Nativist vs Learning vs Interactionist Language Theory



There are three theories on how humans acquire language: the Nativist, Learning (Behaviorist), and Interactionist theories. According to the Nativist theory, humans have an innate ability to acquire language, and language is most easily acquired during a critical period in early childhood. Learning theory proposes that language is a learned behavior, acquired through operant conditioning, imitation and practice. Interactionist theory asserts that language acquisition has both biological and social components.

Key Points

  • Theories of Language Acquisition
    • Nativist theory
      • Language acquisition is biologically programmed
        • Humans possess innate (native) ability for language
        • Noam Chomsky posited that people are born with language acquisition device (LAD), a brain system that allows children to quickly learn language
      • Language easily acquired during critical period (ages 2-9)
        • LAD most active during these early years of development (~2-9)
        • Time-sensitive period early in life during which language acquisition is easier (with proper exposure), as compared to the period afterward, during which language acquisition is much more difficult
    • Learning (Behaviorist) theory
      • Language is a learned behavior, acquired through operant conditioning, imitation, and practice
        • Humans born as “blank slates”
    • Interactionist theory
      • Language acquisition is biological AND social
        • Effectively merges the above two theories


Children learn languages more easily than adults, and they are able to grasp grammatical structures without formal education, suggesting an innate or native ability for language (Nativist theory). However, neglected children have weaker language skills, suggesting that parental reinforcement and practice play a role in the development of language (Learning theory). To address criticisms of both theories above, the Interactionist theory holds the middle ground in stating that both biological and social elements contribute to language.