguistic capabilities to build linguistic integrity that would then be utilized for more cognitive based growth.


Chapter 4

The Sociocultural Theory


“The structure of the language one habitually uses influences the way he perceives his environment …” (Vygotsky, 1978). The foundation of the sociocultural aspect would be the relationship between the child and the response of the society that is within proximity of him. Vygotsky believed that there was a mechanism properly named the Zone of Proximal Development that is the idea that the direct environment around a child is the area that causes the most development of language. The ability to process language has to be an aspect that the child has to act upon willfully. Vygotsky’s theory is based upon the idea that the processing of language originates outside the individual and “it is directed by language as the most semiotic systems”[23]. The most critical aspect of Vygotsky’s theory is the voluntary acting between the individual attempting to develop language and the individual that is already an expert on the language. This interaction is known as immersion, a practice used to learn and develop linguistic skills in a secondary language[24]. However, in terms of a primary language, there is no prior understanding of language that would interfere with the development of linguistic abilities.

Cultures also vary in the way that they teach and nurture the children in his/her acquisition of language. The Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea believe that children need to be carefully maintained, with explicit instructions to language (Schieffen, 1989). The Kaluli believe that language has to be explicitly taught, creating an environment that is based on the sociocultural theory, along with the cognitive theory as a compliment. This also provides a method of test isolation and ecological-validity, due to its limited range with the cultural spectrum. This method of explicitly teaching creates a cognitive foundation that the child can then utilize as well as the primary part, the sociocultural aspect, in which the environment of the child is dictated by the language that is being taught. The child creates conclusions on what is being taught around him, and then, he implements the terminology to instigate into his own speech [25].However, a very different approach is taken by the Samoan adults, who believe that children’s attempts at language have no meaning. The Samoan children are exposed to language of their own elder siblings rather than the language of adults (Ochs, 1988). This creates an emphasis on the sociocultural basis on that the Samoan people display a method of creating the foundation of language by the utilization of the environment around them. The children are left to absorb the language of their elder siblings, which would provide a cognitive advantage as they are not exposed to language that would be too sophisticated from their sphere of comprehension[26]. This creates an environment where the child’s innate capabilities are disregarded as nonsense, impeding acknowledgment at basis of the inherent theory. This case study provides for a cross-cultural idea of how different cultures develop the basis of language. The sociocultural foundation of the Kaluli and Somoan peoples gives insight as to how language acquisition maintains ecological-validity.

Behaviorists investigated the concept of language acquisition and developed the idea that the linguistic building process is based upon the interactions an individual has with his environment, an idea that was emphasized by B. F. Skinner[27]. According to Skinner, a child utilizes the environment around him to associate language to various characteristics within the sociocultural bounds. However, Skinner’s case study (1957) is often disregarded as outdated; in the case study, he notes that children learn their native language by imitating sounds and repeating in their attempts at reproducing language. It has recently been proven that imitation is not as important to the development of language as it was believed to be. Children possess a more sophisticated method of acquiring language[28].

A prime example of how the sociocultural-environment has an effect on the language acquisition is the Genie case (1970). The case was that there was a child, who was codenamed Genie that had spent most of her life in her room, often tied to a potty chair. The cruel punishment caused Genie to grow up in isolation, depriving her of the cognitive stimulation to develop proper linguistic skills; as a result, when she was found, she was almost entirely mute[29]. The isolation that Genie had to ensure had rendered her unable to articulate basic sentence syntax and grammar. This brings up the argued idea of nature vs. nurture. The nurture aspect of her upbringing was so lacking due to her forced solitary confinement that her mental structure was hindering her ability to acquire language. According to the effects that isolation had on Genie, the nurture aspect had a greater impact that the inherent aspect. Since there was no sense of cognitive stimulation, the cognitive theory is not necessarily applicable. However, Genie seemed to show signs of improvement during her phase of rehabilitation. Genie seemed to acquire the cognitive abilities after she had been taken and institutionalized into an environment that was both positive and mentally stimulating (Curtiss, 1977). The sociocultural change that had been instigated on Genie caused such a difference on her, that at first, her mental skills could not process her situation; therefore, she could not articulate her own emotions into language. But as the years passed and she was taught basic grammar and into more sophisticated language, she developed the ability to acquire language past the critical period. The critical period is a point in a child’s life where the brain is able to develop linguistic capabilities most efficiently[30].

