Language Acquisition Research Paper

Pages: 6 (2179 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 3  ·  Level: College Junior  ·  Topic: Communication - Language

Language Acquisition

The procedure of production, perception and use of words among human beings to understand each other and communicate is what is referred to as Language acquisition. The language could be the vocalized language like in speech or by sign language. Both involve the imbibing of the phonetics and phonology, syntax, vocabulary and their meaning. However, language acquisition more often than not points to the child's acquisition of the native or first language, than to adults acquiring a second language.

Human beings' ability to acquire a language and effectively use it for communication is what sets them apart and above the other animals or organisms. In the animal world, they have means of communication but these means are rudimentary and limited to nonsyntactical structures which are also limited in variety. The language of animals may be triggered emotionally and may not be voluntary and varied widely as the language use among human beings. There is however the famed experiment with a female chimpanzee that was conducted in 1968 by Luella Kellog and Winthrop where they took Gua (the female chimpanzee) and brought her up together with their children. What they found was appalling, at the age of sixteen months the chimpanzee comprehended about one hundred words yet their own son at the same age could not. This served to prove that chimpanzees have the ability to grasp voiced instructions which were simple and short in nature. This was the 'receptive competence for language'. This however was all that the chimpanzee could get, again she could not voice them properly and it can be argued that this was an isolated case of only one chimpanzee as opposed to the situation in human beings who all have the language acquisition ability.

Language is very instrumental to human beings since it is used in various applications. Some of these are captured by Gardener (1983) as:

A). Language can be used to induce action in other people. An instance is when a child asks to be carried or a manager giving instructions on completion of seminar papers.

B). Language can as well be used by human beings as a way to recall and store facts in the brain memory.

C). Thirdly, language can be used as an instrument of explanation or knowledge transfer from an individual to the other. For example the teacher student interaction is a perfect situation of knowledge transfer.

D). Gardner also poses that language can be used to talk about language itself. This is evident when a language or vocabulary learner asks what a word in that particular language means.

The debate over language acquisition is as old as the times of Plato who felt that word meaning was intrinsic or natural. This urge to divulge more on language acquisition threw the Sanskrit grammarians to a long search and experiments to determine whether this ability was God given or was learnt from interaction with others conventionally. These studies and experiments were carried to the recent times with the likes of Hobbes and Locke still trying to explain the language acquisition puzzle. The behaviorists also posit that language can be acquired through operant conditioning, where reinforcement of the words and language to be learnt is generally used in language acquisition. The main proponent of this theory is B.F Skinner way back in 1957 in his book 'Verbal Behavior'.

A wide variety of theories have been fronted concerning the language acquisition among human beings. These theories came up as an attempt to address the numerous concerns about child language acquisition bearing the limited input that is made by the adults who already know the language. The major theories include social empericism (nurture), nativism (nature) and social interactionism. For this particular paper, the initial two will be the core of discussion.

Empiricism/Nurture theory of language acquisition

In Empiricism there is an assumption that children acquire language and the syntax of their language by the use of general learning potentials (Nathan 1987). Empiricism puts emphasis on experience, especially of the perception senses and discourages the assumption of innate ideas and ability. Locke was one of the strong proponents of this theory and contributed to making the theory and its explanation as explicit as possible in the 17th century. He proposed that human mind at birth is an empty and clean space, tabula rasa or 'white paper' as Locke puts it. It is on this tabula rasa that experiences will continually scribble their marks in the lifetime of the human being. It banishes any idea of the innate ability or idea, or the notion that human can know anything without going through experience. Hence a child will only acquire a language through experiencing the elders speak it continually around him.

The empiricists argue that there is a crucial period in the life of a child for language acquisition. This period corresponds to the time shortly before puberty after which learning a language becomes difficult. They argue that if not exposed as a child to a language, one will not be able to learn it at all in the future.

The empiricists hence put a lot of emphasis on use and experience among the children in relation to language acquisition. It lays clear that adults have a central role in language acquisition. They by and by talk to the infants slowly and repetitively and as a result the infants will comprehend the linguistic pattern and try to utter same words, in singles before they are able, at last, to join them together.

This theory is closely knit with the social interactionism which concurs with the empiricism theory. It also says that language development is as a result of interaction between infants and the caregivers. The theory assumes a more social dimension. Here the initial conversations between the caregiver and the child are very central in language acquisition and Snow calls these Proto-conversations while Trevarthen calls it pre-speech. Brunner went further to suggest that the process of taking turns in a conversation between the caregiver and the baby is very central in language development.

This theory has its own shortcomings like the question of inability for some people to learn a second language despite being exposed to it over a long period of time. This majorly occurs among the adult learners. If the exposure is all that determines the language acquisition, then all human beings should be able to learn new languages at whichever stage of life.

The different speeds of second language acquisition among various students being taught by the same teacher also raises questions whether the amount of contiguity is directly proportional to the amount of language acquisition.

Nativists/nature theory of language acquisition

This theory is often referred to a Chomsky's theory since Noam Chomsky was a strong proponent of the theory. As a linguist, Chomsky argued that the ability to acquire a language in children is innate and possessed by every human being. He took the biological approach to language acquisition.

The assumption here is that infants will inevitably learn a language if exposed to it even without human intervention. Chomsky says that this ability to automatically acquire a language is supported by a device he refers to as LAD (Language Acquisition Device), which is innate. LAD is an inherent system that automatically enables an infant to decipher any language spoken around it. Further, Chomsky argues that all languages have the same deep structure even though they have different surface structure. For instance, when one adult says around an infant "I love you baby" and the mother later says "baby is loved by mum" it is logical that these two sentences have similar deep structure but are not the same in the surface structure. This is where the LAD comes in to give the infant informational grammar which aids in the translation of the meaning beneath into speech. It is worth noting, under Chomsky's proposition, that children will always have numerous errors in their translation but this does not imply lack of competence.

Under this theory, the 'language component' of the brain is pre-conditioned to work in accordance to the grammar rules of the language the child is in contact with at the initial life stages. However, it is evident that children will often surpass the grammar rules ad structures stipulated. There was a dilemma on explaining how the early learners could distinguish the grammatically incorrect phrases from the correct, arousing the question what accounts for this difference. The attempt to answer this is captured in the theory of universal grammar. The theory fronts that all languages share the same fundamental structural foundation. The infants are not genetically restricted to acquire the same given language; the universal grammar allows them to learn the guiding rules of these languages, even those they were not extensively taught at all. Chomsky held that there existed a universal grammar hardwired into the brains of all human beings and hence the human language acquisition was pegged upon that universal grammar (Nicole Mahoney 2008).

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