The various theories of Language Acquisition Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 10 July 2017

The various theories of Language Acquisition

The human race has been trying to explore the concept of language acquisition in children for centuries, and due to the nature of the subject matter, this of course is very difficult. The main debate between language theorists, however, began in the 20th century with the nature versus nurture debate.

The generally accepted theory of language acquisition, supported by B. F. Skinner, was that children were completely lacking in the ability to converse when born, and that language was just another learned skill, such as walking and crawling. Supporting the argument that language acquisition was all due to the “nurturing” of the child, rather than an innate capacity to learn, Skinner believed in the theory of imitation and reinforcement. This concept suggests that children learn through positive and negative feedback (praise as opposed to corrections) from their parents or carers. To a certain extent, this theory could account for a large proportion of a child’s development.

Behaviourists who have observed parents with their children or young children in nurseries have noticed that when an dult suggests a new word to a child, the child is very likely to use it. However, there are of course many obvious limitations of this theory. When parents try to correct children too much, research has shown that children actually progess slower because they are not being allowed to express themselves as freely. Often, when a parent attempts to make a child repeat a certain sentence, the child is unable to respond correctly, because the syntactical structure is completely unfamiliar. Additionally, a parent or carer is more likely to dispute the content of a child’s statement as opposed to the grammar.

For example, if in the example above, the child’s friends actually lived in Scotland, not Ireland, the parent would be more likely to correct this than the grammatical mistakes highlighted above. Furthermore, possibly one of the most important pieces of evidence to disprove this theory is that of virtuous errors a child makes when he or she is first learning to apply grammatical rules. For example, a child might say “I thinked” or “I runned”, because the usual ending for an English verb in the simple past tense is “-ed”. They certainly would not have heard this kind of error from a parent or carer, disputing the idea that language is merely learned through repetition and not through any form of innate ability whatsoever.

When Noam Chomsky first responded to the generally accepted behaviourism theory with his own ideas of innate language abilities, taking the side of “nature” as opposed to “nurture”. Chomsky believed that children could not simply copy what they heard and create their own lexis, as the quality of adults’ language was too poor. Also citing virtuous errors such as overgeneralisations, he pointed out that children often create their own words when they do not know the correct term for what they are trying to describe, a concept called linguistic creativity. The key belief of nativism in Chomsky’s time was that children have a “language acquisition device” when they are born, which allows them to learn grammar rules and the like.

Chomsky himself added to this concept bu suggesting that all human languages share a “universal grammar”, which is what children are capable of understanding and applying to their own mother tongue. A limitation of the nativist theory is that the ability to converse is not completely innate: children will need some form of stimulus from those around them, or their linguistic ability will be severely impaired. In particular, many theorists believe that for children, there is a cut-off point in their lives (often at about 7 years of age) when, if the child has not received sufficient stimulus, their capacity for language will be permaneantly weakened. Although not completely opposing this theory, these arguments do show that not all language ability is innate.

A theory that has its roots in behaviourism is that of social interaction. The core idea of this theory is that children’s language acquisition is centred around close interaction with parents and carers, and that this interaction not only enables them to acquire language itself, but also allows them to learn pragmatics and the “rules” for conversing, such as taking turns to speak. The followers of this theory also believe that interaction creates a “language acquisition support system”, enabling children to place their language learning skills in context.

The easily identifiable features of child-directed speech (such as exaggerated intonation, simplified grammar and lexis, and gestures) used by parents and carers supports this notion. Interactionists also suggest that repetitive scenarios, such as the same book, nursery rhyme or game, enables children to develop conversational skills such as turn-taking. While there is evidence to support this theory, the argument against it is that in many cultures around the world, there is no evidence of child-directed speech, and that the children are not adversely affected by this.

The final key school of thought is the cognitive approach, who do not place as much emphasis on the acquisition of language itself, preferring to see it as a single part of a child’s development in general: nativists, on the other hand, see language acquisition as a completely separate element. Psychologist Jean Piaget suggested that language can only come with understanding, and that children can only talk about objects and ideas that they fully understand, showing the link between speech and comprehension. A key stage of cognitive development supports this theory; that of object permeneance. When a child grasps the concept that even when an object is no longer in their sight, it still exists, there is a definite leap in their understanding and development, which includes language.

At this time, children also learn to use pronouns correctly, and are more focused on learning common nouns for the objects around them. The other key leader of this theory, Lev Vygotsky, proposed that language had two roles: communication and for thought processes. After a short amount of time, he believed, language became closely linked with thought, leading to the natural link between language and understanding. However, there are, of course, limitations of this theory. Many children have displayed language skills completely at odds with their apparent cognitive skills, either more or less advanced.

Of course, each theory of language acquisition has its own evidence to support it. A key mistake which many theorists made in the past was to assume that one theory could be found which covered all aspects of child development. Modern theorists now see the strengths and limitations of all schools of thought, and tend to use aspects from each theory to explain stages of language acquisition. It is generally accepted that we probably will never know the exact way in which children acquire language, due to the complex nature of the process.

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