An Examination, Comparison, and Application of Innate vs. Ecological Language Teaching

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December 4, 2012 by k. liz

Where does language come from? What tools are used when a child or language student is studying their first or subsequent languages? Are these things the same or different? Does it matter? These questions have been bouncing around the field of Applied Linguistics for many years, and there are good answers that fall on all sides of these questions. The last question has a clear answer, yes these thoughts do matter. It is crucial that as language teachers and researchers we must be aware of where language comes from if we are indeed to aid our students in acquiring it. By understanding what tools a child or student uses, teachers can tailor their classes and lessons to allow the students to be more successful. This essay will look at two main ideas of language teaching, namely that language comes from in the mind and that language comes from one’s environment. After addressing these topics, the essay will look at whether or not these two realms of thought can co-exist, and if they can what is the ideal manner in which they ought to do so. in the Mind

Language is an innate ability or the linguistic birthright of every child. Ideas such as this have come from researchers such as Noam Chomsky (1980s) and Bickerton (1990s). These men have coined terms such as Universal Grammar, the concept that all languages have commonalities, and therefore children are born with the ability to decipher them, they only need to receive proper input; Language Acquisition Device, the internal processor that children have that allows them to make sense of the Universal Grammar and become fluent in a language; and the Bioprogram Hypothesis, that children that are born into a major language group are actually denied the opportunity to exercise their full linguistic ability, but were children given the chance, they could develop a fully functioning grammar on their own. Clearly, these concepts promote the idea that language is innate.


There are a lot of claims and research that support these ideas, as well. Jackendoff (1997) provides several key ideas as to why an innate language program makes sense. She includes ideas such as genetics, the poverty of stimulus effect, and the ways that children can apply rules to unknown words or structures. The poverty of stimulus effect refers to the fact that children are able to create new and novel sentences beyond what they have been taught. They are able to take language to a new level. These indeed do provide a strong case for the idea that language does exist in the mind.


Language in the Environment

On the other side of the argument is the idea that language exists in society and in the environment surrounding the learner. VanLier (1998) presents the idea of an ecological approach to teaching which supports this very idea that language exists outside of the learner. This hypothesis fits nicely with Vygotsky’s (1920s) research which led to the idea of the Zone of Proximal Development. The concept of the ZPD was that students can only move forward in their learning if someone who knows more would meet them and help them along to the next level of learning. Krashen (1990s) also promoted this idea with his i+1 hypothesis, teaching that unless someone presents a learner with a little more than their current knowledge, they will not move forward. Both Vygotsky and Krashen acknowledged that there is language outside of the student that they have not yet accessed and that they need if they are going to be successful in their language learning endeavor. All of these researchers see the need to use what exists in the students’ environments in order to help them really learn and make progress.


One important realm of research that supports this view is the case of Genie, a young girl who was abused and isolated for nearly all of her childhood. When Genie was found, she was unable to speak or communicate with people around her. Were language innate, it would seem that Genie would be able to communicate regardless of whether or not she had been exposed to language. Though she was able to learn to communicate, she never reached an adult level of fluency. Also, another example is that deaf children born into hearing homes do indeed find a way to communicate with their parents, but it is extremely limited, and it is not until they are exposed to actual sign language that they are able to fully learn to communicate with a complete grammar and vocabulary system. These examples show that environment really does play a role in a child’s ability to learn a language.



Can these two, seemingly opposite ideas co-exist? Is it clear that language must exist either in the mind or in society, but not in both? No. As research shows, there are clear evidences for both sides of the argument. So, how do we marry the two? First of all, these two ideas cannot exist without each other. Language, in its essence requires a mind of a speaker as well as an environment. As much as Chomsky and others would like to see language devoid of human contamination, it is impossible. Language is what it is because it includes a human being with a mind and cognition as well as an environment which provides input and feedback. That is enough to warrant a serious consideration of both ideas and provide a basis for accepting both points of view. So, it is clear that both sides are valid.


However, there is more to the issue than that. Looking back at the theories presented here, it is evident that language in the mind is especially powerful for first language acquisition. Language in the environment is also essential for first language acquisition, but as a whole, it addresses the needs of second language acquisition. One would do well to allow the strengths of each hypothesis to influence their thinking on the aspect of acquisition to which it best applies. As we look at first language acquisition, environment clearly plays a role, but it is far more salient that there is something in the child’s mind that allows them to move through stages of language learning and acquire forms in a way that the environment does not adequately provide for. However, when we look at second language acquisition, we do not see the same evidences. Genetics and the poverty of stimulus effect are not nearly as evident in second language acquisition as they are in first language acquisition. Therefore, it needs to be explained how and why learners acquire their second language. Second language learners require an environment in which they are experiencing and hearing and testing the language they are studying. It is possible that processes that occurred in their first language acquisition may transfer into their second language, making it appear that it is in the mind, but in reality second language students do not learn much that is not taught to them, or that they are not exposed to. Novel sentences come from translation or creativity that was developed during first language acquisition. Second language learners have a great need for an environment rich in language if they are going to be successful.



What do these conclusions mean for the language teacher or student? This essay served to affirm that both camps – that language is in the mind, and that language is in the environment – are valid. However, it is clear that for the second language student and teacher, an ecological approach to language learning provides more realistic applications. This indicates that, while first language acquisition’s processes and properties are informative and helpful, they are only that. Innate language is not something that can be manipulated by outside forces. Rather, it should guide teachers as they evaluate where their students are coming from and if and how a student’s first language can benefit them in their second language. Language in the environment has a much larger role to play in the creation and execution of lessons for second language acquisition. This means that it is the responsibility of the teacher to provide an environment rich in language examples, input, modeling, use, and culture so that students have the tools necessary to further their language ability. Teachers must also make students aware and meet them at their level, always guiding and providing a little more than the student was previously capable of doing. By providing this kind of environment and provoking students with slightly more complex language than they have known before, the teacher will guide the student through the mental processes and help to build up the mental grammar that the student needs to become fluent in a second language.


Both sides of the argument are necessary in this case. Teachers cannot successfully approach the students without some awareness of the internal processes of language acquisition, but they also cannot expect students to progress without creating a rich atmosphere for them to experience the language. Teachers cannot touch the mind of the learners, though there may be language processor in there somewhere. Teachers can, however, touch the atmosphere in which the students find themselves. Teachers can take what the students bring to them from their minds, meet it with a language filled environment, and mesh the two together into something greater.


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