Child Language Acquistion
- Pages: 8
- Word count: 1911
- Category: Language
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Imitation and reinforcement is a theory that a child acquires language by imitating the speech of others. It is also called the behaviourist theory. It is associated with B F Skinner (1957). Skinner argued that language was learned through the process of operant conditioning, a process of stimulus response where a result occurs as a consequence of actions and that the environment in which a child lives reinforces behaviour. A child speaks and they are rewarded by getting praise from their parents.
Skinner suggests that the pre-linguistic stage of language when a baby cries with hunger or pain and then progresses to cooing which is reinforced by parents by a smile or attention. Albert Bandura (1963) also supported the belief of language development being based on observation and imitation by the child. De Villiers and De Villiers (1978) stated that at the babbling stage , babies produce every known phoneme that occurs in any human language and these sounds are narrowed down by parents to become the one word stage and progresses to two word utterances like “mummy gone” and so on.
Criticisms however, are that if language was entirely dependant of parental reinforcement, there would be greater variation between individual children. Children also develop an understanding of grammar. They often apply grammatical rules consistently but incorrectly, for example applying the past tense rule saying “wented” and the general plural rule to man saying “mans”. This shows that they are not imitating what they have learned from their parents or from speakers around them. Children also develop the capacity to say an infinite number of sentences which are original.
Brown and Hanlon studied parent-child interaction and found parents often reward incorrect utterances and are not able to reinforce every utterance an infant makes. Another theory is the cognitive development theory. Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist who lived 1896 and 1980. His theory was influential in the 1960s to 1990s in teaching and education. He believed that children are only able to learn language when they are at the right intellectual development stage. Children must actively explore their environment and see how things work before they can grasp the language.
He believed children need the ability to understand that an object has an independent existence. This is called object permanence. Children believe that when an object moves from their sight, it ceases to exist. At eighteen months they begin to understand and there is an increase in their vocabulary. The cognitive theorists argue that these two events are connected. Over sixty years, Piaget conducted a great deal of naturalistic research. He believed that there are four development stages or cognitive structures. The sensorimotor stage occurs between birth and two years old.
An infant is born with congenital reflexes and a drive to explore. Intelligence takes the form of motor actions. The Pre-operation stage occurs between 3 and 7 year, intelligence is naturally intuitive rather than logical reasoning. They begin representing things with words. Children are egocentric and cannot view from others’ perspective. Towards age 4, they begin to use mental activities to solve problems. Piaget called this the intuitive stage. The concrete operational stage between 8 and 11 years is dependable on concrete referents.
Children think logically and egocentrism is eliminated. They develop several abilities: * Seriation, the ability to sort objects according to size, shape etc. * Classification, the ability to name and identify sets of objects. * Decentering, a child takes into account multiple aspects to solve a problem. * Reversibility, a child understands that numbers and objects can be changed and then reversed to their original state. * Conservation, an understanding that quantity, length etc is unrelated to the arrangement or appearance of the item.
In the final stage between 12 and 15 years thinking is more abstract. Children develop through the stages through the processes of adaption: assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation involves interpreting the events in terms of existing cognitive structure and accommodation involves the cognitive structure to make sense of the environment. Cognitive development involves a constant effort to adapt to the environment in terms of assimilation and accommodation. There has been research further into Piaget’s claims. The Fis phenomenon was founded by J Berko and R Brown in 1960.
A child referred to his plastic fish as a “fis”, but then an adult asked “is this your FIS? ” He rejected this but when the adult said “is that your fish? ” He accepted this, “yeah my fis”. This showed that ever though the child could produce the phoneme to say “fish”. He recognized it as different. Research by Jean Burko Gleason in 1955 was called “The Wug Test”. Children were presented with a pretend creature. The researcher told the child ” This is a wug” . Then asked; “Now there are two of them, there are two …..? ” .
Children of a young age were baffled by this but children of 4 and 5 started to grasp this and stated “there are 2 wugs”. This was the first proof that children extract generalized rules. Chomsky, a linguist from Philadelphia, argued that children have an innate ability to extract the rules of language they hear. He is perhaps the best known and influential linguist of the late 20th century. He suggests we are born with a set of rules about language already ingrained. He referred this to as “Universal Grammar” He claims this is the basis upon which all human languages are built.
