Language acquisition – understanding it
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Language acquisition – definition
The term ‘language acquisition’ refers to the process by which humans begin to use language in speech.
In linguistic study it usually refers to child language development, but it can refer to adult acquisition of any language.
There are three main theories of language acquisition:
Behaviourist [Skinner] – language is learned by imitation
Cognitive [Piaget] – understanding leads to competence
Innate [Chomsky] – language automatically acquired
Chomsky’s innateness theory has superseded the others and is now generally accepted as definitive.
Some knowledge of language acquisition theory is useful to anyone studying the English language, especially to schoolteachers who are teaching youngsters to read and write.
Speech therapists and audiologists also need to have a substantial knowledge of how language is acquired and developed.
NB! We acquire language just as we acquire the ability to walk upright. [That’s the current theory, anyway.]
In the study of language, speech is considered primary and as a system which is entirely separate from writing.
Children who are learning to write often confuse the two. They produce a written form of speech.
Maturity is demonstrated by the ability to use a literary style which is completely discrete and separate from speech.
Humans acquire speech due to their innate programming. Writing on the other hand is a skill which must be learnt in the same way as driving, sewing, or cooking.
Chomsky has argued that children do not learn language but acquire it by means of an innate facility. This means that they will be able to use language, just as they will walk on two legs or acquire a second set of teeth.
All children develop their ability to use language at approximately the same age and the same rate, despite any variations in nationality or circumstances.
In the process of child language development, the acquisition of phonology, semantics, and grammar progresses simultaneously until linguistic maturity is reached around the age of seven.
After this, an individual’s linguistic competence varies according to training, environment and perceived necessity.
Most people who have not studied child language acquisition would say that children acquire language by imitating what they hear. Even parents of young children are often of this opinion.
However, scientific research [and careful observation] shows that this is not true. The following is just some of the evidence in support of the innateness theory.
Young children acquire language universally at roughly the same rate, despite differences in their upbringing.
Children produce utterances they have never heard. For example, children often say ‘I goed’ instead of ‘I went’ or ‘I felled’ instead of ‘I fell’.
These mistakes (which amuse parents) are actually proof of the child’s programmed competence. In adding the sound ‘ed’ they are over-applying the rule for forming the past tense.
In other words, their pre-programmed facility is working. They actually have to learn those irregularities separately. The same process occurs in forming the plural of nouns.
The rule for this in English is to add ‘s’ or ‘es’ — as in houses, books, roads, toys, and most common nouns.
However, when it comes to terms such as ‘women’, ‘mice’, ‘sheep’, or ‘narcissus’, the child will over-apply the rule and say ‘mouses’, or ‘womens’ or ‘sheeps’. These mistakes are a positive sign that the innate faculty is operating.
The truth is that parents imitate children, rather than the other way round. In any supermarket or on any bus, we hear parents repeating a child’s baby-talk. If they are not doing this they are translating the baby talk. What is definitely noticeable by its absence is the child imitating adult speech.
Adults believe they are teaching children to speak, but research shows that children ignore these attempts and progress at their own pace. The process is useful however, as part of the desirable emotional bonding between adult and child.
Piaget believed that language competence went hand in hand with understanding the world around us. A child would only be able to speak meaningfully about concepts already internalised.
For example, a child would have to understand that a specified amount of water will reach vastly differing levels if poured into a narrow beaker or a wide bowl. Only then, would the child be able to verbalise anything concerning this phenomenon.
Piaget also divided the language learning process into three or four distinct stages. In the 1960s this lead to the practice of teaching foreign languages in primary schools to children of the ‘critical learning age’. This practice was quickly abandoned, because the children were very slow at picking up the foreign language compared with adults who were receiving the same method of tuition.
Skinner as a behaviourist believed that imitation was all and that children learnt language by imitation.
Whilst this is true for some factors of the acquisition process — such as learning the exceptions to rules of grammar – all the evidence points to the validity of the innateness theory.
Learning a foreign language is difficult unless the individual has been exposed to more than one language from infancy.
In adults, learning a foreign language means gaining a skill rather than drawing on the innate capacity, as in child language acquisition.
The most efficient way of acquiring a foreign language, therefore, is to be surrounded by native speakers of the language. This is the nearest to the natural process, but it can’t be the same because of the individual’s cognisance with his or her native tongue.
Self-assessment quiz follows …
© Roy Johnson 2003
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