First Language Acquisition
How children so quickly and as if by magic acquire language has interested people for thousands of years.
Psammeticus, an Egyptian Pharoah during the 7th century BC, believed language was inborn and that children isolated from birth from any linguistic influence would develop the language they had been born with. He isolated two children, who were reported to have spoken a few words of Phyrgian, an IE language of present day Turkey. Psammeticus believed that this was the first, or original, language.
In the 15th century King James V of Scotland performed a similar experiment; the children were reported to have spoken good Hebrew.
These first studies of human language tended to be concerned with the origin of the oldest, or first, language (They were phylogenetic), and were only secondarily concerned with the precise way in which individual infants acquire speech. True studies of language development in the infant (ontogenetic studies) came later.
Akbar, a 16th cent. Mogul emperor of India, desired to learn whether language was innate or acquired through exposure to the speech of adults. He believed that language was learned by people listening to each other and therefore a child could not develop language alone. So he ordered a house built for two infants and stationed a mute nurse to care for them. The children did not acquire speech, which seemed to prove Akbar's hypothesis that language is acquired and does not simply emerge spontaneously in the absence of exposure to speech.
Only in the last 40 years after the invention of the tape recorder was child language recorded carefully and studied in any systematic fashion. Sophisticated recording machinery of all sorts are now used to monitor language proficiency in infants and small children.
Child language acquisiton studies often attempt to map out the stages of language acquisition. Such studies are of two types:
longitudinal-- development of speech in the same group over time. Most studies of child language acquisition are of this form.
cross sectional-- search for a certain type of data in a broad spectrum of different children, such as a study of the language of two-year olds across the country.
Since this discipline is so new there is little conclusively known about child language acquisition. One fact is definite: Language acquisition depends upon the child being exposed to language. (Akhbar's experiment was correct.) The language a child acquires is that of his/her surroundings. Children who are deprived of language in their environment simply do not begin to speak spontaneously. (Wolf children, Genie, had no language.)
The main question in all modern studies of child language acquisition involves finding out what in human language is inborm, innate, we say hard-wired, into the infant's brain structure, and what is learned through experience. Although this question hasn't been answered to anyone's complete satisfaction, it seems clear that the basic capacity to learn language is innate, while the particular form/meaning connections of individual languages are acquired through prolonged exposure to a specific speech community.
There are three main theoretical approaches to child language acquisition; all of them have merit but none can fully explain the phenomenon of child language acquisition.
1. Cognitive theory-- Jean Piaget (1896-1980)
Views lang. acq. within the context of the child's broader intellectual development. A child first becomes aware of a concept, such as relative size, and only afterward do they acquire the words and patterns to convey that concept. Simple ideas are expressed earlier than more complex ones even if they are grammatically more complicated-- Conditional mood is one of the last. (cf. Spanish vs. Russian.)
There is a consistent order of mastery of the most common...
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