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language acquisition theories

Working Paper May 2014
DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.1381.1607




1 author:
Entisar Khalifa Aljoundi
University of KwaZulu-Natal

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Available from: Entisar Khalifa Aljoundi

Retrieved on: 26 October 2016

Several theories and approaches have emerged over the years to study and analyze the process of
language acquisition. The main schools of thought, which provide theoretical paradigms in
guiding the course of language acquisition are, innatist theory, cognitivist theory and motherese
theory. The Innate theory asserts that language is an innate capacity and that a childs brain
contains special language-learning mechanisms at birth in which the main proponent of this
theory is Chomsky (Pinker, 1994). On the other hand, the cognitive theory by Jean Piaget
(Wilburg, 2010) claims that language is just one aspect of a childs overall intellectual
development. Sassonian (2009) asserts that language is a symbolic representation which allows
the children to abstract the world. In this essay I will be critically examining the input theory
that the child-centered Motherese is universal, and there are cultures in which speech is never
addressed to language-learning children. More so, the essay will critically discuss the cognitive
theory and also the Chomsky innateness theory of children having innate ideas to learn language
and also how this language acquisition is learned and developed by social interacting with
environments such as adults and the cognitive development. Also, I will be highlighting studies
that have critiqued Motherese and the other theories of not being helpful to children in acquiring
The innateness theory
Language is not an autonomous system for communication. It is embedded in and supplemented
by gesture, gaze, stance, facial expression, voice quality in the full array of options people can
use for communicating (Clark, 2009).Learning is complex and the context where it takes place
is influenced by our learning experience due to our different experiences. Clark (2009, p.7)
states that in learning language, children may first rely on nonlinguistic options, both in their
initial understanding and in their own early use. The Innateness theory by Noam Chomsky
(Pinker, 1994) shows the innatist limitations of behaviorist view of language acquisition in
1960s to the alternative generative account of language. The main Argument in this theory is
that children are born with an innate knowledge which guides them in the language acquisition
task. The childrens ability makes the task of learning a first language easier than it would
otherwise be (Crain & Lillo-Martin, 1999). Pinker (1994, p.26) claims that the universally of
complex language is a discovery that fills linguists with awe, and is the first reason to suspect

that language is not just any cultural invention but the product of a special human instinct. It is
an innate biological function of human beings just like learning to walk. On the other side, Clark
(2009, p.2) poses that even if children are born with a learning mechanism dedicated to
language, the main proposals is to focus only on syntactic. The rest has to be learnt. This essay
believes that children have the innate ability to learn language as Chomsky believes, but this
needs to be learn and develop by social interacting with environments such as adults and in
cognitive development. According to Clark (2009) children beside their innate abilities; their
acquisition of language could also be affected by social interaction and cognitive development.
Moreover, Chomsky (2009) argues that Language learning is not really something that the child
does; it is something that happens to the child placed in an appropriate environment much as the
childs body grows and matures in a predetermined way when provided with appropriate
nutrition and environmental stimulation.

Furthermore, according to Crain and Lillo-Martin (1999), the innate knowledge, known as the
language Acquisition Device (LAD), includes principle common to all human languages, called
the Universal Grammar (UG). This is similar to Pinker(1994, p.43) claims that the evidence
corroborating the claim that the mind contains blueprints for grammatical rules comes, once
again out of the mouths of babes and sucklings. For example, looking at the English agreement
suffix- s as in He walks Chomsky theorized that children were born with a hard-wired language
acquisition device (hereafter, LAD) in their brains (Pinker, 1994). LAD is a set of language
learning tools, intuitive at birth in all children (Pinker, 1994). Pinker (1994) further expands this
idea into that of universal grammar, a set of innate principles and adjustable parameters that is
common to all human languages. The language acquisition Device (LAD) is a postulated organ
of the brain that is supposed to function as a congenital device for learning symbolic language
(Chomsky, 2009). To Chomsky (1977, p.98) all children share the same innateness, all children
share the same internal constraints which characterize narrowly the grammar they are going to

