The Search for a Unified Theory of Language Learning

Language. It’s all around us. It’s vital for our everyday existence.

And yet many of us find it challenging to pick up a new one.

The problem, we tell ourselves, is that we’re thinking too hard.

The solution, we say, is to be more like those kids that we once were when we learned our first language. Simply absorbing things the way kids do without really thinking about the language must surely be our best bet, we convince ourselves.

But here’s the thing. We’re not kids anymore and we never will be again.

We’re not going to have the same opportunities as we did in our native language where we were in constant contact with mothers, fathers and siblings who corrected our every mistake (though a girlfriend or boyfriend might compensate). Nor do most of us want to spend 18 years of our lives studying a language just to achieve high school level fluency.

We don’t need to abandon the lessons we’ve taken from childhood language learning, but we must surely temper them with something else. And that thing is theory.

Theory, that most highly condensed form of thought based on principles and evidence, can help us as adults to excel in language learning in ways that would otherwise not be possible.

Of course, learning about language learning theory in no way needs to occupy the bulk of your time. By devoting just a fraction of your time to theory right now, you’ll reap benefits far beyond getting in an extra 10 minutes of studying. So without further ado, let’s start at the beginning.

7 Great Theories About Language Learning by Brilliant Thinkers

Theories of language learning have been bandied about since about as far back as one would care to look. It may be surprising to know that the problems that philosophers in Ancient Greece and 16th century France were concerned about are largely still relevant today.

To get a quick rundown of early language learning theory, let’s take a quick look at the ideas of three brilliant philosophers who you’ve probably already heard of.

1. Plato’s Problem

The writings of Plato stretch all the way back to the beginnings of Western philosophical thought, but Plato was already posing problems critical to modern linguistic discourse.

In the nature versus nurture debate, Plato tended to side with nature, believing that knowledge was innate.

This was his answer to what has become known as Plato’s Problem, or as Bertrand Russell summarizes it: “How comes it that human beings, whose contacts with the world are brief and personal and limited, are nevertheless able to know as much as they do know?” Being born with this knowledge from the get-go would naturally solve this little quandary and consequently he viewed language as innate.

2. Cartesian Linguistics, by Descartes

Centuries later, the French philosopher Descartes took a crack at linguistic philosophy. In his opinion, language acquisition was a simple and easy process, barely worthy of his attention. Like Plato he believed in the innateness of language because he thought it reflected the general rationality of human beings.

But rather than Descartes himself, it was the rationalist movement that he symbolized and that was thriving in the time period when he lived that was most important for linguistics. This “Cartesian” movement, according to Chomsky (who we’ll get to later), noted the creativity involved in everyday language and presented the idea that there were universal principles behind every language.

3. Locke’s Tabula Rasa

Most people familiar with Locke’s philosophy have heard of his concept of tabula rasa, or the blank slate.

To state it briefly and in a simplified manner, this is the idea that all knowledge comes from outside ourselves through sensory experience rather than through innate knowledge that we have at birth. This naturally carried over to language theory with Locke rejecting the idea that there was an innate logic behind language.

Obviously these theories don’t touch too much on the practical, everyday level of language learning. They’re far less detailed and more philosophical than the modern scientific theories we’re used to. But they have important implications. If Plato and the Cartesians are right, then the emphasis in language learning must lie on what we already know, using our innate abilities to come to an understanding of the particularities of a specific language. If Locke is right, then we must focus our attention on sensory input, gaining as much external input as possible.

4. Skinner’s Theory of Behaviorism

In the middle of the 20th century, B.F. Skinner took Locke’s ideas of sensory input and ran with them.

According to behaviorism, a radical variant of which was put forward by Skinner, all behavior is no more than a response to external stimuli and there’s no innate programming within a human being to learn a language at birth.

What differentiates Skinner from those who came before him is the level of detail he went into when connecting behaviorism and language learning. In his concept of what he called “operant conditioning,” language learning grew out of a process of reinforcement and punishment whereby individuals are conditioned into saying the right thing. For instance, if you’re hungry and you’re able to say “Mommy, I’m hungry,” you may be rewarded with food and your behavior will thereby be reinforced since you got what you wanted.

