The nature vs. nurture debate extends to the topic of language acquisition. Today, most researchers acknowledge that both nature and nurture play a role in language acquisition. However, some researchers emphasize the influences of learning on language acquisition, while others emphasize the biological influences.
Receptive Language before Expressive Language
Children’s ability to understand language develops faster than their ability to speak it. Receptive language is the ability to understand language, and expressive language is the ability to use language to communicate. If a mother tells her fifteen-month-old child to put the toy back in the toy chest, he may follow her instructions even though he can’t repeat them himself.
Environmental Influences on Language Acquisition
A major proponent of the idea that language depends largely on environment was the behaviorist B. F. Skinner (see pages 145 and 276 for more information on Skinner). He believed that language is acquired through principles of conditioning, including association, imitation, and reinforcement.
According to this view, children learn words by associating sounds with objects, actions, and events. They also learn words and syntax by imitating others. Adults enable children to learn words and syntax by reinforcing correct speech.
Critics of this idea argue that a behaviorist explanation is inadequate. They maintain several arguments:
Learning cannot account for the rapid rate at which children acquire language. There can be an infinite number of sentences in a language. All these sentences cannot be learned by imitation. Children make errors, such as overregularizing verbs. For example, a child may say Billy hitted me, incorrectly adding the usual past tense suffix -ed to hit. Errors like these can’t result from imitation, since adults generally use correct verb forms. Children acquire language skills even though adults do not consistently correct their syntax. Neural Networks...
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