Therefore, Crain and Lillo-Martin (1999) pose that LAD explains human acquisition of the
syntactic structure of language; it encodes the major principles of a language and its grammatical
structures into the childs brain and enables the children to analyze language and extract the

basic rules of universal grammar or generative grammar because it is a system of rules that
generate or produce sentences of the language. We are born with set of rules about language in
our brains and children are equipped with an innate template or blueprint for language and this
blueprint aid the child in the task of constructing a grammar for their language (Chomsky, 2009).
The universal grammar according to Chomsky (2009) does not have the actual rules of each
language but it has principles & parameters in which the rules of language are derived from the
principles & parameters. In other words, the principles are the universal basic features of
grammar such as nouns and verbs and the parameters are the variation across language that
determines one or more aspects of grammar e.g. pro, drop and head direction (Chomsky, 1977).
Therefore, the parameters in children set during language acquisition (Chomsky, 2009).
In Chomskys 1965 book Theory of Syntax it laid out the reasoning for a theory of innate
knowledge, and since then much of his work and volumes of work inspired by him have added to
our understanding of this theory of language acquisition (Crain & Lillo-Martin, 1999).So, the
mechanism of innate theory and mechanism of language acquisition formulates from innate
processes (Chomsky, 1977; 2009).

More so, Crain and Lillo-Martin (1999, p.5) postulate that

language is not a concrete set of things out in the world that we can point out to or measure
rather, it is something inside our brains and minds. I support this claim because I believe that
the acquisition of language is innate but as we grow and develop within an environment and
interact with family, school, society, we tend to develop cognitively, in which language learning
is a process of socialization. This claim accords well with Bruner (1957) who argues that
Children are not little grammarians, motivated to decode the syntax of the language around them
through the operation of their LAD, but social beings who acquire language in the service of
their needs to communicate with others.

However, in literatures, some scholars have argued and critiqued the innateness of language as it
relates to having nothing defending the thesis. Sampson (2005) argues that to say that language is
not innate is to say that there is no difference between my granddaughter, a rock and a rabbit.
According to Sampson (2005) if you take a rock, a rabbit and my granddaughter and put them in
a community where people are talking English, they will all learn English. This simply implies
that if there is a difference therefore language is not innate. Although Chomsky (2009) argues

that children learn their first language remarkably fast and also it is relatively fast. In contrast,
Sampson(2005, p.37) argues that people normally reckon the period of language acquisition from
birth and children take years from birth, rather than months or weeks to master the main
grammatical structures of their mother tongue. Gethin (1999) in a similar vein argues that adults
who go about it the right way can acquire a far larger vocabulary in a foreign language and far
quickly than native child for reason that adults know the world already, while children do not.

Meanwhile, Chomsky argues that language acquisition in childhood works quite differently from
acquisition in later life and their learning of language is more complicated than the last (Pinker,
1994). Gethin (1999, p.25) further claims that it is an unwarranted assumption that children go
through stages in this order because one stage is simpler than another; nor does it follow that
because a general psychological reason is not observable and there is not one. Sampson (2005,
p.41) refutes this assumption by explaining the best- known case of Genie:

A girl born in 1957 whose father was insane: from the age of 20 months to 13 years 7
months she was kept in isolation from human company and from virtually all other
mental stimulation. Susan Curtiss has documented Genies development during the first
fifty-five months after society discovered her as an unsocialized, primitive, barely
human creature and began in November to try help her towards normality. Within that
period, Genie had not learned to speak English in anything like normal sense; nor had she
acquired the most basic non-linguistic skills. Susan Curtiss herself regarded Genie as
refuting the strong version of Lennebergs claim that, natural language acquisition
cannot occur after puberty.
Succinctly, Gethin (1999) pose that nobody knows exactly what experience did to Genie brain.
In this essay, looking at Chomskys (1977; 2009) arguments on Language acquisition, from my
own point of view, I will say it is valid. On the other hand, Chomskys (1977) theory might not
be applicable on all the children in the world. This is because every child passes through
different circumstances from others and there are differences in context in which a child
develops and grows. Looking at the case of Genie and what the emotional damage she suffered,

this issue might be attributed to her difficulties in acquiring language and speaking. Furthermore,
Chomsky (2009) claims that children learn language very quickly.

