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Abstract

Every normal child acquires a language in just a few years. By 3- or 4-years-old, children have effectively become adults in their abilities to produce and understand endlessly many sentences in a variety of conversational contexts. There are two alternative accounts of the course of children's language development. These different perspectives can be traced back to the nature versus nurture debate about how knowledge is acquired in any cognitive domain. One perspective dates back to Plato's dialog ‘The Meno’. In this dialog, the protagonist, Socrates, demonstrates to Meno, an aristocrat in Ancient Greece, that a young slave knows more about geometry than he could have learned from experience. By extension, Plato's Problem refers to any gap between experience and knowledge. How children fill in the gap in the case of language continues to be the subject of much controversy in cognitive science. Any model of language acquisition must address three factors, inter alia:

  • 1.
    The knowledge children accrue;
  • 2.
    The input children receive (often called the primary linguistic data);
  • 3.
    The nonlinguistic capacities of children to form and test generalizations based on the input.

According to the famous linguist Noam Chomsky, the main task of linguistics is to explain how children bridge the gap—Chomsky calls it a ‘chasm’—between what they come to know about language, and what they could have learned from experience, even given optimistic assumptions about their cognitive abilities. Proponents of the alternative ‘nurture’ approach accuse nativists like Chomsky of overestimating the complexity of what children learn, underestimating the data children have to work with, and manifesting undue pessimism about children's abilities to extract information based on the input. The modern ‘nurture’ approach is often referred to as the usage-based account. We discuss the usage-based account first, and then the nativist account. After that, we report and discuss the findings of several studies of child language that have been conducted with the goal of helping to adjudicate between the alternative approaches to language development. WIREs Cogn Sci 2012, 3:185–203. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1158

For further resources related to this article, please visit the WIREs website.