THEORIES OF LANGUAGE ACQUISITION.
Over the last fifty years, several theories have been put forward to explain the process by which children learn to understand and speak a language. They can be summarized as follows:
Individual most often
associated with theory
Children imitate adults. Their correct utterances are reinforced when they get what they want or are praised. Skinner
A child's brain contains special language-learning mechanisms at birth. Chomsky
Language is just one aspect of a child's overall intellectual development. Piaget
The behaviourist psychologists developed their theories while carrying out a series of experiments on animals. They observed that rats or birds, for example, could be taught to perform various tasks by encouraging habit-forming. Researchers rewarded desirable behaviour. This was known as positive reinforcement. Undesirable behaviour was punished or simply not rewarded - negative reinforcement. Skinner suggested that a child imitates the language of its parents or cares. Successful attempts are rewarded because an adult who recognizes a word spoken by a child will praise the child and/or give it what it is asking for. Successful utterances are therefore reinforced while unsuccessful ones are forgotten. Limitations of Behaviourism
While there must be some truth in Skinner's explanation, there are many objections to it.
Language is based on a set of structures or rules, which could not be worked out simply by imitating individual utterances. The mistakes made by children reveal that they are not simply imitating but actively working out and applying rules. Children are often unable to repeat what an adult says, especially if the adult utterance contains a structure the child has not yet started to use. The classic demonstration comes from the American psycholinguist David McNeill. The structure in question here involves negating verbs: Child: Nobody don't like me
Mother: No, say, "Nobody likes me."
Child: Nobody don't like me.
(Eight repetitions of this dialogue)
Mother: No, now listen carefully: say, "Nobody likes me."
Child: Oh! Nobody don't likes me.
There is evidence for a critical period for language acquisition. Children who have not acquired language by the age of about seven will never entirely catch up. The most famous example is that of Genie, discovered in 1970 at the age of 13. She had been severely neglected, brought up in isolation and deprived of normal human contact. Of course, she was disturbed and underdeveloped in many ways. During subsequent attempts at rehabilitation, her cares tried to teach her to speak. Despite some success, mainly in learning vocabulary, she never became a fluent speaker, failing to acquire the grammatical competence of the average five-year-old.
Noam Chomsky published a criticism of the behaviourist theory in 1957. In addition to some of the arguments listed above, he focused particularly on the impoverished language input children receive. Adults do not typically speak in grammatically complete sentences. In addition, what the child hears is only a small sample of language.
Chomsky concluded that children must have an inborn faculty for language acquisition. According to this theory, the process is biologically determined - the human species has evolved a brain whose neural circuits contain linguistic information at birth. The child's natural predisposition to learn language is triggered by hearing speech and the child's brain is able to interpret what s/he hears according to the underlying principles or structures it already contains. This natural faculty has become known as the Language Acquisition Device (LAD). Limitations of Chomsky's theory Chomsky's work on language was theoretical. He was interested in grammar and much of his work consists of complex explanations of grammatical rules. He did not study real...
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