Gethin (1999) argues that some older children hear more new words than others; this is probably
why the pace at which older children learn varies a lot, when they are smaller, their experience is
probably more equal and so they learn at the same speed. I agree with Gethin(1999) argument
that children also have the ability to acquire even more than one language in the same time,
because their minds are bright and they are not busy with the stress of life as adult, so they able
to learn fast but adults minds are always busy, in which they concentrate on the other sides of
life which is more important to them than acquiring language.
Moreover, Sampson (2005, p.50) refutes Chomskys argument on language universality that it
is central to Pinker (1994) case for nativism. Gethin (1999, p.31) claims that there is a single
unquestionable universal of language as opposed to universal ways of thinking in which
Chomsky and his supporters would not necessarily demonstrate a separate faculty inherited with
a restricting program, rather than universal ways of thinking and experiences which limit what
people can express and the ways they do it. Gethin (1999) poses that if language is really
universal, why do humans around the world learn and have different languages. I believe that
the fact that all languages have much in common has nothing to do with the world appearing
basically the same to everyone everywhere. In Sampson (2005) views no specialized linguistic
faculty or brain component is specific to language. Children learn their first language by a
process of trial and error hypothesis formation based on their experience with language data
made available in linguistic community into which they are born combined with the skills
provided by general human abilities (Sampson, 2005).
On the other hand, Gethin (1999, p.31) asserts that the basic truth to be realized about language,
is that studying it cannot tell us anything at all about the nature of thought. Therefore the innate
theory by Chomsky (2009) that language acquisition is a matter of growth and maturation of
relatively fixed capacities, under appropriate external conditions has been criticized by Sampson
(2005) and Gethin (1999) on the role of adult speech which cannot be ruled out to help children
in working out the regularities of language for themselves. It has proved difficult to formulate the

detailed properties of LAD in an uncontroversial manner. Whilst Humboldt (1999) in support of

Chomsky affirms that language cannot properly be taught but only awakened in the mind; it can
only be given the threads by which it develops on its own account. This means that language
learning of children is not an assignment of words to be deposited in memory and rehearsed by
rote through the lips, but a growth in linguistic capacity with age and practice (Chomsky,2009,
p.101). In this respect, Chomskys (2009) assumptions have values in the linguistic sciences,
although thisese theoryies hasve been criticised, it has indicated various facts about language

The Input theory

According to the input or Motherese theory, there are cultures in which speech is never
addressed to language-learning children; therefore it must be possible to learn to talk by listening
to adults talking to each other or by the environments surrounding them. The studies of
Motherese in the 1970 focused upon the maternal input, that parents do not talk to their children
in the same way as they talk to other adults and seem to be capable and adapting their language
to give the child maximum opportunity to interact and learn (Lieven, 1994 ). This implies that
the child moves ahead a little at time. Adults do talk differently to children than to other adults
using what is sometimes calledMotherese. Crain and Lillo-Martin (1999, p.14) argue that
adults mumble less to children, they use fewer incorrectly formed sentences, they use shorter
sentences, and they frequently use different intonation patterns with young children.

Mothers are able to provide semantically relevant and interpretable speech because they follow
up on topics introduced by the child; but some mothers will be better at doing this than others,
(Lieven, 1994). It also shows that some children will be better at eliciting semantically relevant
and interpretable speech than others. The utterance of the parents is considerably and
subconsciously simplified especially with respect to grammar and meaning and sentences are
shorter (Lieven, 1994). However various studies have indicated that they do not invariably use
grammatically simpler sentences. Crain and Lillo-Martin (1999, p.14) pose that looking at
studies that compared children whose parents used Motherese to those whose parents did not use
Motherese, no different was found in language development. So it does not seem that Motherese
serves to pace the information presented to the child, in order to help her learn the language in

easy steps and must be clear that Motherese would not be helpful, and could be detrimental to
language development in certain cases (Crain & Lillo-Martin ,1999, p.14).Pinker (1994, p.40)
objects to the claims of Crain and Lillo-Martin(1994) in his findings and asserts that he has
observed the results of the experiment that we do not teach our children to sit, stand, walk, but
they do it on their own schedule.

