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Introducing Language in Use: a Coursebook

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Children's Language Acquisition

Theories of first language acquisition

Starting in the 1950s, the linguist Noam Chomsky reasoned that there must be a substantial innate component underlying language acquisition. He contrasted the abstractness of some kinds of language knowledge with the plodding concreteness of the information that seemed likely to be available to infants in their experience of other people talking. Chomsky's arguments were a major stimulus to studies of first language acquisition, not only by people who found his arguments persuasive, but also by a spectrum of others, some reacting strongly against Chomsky's position and some who were merely interested to see whether observations of the process of language acquisition would refute or confirm a view arrived at by logical conjecture. Everyone acknowledges that language acquisition is the product of both the intrinsic genetically-determined make up of human children (their nature) and their life experiences as they are growing up (the nurture that they receive from the environment). A chimpanzee brought up in a human household does not learn to talk, because chimpanzees evidently do not have the relevant aspects of human nature. Children who suffer the cruelty of isolation from interaction also do not learn to talk, through not having been adequately nurtured.

For most aspects of language development, we do not know whether nature or nurture is the dominant influence. Some theorists stress the importance of humans being born to become language users (nature), while others emphasise the several years of daily experience that preschoolers get with language in use (nurture). Proportions attributable to nature and nurture can be estimated by comparing identical twins with non-identical twins, but opinions regarding which measures of language achievement are the interesting and important ones depend on one's theoretical predilections — whether the indicators should be vocabulary size, or children's ability to make judgements about the semantic effects of certain syntactic structures, or some index of subtlety in conversation, etc — so twin comparisons do not fully resolve the issue. Child language researchers also want to know in detail how nature and nurture work together to achieve language acquisition, not just what percentage of the outcome each can be held responsible for.

There are different views on which aspects of human nature could be a basis for language acquisition. Some (called cognitive theorists) concentrate on the possibility that it is the power of our general intelligence that enables us to discover how language works and to become language users. Others (who could be called social interactionists) are more inclined to see early sociability and opportunities for interactions with people as making language acquisition possible. The Chomskyan position is that the innate foundation for language acquisition is neither general intelligence nor sociability but a capacity specifically for language.

A distinction that most child language theorists accept is the one that Chomsky drew between competence (a person's internalised language knowledge) and performance (actual linguistic behaviour — different from competence because language users are subject to memory limitations, errors, interruptions, etc). Competence is what researchers would like to know about. Performance is one kind of evidence that child language researchers can use. Beyond this, however, there are disagreements. Formalists see competence as concerned with the rules and principles according to which linguistic forms — sentences especially, but also words and phonological units — are patterned. Researchers with sociolinguistic priorities talk, instead, about communicative competence (which, in addition to knowledge of form, includes knowledge about how to make appropriate use of language; see Units 3, 4 and 9). Functionalists tend to view the patterns that formalists study as largely arising from the use of language in communication.

Different approaches are inclined to rely on different sorts of data. For instance, a formalist who is centrally interested in children's acquisition of syntax does not have much interest in holophrases, because a child whose ‘sentences’ are limited in length to one ‘word’ does not appear to have any syntax on the production side. Formalists often concentrate on evidence from comprehension, as a kind of performance less susceptible to memory and skill limitations and, therefore, likely to reflect competence more closely. Functionalists are interested in comprehension too. However, they usually regard holophrases as important, being the child's earliest ways of initiating verbal communication. A theoretician with a cognitive orientation will generally want to know not only about children's language development — formal as well as communicative — but also about concurrent developments in the child's thinking abilities outside of language. These tend to be of less interest to formalists, who usually assume that the human predisposition for language is not just a spin off from general cognitive endowment.

Different theoretical positions are not unthinkingly adhered to. Researchers with a given emphasis — on form or function or interaction or whatever — tend to feel that theirs is the most persuasive and promising approach. However, they generally take some notice of concepts and results from other approaches — and then modify their theories to try to accommodate conceptions that appear to challenge their current positions. This is probably valuable: complex phenomena are more likely to be understood when simultaneously studied from different directions and when not everyone has the same preconceptions.

Clark's book First Language Acquisition (2003; 2nd edition 2009) provides good guidance in this field. Chomsky's Knowledge of Language: its nature, origin and use is a fairly accessible account of his ideas, though now somewhat dated. The Chomsky Update (Salkie 1990) is a clear introduction to Chomkyan linguistics.

References