Theories of Language Acquisition- an overview


The point of departure for many linguistic philosophers had two determining factors in acquiring language by children in particular- nature and nurture. Some of them like Noam Chomsky laid emphasis on nature which is the genetic and physical make up of a person so called fixed faculties of human beings like gender and ethnicity. Consequently, thinkers like Noam Chomsky posited ‘an innate language competency’ or a ‘language Acquisition Device latent in the brain which must be activated during the formative years of an individual. On the other hand some thinkers stressed on the role of nurture which is the sum total of all the environment influences a person experiences like schooling and the family.

B.F Skinner, a behaviourist psychologist who was greatly influenced by Pavlov, a Russian Psychologist who experimented on dogs to coin a behaviorist psychology opined that language is acquired by conditioning. It is a process where the child imitates the sounds around them. The reinforcement of treats, praise and an expanding world enables the child to acquire competence in language. Skinnerian hypothesis was supported by the fact that we learn to speak the language we grow up with and adopt the accent of those around us. However, his theory was refuted by many other scholars who stated that each child produces an infinite number of utterances, many of which they will never have heard before and therefore they do not imitate exactly.Moreover, children make virtuous errors of grammar and language which adults do not generally make. For example a child would say ‘I rided my bike’, and ‘me want that’. It was noticed that babies and children seem to pass through the same stages of language irrespective their influence of people around them.Furthermore, Children correct their own language to a standard form even when adults do not correct them and they can understand a lot more language than they are able to speak. Chomsky’s LAD (Language Acquisition Device was able to justify why children learn to speak very rapidly and children seem to make virtuous errors of tenses and syntax by applying deep language structure before they are aware of the correct forms. It was also discovered that the subject-verb form of grammar is common to all languages. However, this brilliant theory of rebutted by many scholars like Harry Richie who cited recent evidence form nuerology, genetics and linguistics that there is no ‘innate programming’ in the brain. When Linnenberg tried improvise Chomsky’s theory by coming up with a ‘sensitive period’ to ‘activate’ LAD another linguist Jerome Bruner tried to address the limitations of LAD by developing LASS(Language Acquisition Support System) which is a scaffolding system from caregivers that helps children to acquire language and become sociable. This naming process and interaction of parents, family and educators would help the children to activate the innate abilities of the child and widens the child’s horizons of knowledge. Having considered the limitations of this aforesaid thinkers, Jean Piaget, a cognitive theorist envisaged a ‘cognitive theory’, backed by developments in human psychology. He ascertained that child is not a miniature adult in its thinking but has to go through the stages of increasingly ‘complex mental development’ along side ‘language development’. Human beings gain knowledge from mental processes such as thought( reason) experience and the senses. Language development goes hand in hand with cognitive development. For Piaget, language develops along side the child’s understanding of the world.

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