Language Acquisition in Children
Language is the most important aspect in the life of all beings and is the basis for all communication. According to Eve Clark, a language professor at Stanford University, language itself is very complex (2003, p. 1). Language has a sound system that allows us to use numerous distinct words, a vocabulary of nearly 100,000 terms, and a series of constructions for relating those words. Language calls for an intricate web of skills that we rely on as an integral part of everyday life to help us convey our wants, needs, thoughts, emotions, and ideas (p. 1). As complex as language is, humans acquire language at an extremely young age. Language acquisition in children has been a topic of heated debate for many decades.
For many years, linguists have theorized how children procure language. Do children have to learn everything about language and its uses? Do they start out at birth with John Locke’s “tabula rasa”? Or do children come with certain things “pre-wired”? The debate is an issue over nature versus nurture; what innate capabilities children are born with versus what children gain from experience (Clark, 2003, p. 2). The Nativist Perspective argues that humans are born biologically programmed to gain knowledge. Noam Chomsky, a world-renowned linguist and the main theorist behind the nativist perspective, suggests there is a genetically determined, innate mechanism that directs the development of language and causes it to emerge due to maturation (Campbell & Mailman, 2011). According to Chomsky, humans have an internal language acquisition device (LAD) that contains knowledge of grammatical rules common to all languages that allow children to understand the rules of any language (Campbell et. al, 2011).
Arguments against the nativist perspective suggest that because children are not born speaking, they have to learn language (Clark, 2003, p. 2). The Learning Theory Approach, proposed by B. F. Skinner, an American behaviorist known for his work on operant conditioning, argues that language acquisition follows the basic laws of reinforcement and conditioning (Campbell et. al, 2011). Skinner states that adults shape the speech of children by rewarding the sounds that most approximates words (Campbell et. al, 2011). Some arguments posed to proponents of the learning theory ask how children can learn all of the complex rules of language as quickly as they do. One theory, known as the Interactionist Theory, suggests that language acquisition is a process of both biological and social factors. Interactionists believe that language development produced through a combination of genetically determined predispositions and environmental stimuli help teach language (Campbell et. al, 2011). Lev Vygotsky, a Russian developmental psychologist and major proponent of the interactionist theory, argues that language learning is “mobilized by the desire of children to communicate to others” (Campbell et. al, 2011). Interactionists focus on Vygotsky’s model of collaborative learning as an integral part of the theory. Collaborative learning is the idea that conversations with older generations help stimulate children cognitively and linguistically and that without such stimuli, children fail to acquire language successfully (Campbell et.al, 2011).
The effects of an environment lacking in stimuli conducive to language acquisition are still unclear; however, Eric H. Lenneberg, a German linguist and neurologist, believes that a child living in an environment without linguistic stimuli will fail to acquire language all together (Lenneberg, 1967). Lenneberg’s Critical Period Hypothesis explores the extent to which the ability to acquire language biologically linked to age. The hypothesis states that the first few years of life is the ideal period in which language acquisition is readily accepted and easily learned, any time after, usually thought to be after the age of five and...
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Clark, Eve V. (2003). First Language Acquisition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Lenneberg, Eric H. (1967). Biological Foundations of Language. New York, NY: John Wiley &
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