He called this innate structure, the Language Acquisition Device (LAD). Chomsky argues that all languages share the same deep structure; Subject, verb and object are common to all languages. Children have an innate awareness of the linguistic universals and this explains why children develop language so rapidly. Chomsky argues this is true as all children from different cultures pass through similar stages of development. Chomsky challenged Skinner’s approach arguing that Skinner implies children learn entirely through trial and error and try out possible utterances and reject if not approved.
Chomsky believed this is not possible to learn complex grammatical rules and an extensive vocabulary in the short space of time in which children develop language. Lunneburg (1967) also suggested in addition to Chomsky’s theory, that there is a critical period hypothesis. He suggested the brain is designed to acquire language at a certain time (the first five years) and after this time it is no longer possible. This is supported by the case of a child named Genie. She was locked in a room by abusive parents until she was 13 and despite extensive therapy she was unable to grasp all of our language.
Criticisms of Chomsky are that he under-estimated the role of interaction of others. Studies like Bach and Sachs (1977) suggests a child needs interaction to develop adequate language usage. Bards and Sachs studied a child called Jim. His parents were both deaf. Jim watched television and listened to the radio so heard a great deal of spoken language. His speech however did not develop until he had human interaction with a speech therapist and he became a fluent speaker quickly. This study of Jim prompted a new theory. They stressed the role of interaction in language development .
A child’s speech is dependent on input or contribution made by others. Parents help a child’s speech by often speaking slowly or extending a child’s vocabulary. J Bruner (1983) held that while there may be some validity to Chomsky’s LAD theory there must be social interaction also present. Parental Input is very hard to measure and it is difficult to judge when and why a child progresses to the next stage. There have been many linguists who have strived to identify milestones in a child’s language acquisition. Some studies have tried to identify possible speech difficulties at early stages.
There have been three major periods of child language studies each with their own methodologies and theoretical orientation. The first period was diary studies which were prominent from approximately 1870 until around 1926. Many diary study participants recorded language development, motor skills and ever musical awareness in the case of Preyer (1889). The diary studies begin at a child’s birth and usually ended at a child’s fourth or fifth birthday. Crain and Lillo Martin (1999) discussed it is difficult to explain a child’s language development stages and some argue this id due to Lenneburg’s critical period theory.
There have been many diaries published in this era including those of Stern and Stern (1907) and H Taine (1876). Diary studies have their advantages and are useful in research due the absence of observers’ paradox (when a participant changes his behavior as aware of being watched). Diary studies are predominantly parental which means the child is in its natural environment. A parent is more likely to identify changes quickly as they spend a great deal of time with the child and this makes the research more accurate. Diary studies may also be comprehensive.
There are disadvantages, however, parents may be doting and analyze features that may not be the case or read more into their child’s utterances. Results in the past have been carried out by linguists themselves which means they are therefore of high socioeconomic status and therefore the research did not offer a fair cross section as it is possible the children would have been exposed to a more complex language. In order to combat this problem, diary studies were conducted by less qualified people but significant features were omitted like phonetic features.
McCarthy (1954) commented: “Although this wealth of observational material provided stimulating and suggestive for later research workers, it has little scientific merit, for each of the studies employed a different method; the observations were for the most part conducted on single children who were usually precocious or markedly retarded in their language development; the records were made under varying conditions; and most of the studies were subject to the unreliability of parents’ reports” In 1926, Behaviorism was having an impact on the linguistic research.
Pavlov and Skinner were promoting ideas of classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Behaviorists believed that diary studies were incomparable as they wanted to generalize and discover the norm. Large sample studies were carried out for example Smith (1926) studied 124 between 2 and 5 years in one hour conversations. He noted the length of sentences and the general aspects of sentence development. Researcher s only looked for the desired features did not take into the rules that surround language acquisition.
The accuracy of these reports was raised as they are in written form and there is no visual or audio evidence to back them up. There was also the effect of observers’ paradox and the fact that an unusual environment and the presence of a stranger may have affected the children’s speech. In the 1950’s we saw the emergence of longitudinal sampling by linguists such as Braine (1963). A longitudinal study follows the same person over a long period of time. The advantage of such studies is it draws the positive features from the methodologies of diary studies and large sample studies.
The research into child language is extremely difficult. Identifying and understanding when and why a child moves into another development is extremely tricky. Often a child may understand more than they can communicate to a parent or ever researchers. Any study, theory or piece of research has some validity. It is felt that all of the theories are possibly true, it seems apparent that a child may have innate ability to absorb language but also interaction with fellow humans is required.