Theories of Language Acquisition: Behaviourism and Innatism

Human beings learn at different times and at different speeds. The Cambridge dictionary defines the term ‘learning’ as ‘the activity of obtaining knowledge’. As humans, we usually learn or obtain knowledge in either a conscious or subconscious way. Learning does not necessarily need to be carried out in a classroom or during a tutorial, but learning can occur whilst watching a movie or listening to a conversation between two people. Language acquisition for babies is very much the same. There have been a number of theories which have been developed and used to describe language acquisition for babies, including behaviourism, which supports the idea of children needing to be explicitly taught, and innatism, which contradicts this idea. Although these theories describe how language is acquired, evidence shows that there is a window of opportunity during early lives in which language must be acquired, known as the critical period and it is the most important in language acquisition. Language acquisition is a complicated process but in order for it to be successful, it certainly does not have to be explicitly taught.

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The theory of behaviourism supports the idea that the language acquisition process is only successful if children are explicitly taught as it prioritises nurture over nature. One of the earliest scientific explanations of behaviourism was provided by Burrhus Skinner, who was an American psychologist and who also profoundly developed the theory of behaviourism on language acquisition. Skinner proposed the idea that children learn languages based on behaviourist positive and negative reinforcement principles, which involve associating words with meanings. For example, a child correctly says “bickie”, and the adult is happy and gives the child a biscuit. As a result of this, the child has been positively reinforced, feels rewarded, and the child’s language has been enhanced. Through this process, the child is being explicitly taught language as the adult is actively teaching the child to associate the word “bickie” with a biscuit. This idea of behaviourism supporting explicitly teaching children language is furthered through the process of imitation and repetition. Language is argued to be acquired through imitation and repetition as when the children are immersed in a conversation (or some form of speech), the child will attempt to imitate or repeat what they have heard. In 1999, Spada and Lightbown proposed that children imitate the phonology and the patterns which they hear around them. For example, if a child was hear the word ‘apple’ in a conversation, although their semantic comprehension of the situation is a lot higher than their ability to produce lexemes, the child will still try to imitate and repeat the word, which may come in different forms, such as ‘napple’. The adult would then correct the child on the proper pronunciation of the word, and thus the child is being taught how to pronounce the word ‘apple’. Behaviourists consider acquiring a language as a set of mechanical habits which are developed through the processes of reinforcement, imitation and repetition.

Although popular thinking still has it that parents teach children language, studies have been carried out which have led some linguists and psychologists to assume that the human mind is somehow predisposed toward acquiring language. In the 1950s, Noam Chomsky, a worldwide famous linguist, argued that children would never be able to process and acquire the skills which are needed to process an infinite number of sentences if language acquisition rested solely upon language input. Therefore, he proposed the theory of Universal Grammar, which was the idea that children are born with innate grammar. This idea of innate grammar can be shown through the way children are able to produce complex grammar, despite not hearing full, grammatical sentences. When people speak, they are often interrupted or change what they’re saying halfway through, but children are still able to produce complex grammar and syntax, such as relative clauses, which demonstrates that there must be some innate grammar as children haven’t been taught this and yet they still have great semantic comprehension. This idea of innate grammar is furthered through the way that children respond when explicitly taught language. A report written in 1872 by C. Cazden provided a conversation between a mother and a child, where the mother was correcting the child’s tenses. This report made it obvious that children don’t respond to tuition and being taught as when the mother explicitly instructed the child, the efforts of the mother were pointless, as the child made no effort to try and learn what the mother was saying. This report shows that children are still able to develop language and grammar to a high level without being explicitly taught, or if they are being explicitly taught, not listening, again suggesting the idea that there is certain innateness about the acquisition of language.

Despite the many theories regarding language acquisition, evidence points towards the idea that the critical period is the most important part of the language acquisition process. The critical period, which is between the pre-verbal and telegraphic stage, cites a phenomenon that is very common, that is children acquire language much faster than humans do after puberty. The concept of the critical period was initially introduced to the study of animal behaviour, but in 1967 Lenneberg proposed that this idea also applied to human linguist development. Lenneberg proposed that children are limited in their language ability until the brain is mature enough, but once the children have reached maturity or puberty, language acquisition is a lot more difficult. This is evident in the way that young babies are able to gain great semantic comprehension of an unknown language in the space of around 2 years, whereas it takes adults a lot longer to acquire a language. Therefore, if babies are unable to acquire language during the critical period, although they are still able to learn and produce lexemes, their semantic comprehension is very inferior to someone who acquired language during the critical period. The importance of the critical period is illustrated through ‘feral children’, which are cases of children who have grown up socially isolated and without language. An example is Genie, who was locked in an attic in Los Angeles for about 11 years from the age of 2. After she was discovered in 1970, efforts to teach her language were made. She made great progress with vocabulary, but she was never able to gain normal grammar, particularly syntax. This reinforces the idea that the critical period is the most vital as when she is trying to acquire language, although she is still a young girl, she is not able to acquire normal grammar, which shows that the critical period is vital in the acquiring of language as, without it, the level of grammar and semantic knowledge would be a lot less.

The language acquisition process is a very important part of life and although behaviourism supports the topic and innatism contradicts it, the critical period is the most important process during the acquisition stage. Therefore, it is evident that language acquisition is successful without children being explicitly taught.  

07 July 2022

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