Nativism (psychology)

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This article is about nativism in psychology, linguistics, and cognitive science. For other uses of the term nativism, please see nativism (disambiguation).

Nativism, in the sense familiar to scholars of linguistics, psychology and cognition, proposes that certain key traits of a species are not learned but emerge from a mind that is in some way already set up to deal with the environment in which it will develop and function. This theory identifies language as a prime example of an 'instinct' that is unlearnable; instead, thanks to linguistic mechanisms set out in the human mind by genes, language is 'innate' and therefore acquired in a way that is largely outside its user's conscious control, much in the same way that humans also start to walk and birds take flight. Environmental forces also play a role - children not exposed to language will go without it - but with the minimum of linguistic input, language is acquired according to an innate developmental template. 'Nativists' such as Steven Pinker also see the language 'instinct' as a provided by a specific mental 'module' for language, though others prefer to explain language and other abilities in terms of 'general cognition'.

Nativism is strongly associated with Noam Chomsky's views on language acquisition, and is contrasted with the empiricism of B.F. Skinner and other behaviourists, who saw reference to 'innate' characteristics as unscientific and preferred explanations that relied on he organism's interaction with its environment; complex 'behaviour' such as language would fall out automatically. Chomsky pointed to fundamental concerns in the behaviourist case for language as an environmental phenomenon, and later champions of nativism have sought clues to how language and other traits are part of the human species by looking at the genome and the structure of the brain.