To put it another way, Skinner described a mechanism for language learning that hadn’t existed before on the tabula rasa side of the language acquisition debate. What this means for us as language learners, should his theory be even partially true, is that a process of conditioning must be achieved for us to succeed. When we say the right thing, we must be rewarded. When we say something incorrectly, that too must be made clear. In other words, we need feedback to succeed as language learners.

5. Chomsky’s Universal Grammar

Around the same time as Skinner there came another linguistic powerhouse who would leave a lasting impression on the field of linguistics. Namely, Noam Chomsky.

The theory that Chomsky proposed would be called Universal Grammar and it would assert nearly the exact opposite of what Skinner had offered in his theory. Where Skinner saw all learning coming from external stimuli, Chomsky saw an innate device for language acquisition. What Skinner understood to be conditioning according to particular events Chomsky, understood to be the result of the universal elements that structure all languages.

In fact, one of Chomsky’s major bones to pick with Skinner’s theory had to do with Plato’s problem, as described above. After all, if Skinner is right, how is it that children can learn a language so quickly, creating and understanding sentences they have never heard before?

Universal Grammar has been around for roughly a half a century by now, so it’s hardly the last word on the subject. It has also received plenty of criticism. One critique that particularly concerns us is that it may have little to do with learning a second language, even if it’s how we learn a first language. There are certainly theories about applying this concept to organize syllabi for language learning, but this seems unnecessarily complex for the average, independent learner.

In short, while Chomsky’s theory may be still be important in the linguistics field as part of an ongoing discussion, it offers little help for learning a second language other than to provide you with the confidence that the grammar for all languages is already inside your head. You just need to fill in the particulars.

Over the past half century or so, a slew of other language learning theories have cropped up to try to deal with the perceived flaws in Chomsky’s theory and to fill in the cracks for more specific areas of language learning (i.e. areas of particular interest to us).

Next up are two theories that, while not the philosophical bombshells like the ones listed above, arguably have more of a practical edge.

6. Schumann’s Acculturation Model

John Schumann’s Acculturation Model describes the process by which immigrants pick up a new language while being completely immersed in that language.

This theory doesn’t deal with the process of language learning as we normally think of it (such as how we acquire grammar or listening skills), but rather focuses on social and psychological aspects that influence our success.

For instance, an immigrant is more likely to acquire their new target language if their language and the target language are socially equal, if the group of immigrants is small and not cohesive and if there is a higher degree of similarity between the immigrant’s culture and that of their new area of residence.

The obvious takeaway is that language learning is not an abstract subject like physics that can be learned out of a book regardless of the world around you. There are sociological factors at play, and the more we do to connect with the culture on the other end of our second language, the faster and easier it will be for us to learn that language.

7. Krashen’s Monitor Model

Stephen Krashen’s Monitor Model in fact consists of several distinct hypotheses which make up what is probably the most cited theory in second language acquisition. There’s so much to take away from Krashen’s theory that I’ll just let you peruse the link given for details and give a rundown of the highlights here.

  • Language acquisition is subconscious and results from informal, natural communication.
  • Language learning is conscious and driven by error correction (more formal).
  • Grammar structures are acquired in a predictable order.
  • Language acquisition occurs with comprehensible input (i.e. hearing or reading things that are just slightly above our current language level).
  • A monitor is anything that corrects your language performance and pressures one to “communicate correctly and not just convey meaning” (such as a language teacher who corrects you when you make a grammatical mistake).

It should be noted that this is just Krashen’s theory. While this theory is quite popular, there has been criticism and direct contradiction of certain parts of it (particularly his idea about the predictable order of grammar structures). Still, it’s useful to get ideas for language learning.

This theory suggests that we should both strive to increase our second language inputs and make sure we receive proper error correction in one form or another.


As this selection of important theories should make clear, the subset of linguistics which deals with language learning is both wide and deep.

Some of it is highly theoretical and complex and is most relevant to scholars of the field. Other parts are extremely zoomed in and tell us highly specific details about how to learn a language.

Regardless, it’s all connected.

By understanding more bits and pieces of it all, you’ll gradually begin to understand yourself and your own language learning process better than ever before.

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