Crain and Lillo-Martin (1999, p.7) assert that there are two facts about language acquisition
first, it is universal (within the human species) and, second, there is a considerable latitude in
the kind of environmental inputs that permit children to develop language. Theories of
environmental influences on language-learning have tended to be built upon the study of themother-infant. In fact most children in the world grow up in polyandry situations (Lieven, 1994).
According to Wyatt (1969, p.6), in his observation of mother-child interaction, he observe that
the interaction between mother and child was as much nonverbal as it was verbal. The mother
followed her child with her eyes almost continuously; she played with him; she cuddles him;
carried him and protect him. Mother and child obviously were close to each other, she spoke to
him in short simple sentences, using a limited vocabulary that most probably he was able to
comprehend. Her short phrases and sentences were grammatically correct, and she articulated
clearly. During the time of the observation she talked much more with her son than with her
mother. Most striking in her speech with the child were the frequent repetitions she used (Wyatt,

Lieven, (1994) in his study identified that children spend most of their time with their mothers
and their siblings in which they imitate how they talk or the words in which they say. But,
Pinker(1994, p .45) refutes this and argues that the very concept of imitation is suspect to begin
with, if children are general imitators, why did they not imitate their parents habit of sitting
quietly in airplanes? Therefore, this indicates that language acquisition cannot be explained as a
kind of imitation only by children but also through watching their parents and older ones
discussing too. This is supported by Lieven (1994) in his study of a group of English families
which shows that children aged 24-36 months pay attention to conversations between their
mothers and older siblings and develop their abilities to intervene in them. Lieven (1994) further
asserts that how the child learns to talk is provided by studies which suggest that the children are

simply eavesdroppers on the language around them until they can make attempt at taking part in
the ongoing conversation. In other words, this means that children do not appear to learn just
hearing utterances in a language without any meaning attached to them and they obviously bring
both knowledge and skills to the language learning situation. Clark (2009, p.5) agrees with this
claim and asserts that adult and children talk to each other; adult expect children to respond to
requests and comments, and to indicate to their interlocutors what they are interested in as well
as their needs and wants. This certainly ensures that the child is able to start talking something
which marks an important transition for both the child and her/ his caregivers in many cultures.
Although, it is clear that the idea of child-centered Motherese is universal comes under the
behaviorism theory because it is about children who imitate adults that their correct utterances
are reinforced when they get what they want or are praised. Behaviorism theory has been
criticized by David McNeill (1933) that children are unable to imitate adults grammatical
constructions exactly, thus language acquisition is more of a matter of maturation than of
imitation. Also the input theory or Motherese is criticized for its difficulty to show connection
between the features of Motherese and the subsequence that arise out of these features in child
speech (Crain & Lillo-Martin, 1999) In essence, it is clear that children spend much of their time
listening to conversation around them rather than directly taking part in them. This essay
suggests that in addition to the symbol-making and ordering skills aswe noted at the beginning of
this section, children also bring a number of other skills which depend on memory and the ability
to identify patterns in their environment, (Lieven, 1994).
Cognitive theory
This is a learning theory which is based on cognitive psychology and encompasses the manner in
which people think and ultimately acquire knowledge and skills. This theory was developed by
Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) and focus on exploring the links between the stages
of cognitive development and language skills. The links clearly shows from the earliest period
of language learning up to 18 months, relating to the development of what Piaget called sensory
motor intelligence, in which children construct a mental picture of a world of objects that have
independent existence. During the latter part of this period, children develop a sense of object
permanence and will begin to search for the objects that they have seen hidden (Clark, 2009).
The outcome of cognitive development is thinking, the intelligent mind creates from experience

generic coding systems that permit one to go beyond the data to new and possibly fruitful
predictions (Bruner, 1957, p. 234).
In other words, cognitive thinking is therefore concerned with the mental changes in a persons
mind and these changes are as a result of the cognitive processes. The processes involved in
learning are outlined by Wilburg (2010) namely: observing, categorizing, forming
generalizations, decision making and problem solving which allows the learners to make sense of
the information provided. This theory also deals with the nature of knowledge itself and how
humans come gradually to acquire, construct and use it. Cognitive theories facilitate the
improvement and growth of children.

