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Is the Native Language Acquired or Learnt?

Language “acquisition” is the cognitive process through which individuals develop their native language or languages, particularly during childhood, via some cognitive mechanisms such as "statistical learning." Babies acquire their native language, without any formal teaching, simply by being exposed to and engaging with it in their environment. This means that a child's native language is acquired as a process, without conscious education or formal instruction.

During this process, although babies are not provided with explicit rules, they gradually develop complex language skills with competence in grammar, syntax, and pronunciation through guidance and direction. Furthermore, perhaps the most critical aspect of language acquisition is its timing. The period during which children are most advantaged in language acquisition is typically referred to as the critical period. For the first language, this spans from infancy to around 5-6 years of age, while for a second native language, it extends from infancy to early adolescence. During this period, the brain is highly receptive to linguistic data, making self-learning significantly easier.

In this context, we'd like to mention one of the founding figures of modern linguistics, Noam Chomsky. Chomsky introduced the theory of Universal Grammar in the mid-20th century. In doing so, he postulated that children acquire language entirely through an automatic process, without any teacher or explicit instructions. According to him, this implied that there must be an innate structure in the human brain that enables language acquisition, possibly associated with certain genes. Universal Grammar is the name given to this structure. In Chomsky's view, infants around the world go through similar stages and learn language completely on their own, despite being exposed to different languages from their families. This self-learning process occurs within roughly the same timeframe, similar to how innate senses, like vision, are learned entirely on one's own. The fact that no other species can naturally develop and use a complex system like language, along with the lack of substantial results when attempting to teach languages to our closest evolutionary relatives, lends support to this perspective.(Terrace, 1979; Terrace ve ark. 1979; Deacon 1997)

However, it's essential to clarify here that the idea of a particular language being innate should not be concluded from this. Regardless of our race, ethnicity, or nationality, we acquire the language spoken in our family or country as our native tongue. So, does this pose a problem for Chomsky's theory? In fact, no. Universal Grammar asserts that it's not a particular language that is innate from birth but rather the capacity to learn a language. The critical point here is the concept of exposure. According to this, during the critical period mentioned earlier, our language-learning ability gets "tuned" to the language we are exposed to. Attempting to change or adapt these settings beyond a certain age, typically adolescence, becomes increasingly difficult. Consequently, the process known as language acquisition can only occur up to a certain age, and after that age, it becomes nearly impossible to acquire a native language or a second native language.

On the other hand, language "learning" is the result of a conscious and deliberate effort. Unlike acquiring a second language, we're not talking about language acquisition after the critical period, where the transition from the word "native" into the word "foreign" becomes a challenging journey requiring conscious effort to learn a second language. While growing up bilingual is possible, there are multiple methods for learning a second language. It can be part of a school curriculum, shaped through written and auditory resources, or facilitated by private instructors who may focus on grammar and other language rules.

Adults, and even young people who haven't acquired a second language during this critical period, often enroll in language courses, hire private tutors, or engage with resources like books, videos, or recorded lessons to learn the rules of the language and memorize words. In reality, the distinction between these two processes corresponds to a fundamental division in linguistics and cognitive development fields: language acquisition and language learning.

In popular culture or in the work of some researchers, these two terms are sometimes used interchangeably. However, in many cases, they represent distinct processes and outcomes.

While language acquisition is a completely natural process, language learning is a structured and planned process conducted by an authority or an individual. Another significant difference is that in language acquisition, a specialized mechanism, such as Universal Grammar, operates the process entirely from a linguistic perspective. In contrast, in the context of language learning, just like in other learning processes, our general learning mechanisms come into play. In other words, when we engage in language learning, we use the mental mechanisms we employ when trying to learn something in mathematics, history, or any other field. On the other hand, during language acquisition, the innate Universal Grammar is at the core of the process.

While some researchers who disagree with Chomsky's Universal Grammar theory may not conceptually see the distinction between language acquisition and language learning as accurate, it is widely accepted that there is a critical period during which a child learns to speak their native language, and exposure during this period is a significant factor. Furthermore, it is commonly acknowledged that compared to our evolutionarily closest relatives, humans have a much more complex communicative structure, such as language. Therefore, it seems possible to speak of a consensus within these disciplines.


✦Chomsky, N. (1981). Lectures on government and binding. Dordrecht: Foris.

✦Chomsky, N. (1986). Knowledge of language. New York: Praeger Special Studies.

✦Terrace, H. S. (1979). Nim. New York: Knopf.

✦Lenneberg, E.H. (1967). Biological foundations of language. Wiley.

✦Deacon, T. W. (1997). The Symbolic Species: The Coevolution of Language and the Brain (p. 23). New York: WW Norton.


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