Yet despite the claims of this theory, there is a surprising lack of support for this theory. Such a view of language acquisition is not completely plausible; however, given the speed at which children create a comprehension of language, the environmental factors are not completely disregarded (R. Brown, 1973). Therefore, there is some credibility to the sociocultural theory. The environmental factors that were present in the Genie case caused the rehabilitation of a deprived individual, and eventually, the acquisition of language far past the critical time period in which linguistic ability most quickly develops[31].



Chapter 5



Despite studies to support each theory for the essentials of language acquisition, there is no one theory that can holistic explain the phenomenon of language acquisition. There are elements in each level of analysis that contributes to the entire acquisition of language. There have been notions that each theory is entwined with each other, a coexistence of different acquiring abilities building up to create an understanding of language. For example, Brunner believed that Chomsky’s LAD was an unfinished model that was too reductionist. Rather than just emphasizing the innate linguistic abilities of children, Brunner developed a model that showed the transition from innate prelinguistic skills to creating comprehensive ideas from the cognitive understanding, the language acquisition support system (LASS).[32] This transition is the stimulation of cognitive thought to allow children to create a basis of understanding that would only manifest to more sophisticated linguistic abilities. This utilization of the inherent theory to transition into the cognitive theory demonstrates the holistic approach to language acquisition. Along with this, the sociocultural theory is also integrated. As an individual develops cognitive understanding, he will create schema using the environmental setting as a standard for cause and effect relationships. Using the results of the relationships, the individual will then utilize pre-developed linguistics to acquire more advanced language.

Vygotsky claims that the use of the environment to develop the cognitive processing of an individual is the main drive that allows for the acquisition of language. This acquisition of language is based upon a model that Vygotsky called Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This model (1978) is upon the basis that there is an environmental proximity that creates the zone of the best circumstances for language acquisition.[33] The ZPD agrees with many aspects of the sociocultural theory of language acquisition in league with the inherent theory. Using the environment to create the basis of the linguistic skills that are necessary, an individual moderates the level of language ability that is needed. The ways that an individual directs his attention to a certain aspect is given a dynamic relationship between the different perceptual fields and level of linguistic capabilities. This is why adults do not go to preschool to communicate with children in a method that would be too sophisticated for the children. The level of language would be too outlandish for the environment. This is similar for language acquisition. The environment must be optimal for the cognitive level of the individual for the language to develop in a process that would be productive and stable. The various trends that can be seen from the many studies to prove the different theories show that there is an essential connection that allows for the most optimal conditions for language acquisition. There is no overwhelming theory that has precedence over another theory. All of the elements of the different methods of acquiring language are apparent in the way that children and adults develop language giving ecological-validity and a cross-cultural aspect. Language acquisition is the compilation of human evolution and cognitive growth.


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[1] Danchin 29

[2] Vajda

[3] Hickok1-4

[4] Matsumoto 315

[5] Matsumoto 314

[6] Mason

[7] Jamison 72

[8] Knezek

[9] King

[10] Jamison 72

[11] Cole

[12] Jamison 73

[13] King 266

[14] Marshall 41

[15] Locke 267

[16] Pinker 6

[17] James 27

[18] Darwin

[19] Kandel 638

[20] Lee

[21] Jamison73

[22] Bruner 71

[23] Lantolf 9

[24] Jamison 75

[25] Matsumoto 316

[26] Matsumoto 314

[27] King 267

[28] Matsumoto 315

[29] Curtiss

[30] Newport 738

[31] Curtiss

[32] Jamison 78

[33] Vygotsky 86