According to the cognitive theorist all aspects that are learnt by an individual are as a result of
what learners have constructed or discovered their own mental process and not through
observable behaviour (Warren, 2012).Wilburg (2010) asserts that children /learners come to
school with knowledge, skills and related experiences to the learning situations and this make
them actively involved in their learning process. Therefore, several studies has shown that
children growing up in polyandry situations are taking part in multi-party conversation from an
early age and in many of these cultures adults have particular interactional techniques to help
them do so. According to Wyatt (1965), he describes the speech transmission between adult and
child in Piaget theory namely:

Psychological level: the feelings of speech partners for each other, their relationship, their
mutual expectancies, and the respective levels of maturation, which determine the choice
of words by the speaker and the interpretation of their meaning by the listener.

Linguistic level: process of word finding; selecting the correct sounds and putting them
into correct sequences; putting words into correct grammatical order to form sentences.

Physiological level: Neural activities affecting the speakers perceptual and motor
mechanisms and activating the hearing mechanisms of speakers and listener.

Acoustic level: Sound waves travelling through the air between speaker and listener.
There is not much evidence of the effects of the presence of siblings on childrens
language. On the other hand, Lieven (1994) reviews a report on young childrens

language in conversations which include their mother and an older sibling as more
complex than when alone with the mother.

At the early symbolic level, the child engages in almost unending repetition of words, Wyatt
(1969). The linguistic units repeated under the influence of frustration or anxiety is no longer
representative of childs normal stage of language development. Wyatt (1969) investigated the
role imitation of the mothers speech plays in the childs acquisition of syntax. He found that the
child imitates the mothers speech differently at different age levels. It should be added that the
mother, taking her clues from the child, also imitates the childs speech differently at different
times, thus providing various and changing types of corrective feedback for child. Wyatt (1969)
points out that mothers frequently expand the child utterances adding those grammatical
elements left out in the young childs telegraphic mode of speech.
The main argument in cognitive theory is that language acquisition must be viewed within the
context of a childs intellectual development and linguistic structures will emerge only if there is
an already established cognitive foundation (Sassonian, 2009). For a child to be able to use
linguistic structures, they need to first develop the conceptual ability to make relative judgments.
In cognitive dimension, we can ask a question, What do children say by the time they start
talking at age one? They have already had twelve months of perceptual and conceptual
development (Clark, 2009, p.7).

According to Clark (2009) children are adept at perceiving similarities, identifying objects and
actions, recognizing faces, sorting like with like; they can orient objects and know where they
are kept and how they are used (spoons, cups, bowls, shoes, socks, dolls, books, chairs) and they
know a good deal about their surroundings, about Euclidean space (up, down, back, front, side to
side). This implies that children are setting up representations of what they see and know and
they make use of these for recognition and recall, summoning them first with gestures and
reenactments of events and later with words (Clark, 2009, p.7).

Therefore, the cognitive theory indicates that a child must be able to set up representations of
what they see, hear, touch, and taste so that they can recognize recurrence and without
representations in memory, they could not categorize or organize experience (Warren, 2012).

Therefore Clark (2009, p.8) poses that to do this, children must be able to detect similarity or
degrees of similarity, a capacity that appears fundamental for all learning.
To Clark ( 2009, p.5) the cognitive theory has indicates that children develop cognitively at
about the same rate in similar societies all over the world, this in turn suggests that they should
go through the same stages in cognitive development at the same rate and grasp similar ideas at
about the same age. This means children may find some aspects of a language easier to master
than others, and children exposed to different languages may well learn at different rates on
equivalent parts of the system. Cognitive theory is criticized for beingen highly difficult to show
precise correlations between specific cognitive behaviors and linguistic features at the very early
stage of language acquisition as the children become linguistically and cognitively more
advanced in the course of time (Wilburg, 2010).

This essay has critically discussed the various theories of language acquisition and their positive
and negative aspects in which none has yet be seen to be definitive in explaining the acquisition
of language by children which are a complex learning experience. Although I have elucidate that
in the innateness theory, children are born with an innate knowledge which guides them in the
language acquisition task; more so, on the aspect of the maternal input theory which shows that
parents do not talk to their children in the same way as they talk to other adults and seem to be
capable and adapting their language to give the child maximum opportunity to interact and learn
while the cognitive theories which are concerned with the development of the child and its
transformation in the society.

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