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The Theories of Language Acquisition

As humans, we communicate using an extremely sophisticated aspects that forms a communication known as Language. However, the way we acquired the language either the native or second language has been studied upon famous linguists, as they try to explain how language is acquired from young age to the point where most people starts to acquire a second language. Two theories were controversial and they became the most famous theories in language acquisition, The Behaviorist and The Nativist Theory.

The Behaviorist Theory

The Behaviorist theory which is supported by linguist Skinner, states that learning a language is based on behaviorist reinforcement principles that stimulates the verbal behavior in a child, and that occurs through process of repetition.

Behaviorism views that the environment influences is responsible for the human behavior including first language acquisition , so they focus on the observable behavior from the environment that changes in time, and they see it as a symptom of learning a language. Acquiring a language especially a second language should be done through extensive drill and practice according to behaviorism.

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For example , children imitate the sounds and repeat the words they hear from the environment they live in when they start to learn a language, so behaviorism expect from the learner of L2 to do the same and try to use the words in conversations until it becomes a regular basis in life.

This theory has two types of transfer: positive transfer; where transferring L1 to L2 can result in correct language production, and negative transfer; where transferring L1 to L2 can result in technical or grammatical errors.

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Due to the negative transfer, the theory was challenged by many researches and they revealed many errors that wasn’t predicted by the theory, so they concluded their research by calling the behaviorism to see the language as a set of structed rules, not as a set of automatic behavioral habits in the environment as they claim.

The Nativist Theory

The other theory that strongly denied everything the behaviorist theory stated is called The Nativist theory, and it was supported by linguist Chomsky. The nativists viewed that humans are born with the ability to acquire a language, as they claim that the human brain has a device which is able to organize the structure or rules of a language, moreover, it enables people to easily acquire their native language or acquire a second language. That device was named LAD by Chomsky, which stands for Language Acquisition Device.

This theory states that children are biologically programmed for language acquisition , and believes they have specific abilities that assists them as they work towards mastering a language. Chomsky said that the device helps children understand the grammatical structure of their native language , and in theory it means that the learners of L2 can easily pick up the grammatical structure of any language through the LAD, as they already have the basic knowledge of the language structure in their mind.

The theory mostly approaches to language development as it focuses on how children learn grammar, and this approach came after they observed children who easily learned the grammatical structure of a language without any formal learning. After the observation they concluded this theory by saying that humans are biologically programmed to learn language based on the structure of language, and that LAD plays a huge role in helping learners of L2 to master their second language without any complications or errors in their language production.

In conclusion, Behaviorism clearly stated that they have a transfer type that produces errors in language production when acquiring a second language , this means that learners of second language would have a difficulty to master the language since they don’t have basic knowledge of the structure of language. On the other hand, the nativist theory had zero errors through their theory, and they have done a clear observation on children that supported their theory. Although the LAD has never been found on human brain, the nativist theory is still widely held in high regards by many language development experts, so in my opinion I believe that the nativist theory has more understanding of how to acquire a second language without any errors more than the behaviorist theory.

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The Theories of Language Acquisition. (2020, Sep 14). Retrieved from

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