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Theories Of Language Acquisition

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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 children. The theory relies on children being exposed to language but takes no account of the interaction between children and their cares. Nor does it recognize the reasons why a child might want to speak, the functions of language.

In 1977, Bard and Sachs published a study of a child known as Jim, the hearing son of deaf parents. Jim’s parents wanted their son to learn speech rather than the sign language they used between themselves. He watched a lot of television and listened to the radio, therefore receiving frequent language input. However, his progress was limited until a speech therapist was enlisted to work with him. Simply being exposed to language was not enough. Without the associated interaction, it meant little to him. Subsequent theories have placed greater emphasis on the ways in which real children develop language to fulfill their needs and interact with their environment, including other people. The Cognitive Theory

The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget placed acquisition of language within the context of a child’s mental or cognitive development. He argued that a child has to understand a concept before s/he can acquire the particular language form which expresses that concept. A good example of this is seriation. There will be a point in a child’s intellectual development when s/he can compare objects with respect to size. This means that if you gave the child a number of sticks, s/he could arrange them in order of size. Piaget suggested that a child who had not yet reached this stage would not be able to learn and use comparative adjectives like “bigger” or “smaller”.

Object permanence is another phenomenon often cited in relation to the cognitive theory. During the first year of life, children seem unaware of the existence of objects they cannot see. An object which moves out of sight ceases to exist. By the time they reach the age of 18 months, children have realized that objects have an existence independently of their perception. The cognitive theory draws attention to the large increase in children’s vocabulary at around this age, suggesting a link between object permanence and the learning of labels for objects.

Limitations of the Cognitive Theory
During the first year to 18 months, connections of the type explained above are possible to trace but, as a child continues to develop, so it becomes harder to find clear links between language and intellect. Some studies have focused on children who have learned to speak fluently despite abnormal mental development. Syntax in particular does not appear to rely on general intellectual growth. Theories of language acquisition

The Behaviorist Interpretation
Stimulus -> Response (S -> R) view of all behavior
Classical conditioning explains word meaning acquisition (new meanings to old stimulus) Watson’s research on Little Albert
Operant conditioning explains language acquisition and behavior (behavior controlled by consequences; power of reinforcement) Skinner’s Verbal Behavior
Problems (among others)
language is creative
knowledge of language is very complex (show language puzzles from intro notes) no clear evidence that parents consistently reward “good” language and not “bad” language

The Nativist Interpretation
Noam Chomsky most famous language nativist
Transformational Generative Grammar
attempts to explain how we can produce and understand an unlimited number of sentences universal grammar (UG) as innate
child does need to learn what all human languages have in common (UG); only needs to learn what is unique to his or her specific language principles (innate) and parameters (acquired quickly)
language acquisition device (LAD)
Innate ability to acquire language.

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