A month ago, as part of a discussion about linguistics and language acquisition, I asked my readers what they think about how children learn language. You can read that post and view the poll by clicking on the link here: We Need to Talk About Language.
In the poll I asked the following question: “How do children learn language?” It seems simple, doesn’t it? But there are no simple, straightforward answers. In order to give you some background information before I discuss the answers of the poll, I’ll outline three main approaches to language acquisition, with reference to another linguistics post I wrote: The Language Instinct. I wrote about the behaviorist and nativist theories at greater length in that post if you would like to read a more detailed explanation.
1. Behaviorist theory = based on Skinner’s experiments in the 1950s where rats learned to press a lever when they received positive reinforcement. Skinner said that native language acquisition is based on a system of imitation and reward.
2. Nativist theory = the ground-breaking linguist, Noam Chomsky, proposed that we are born with an innate ‘Language Acquisition Device’. A key part of the LAD is Universal Grammar: the concept that “children arrive in the world with grammatical principles wired into their brains” (quoted from my previous post which contains a more detailed summary of Universal Grammar).
3. Constructivist theory = as its name suggests, constructivist theory hypothesizes that children learn the grammar and syntax of their native language by acquiring a set of constructions, e.g. nouns, pronouns, verbs etc, based on the input around them (note that it is not the same as imitation). These components of language can then be formed into sentences. The constructivist theory does not agree with the concept of an innate language device.
It was very interesting to see the outcome of the poll.
41% of you chose the option that children begin by imitating the language they hear around them. While it is true that imitation plays some part in language acquisition, the exact nature of it is disputed. As I wrote in a previous post, “this argument for how children acquire language has many flaws. Firstly, if children learn how to produce their language solely as a result of [imitating others], their lexicon would be extremely limited”. The book, Language Acquisition, by Jill and Peter De Villiers explains that “The child…needs to extract the rules of the language in order to produce sentences appropriate to his changing situation” (De Villiers & De Villiers, 1972:199). Therefore, language acquisition is much more than simple imitation.
The second most popular option, with 35% of the vote, was the constructivist approach. The least popular option, at 25%, was the theory that we are born with innate linguistic principles. There is a lot of discussion and debate about these two theories. There aren’t any conclusive answers because each theory has advantages and disadvantages and it is very hard to disprove either theory for definite. I wonder if we will ever find definitive evidence on how we acquire what is arguably the most important component of our daily lives.
Thank you to everyone who voted in the poll. I hope you have enjoyed the linguistics posts I published here during the past couple of months. Let me know if you would be interested in more linguistics posts (but not about language acquisition – I think I’ve said enough on that topic for now) here on the blog.
De Villiers, J.G. and De Villiers, P.A. (1972). Language Acquisition. Harvard College: United States of America.