LANGUAGE ACQUISITION THEORIES
Psychology CIA 2 (SEM II)
UID no: 171193
Date of submission: 25/01/’18
Over the last fifty years, several theories have been put forward to explain the process by which an individual learn to understand and speak a language. This ability to learn a language in itself is remarkable, what makes it even more remarkable is the rapid acquisition of such an incredibly complex communication system (Chomsky, 1975). Infants as young as 12 months are reported to have sensitivity to the grammar needed to understand causative sentences. Memory is often stored in forms of sound, images and words. Linguist, Benjamin Whorf argued that language determines the way we think. Even though new research states that language doesn’t determine thought, researchers agree that language can influence though (Eleanor Rosch, 1973). This is one of the reasons why studying language acquisition and development becomes relevant.
Theorists attempting to explain language acquisition have differed considerably in their position on the nature–nurture issue. One of the earliest scientific explanations of language acquisition was provided by B.F. Skinner in 1957, he accounted for language development by means of environmental influence. Infants as young as 12 months are reported to have sensitivity to the grammar needed to understand causative sentences (Rowland & Noble, 2010). Linguists suggest that all human languages possess infinite generativity. It is estimated that humans learn an average of 3,500 words a year. All human languages are characterized by main 4 rule systems and they are:
1. Phonology: A language’s sound system.
2. Morphology: A language’s rules for word formation
3. Syntax: language’s rules for combining words
4. Semantics: the meaning of words and sentences in a specific language
Although language acquisition and development are often used in the same context, there’re distinctions between the two. Language acquisition is the ability of the brain in its cognitive development & process to conceptualize the above mentioned 4 rule systems of a language, while development is the active participation and effort to learn a language. The theories that explain language acquisition and development can be broadly classified into four (Figure 1)
The perspectives in language acquisition and development
The nativist perspective
1. Inborn mechanism – LAD (language acquisition device) in the brain.
2. Universal grammar
Michael P Maratsos
The Learning/ behaviorist perspective
Language learned through:
Imitation, reinforcement, operant conditioning
The interactionist perspective
Both biological competences and language environment interact to develop language
The cognitive perspective
Language development is an aspect of individual’s overall intellectual development.
Figure 1. theories of language acquisition
According to Chomsky, children have at their beck and call an unlimited set of sentences, and a child could never acquire this skill based on a paucity of language input along with reinforcement principles, what was needed was an innate universal grammar to allow language development in children and language processing in adults. Chomsky’s linguistic theory states that we are born with an innate ability to learn language, and with little guidance, children will naturally learn language. Chomsky argues we must be born with a language acquisition device, an area in our brains that makes learning language a natural event. There have been evidence supporting nativist perspective, some of them are
1. Neuroscience research shows that the brain contains particular regions that are predisposed to be used for language. Language processing mainly occurs in left hemisphere of the brain. Broca’s area of the brain contribute to speech production and Wernicke’s area is involved in language comprehension.
2. Children acquire an incredibly communication system very rapidly. They also progress through the same sequences at roughly similar age, and they even make the same kind of errors. Which shows that language development is guided by a species-wide maturational plan.
3. Universal aspect of early language development occurs despite cultural differences in the style of speech that adults use.
Chomsky believes that infants and children learn language at a speed that cannot simply be explained by the laws of behaviorism. According to Chomsky, children learning language put words together in new ways, creating meaningful sentences they have never heard before. Chomsky argues that children learn rules of language and apply them in their own way, often inaccurately at first. Because children would not have heard adults using rules of language so inaccurately, Chomsky came up with another theory on language development.
Even though Chomsky’s theory gave a biological basis to language acquisition, there are several limitations to the theory. It doesn’t account for the attributing language’s development to the built-in language acquisition device. And it also underestimated the contributions of child’s language development.
Contemporary researchers suggest that instead of having a language-specific mechanism for language processing, children might utilize general cognitive and learning principles to master language.
Piasta, Justice, McGinty, and Kaderavek (2012) documented some very important findings relating to early reading. As part of Project STAR (Sit Together And Read), they carried out a randomized clinical trial to test the impact associated with emphasizing print during reading to 4-year-old preschool children in classroom. Their comprehensive study involved more than 300 children in 85 classrooms. The children in the study came from low-income homes and started with below average language skills. Two groups of children had 4 reading sessions with one book per week for 30 weeks. The important difference between the groups was whether print was emphasized in the book reading. Emphasizing print in reading directs the children to pay attention to the printed letters and words. The results revealed that the children who were encouraged to pay attention to print had better reading’ spelling and comprehension skills than did children in the comparison group. This was true even 1 or 2 years after the intervention of print emphasis in shared reading.
Massaro (2017) conducted a research on how reading aloud to children from prototypical picture books can benefit the acquisition of literacy before official schooling years. Reading books aloud exposes children to a linguistic and cognitive complexity not typically found in speech to children. Massaro’s aim was to determine why the children were benefited more from written than spoken language. He concluded his experiment by stating that acquiring the appropriate reading mechanics would be sufficient for children to read prototypical picture books themselves, which would expose them to more language complexity than is typically found in spoken language. Also, he found a positive correlation between the average vocabulary of a child and reading aloud from a prototypical picture book.
Both these research shows that language acquisition process can be enhanced through intervention. Contrary to the nativist perspective, contemporary research shed lights on the how language environment and social-cultural factors influence the process. Recent research on language seeks to understand whether or not humans have a critical period for acquiring language. As we age, language acquisition becomes more difficult, especially for adults learning a new language. Children learning new languages outperform adults learning new languages in terms of learning vocabulary, applying rules of grammar, and speaking with the correct accent. The critical period hypothesis states that we have a time frame for learning new language, and once that time is over, language acquisition becomes much more difficult.
Language acquisition theories help us understand the way we master a language. Today when I type down , I understand the power of language. Our understanding of the process of language learning theories continues to evolve. These developing conceptions in turn influence our beliefs about language acquisition. In the light of historical experience, therefore, it is perhaps, important that, although learning strategies have the potential to be “an extremely powerful learning tool” (O’Malley, 1985), we should keep them also in perspective.
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