Poll results – How do children learn language?

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.

Language Acquisition wordle. Created by Grace @ Cultural Life using wordle.net

Language Acquisition jargon. Created by Grace @ Cultural Life using wordle.net

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.

The Language Instinct

Do you ever wonder how you began to learn to speak? When you think about it, it is really quite astonishing. Rapid changes take place in the first year of life. Until the age of six months, an infant can distinguish between any sound contrast in any language. By the age of twelve months, this remarkable ability is lost as the child tunes into the language being spoken around him or her [1].

In the field of language acquisition there are many different theories about how children take the first steps on the journey of language learning. In the 1950s, the behaviorist theory was popularized by Skinner who said that native language acquisition is based on a system of imitation and reward. He carried out experiments with rats who learned to press levers in a box in order to obtain an edible reward. These experiments provided the basis for Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning which focuses on behaviour and consequence. An action which is positively reinforced will be repeated (for instance, the rats repeatedly pressed the levers because they were rewarded when they did) and actions which are negatively reinforced will not be repeated [2].

But if you think about it logically, this argument for how children acquire language has many flaws. Firstly, if children learn how to produce their language solely as a result of operant conditioning, their lexicon would be extremely limited. Imagine if you could only utter a word or a sentence which you had heard someone else say. It sounds crazy, right? Language contains infinite possibilities, for example, there is the often-quoted sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”. The linguist and theoretician, Noam Chomsky, composed it to demonstrate that a sentence can be grammatical yet nonsensical.

language acquisition wordle

Chomsky argued against Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. Language is not something which can be neatly cut and pasted from one person to another. When children learn a language, they make unique mistakes. Take, for example, the sentence “We holded the baby rabbits” [3]. The child is using the morpheme, -ed, to mark that the verb is in the past tense. Although the verb is incorrect, this example shows that children learn the rules of their language and then apply them to unique utterances. This evidence strongly goes against Skinner’s hypothesis because, according to the behaviorist approach, children imitate what they hear around them and do not create unique sentences themselves.

So, if language acquisition isn’t a case of imitation, how do children learn to talk? Chomsky’s groundbreaking approach is that we are all born with an innate capacity for learning language: a Language Acquisition Device. A key part of the LAD is the concept of Universal Grammar. It took me a while to get my head around this fairly abstract theory but it is actually quite straightforward.

Fundamentally, Universal Grammar refers to the hypothesis that children arrive in the world with grammatical principles wired into their brains. Our brains are literally programmed to acquire language. Therefore, because children are born with these principles, they simply have to note which setting their native language uses and “Huge chunks of grammar are then available to the child, all at once, as if the child were merely flipping a switch to one of two possible positions” [4]. The nativist approach hypothesises that language acquisition is like an instinct. Birds have an instinct to fly and humans have an instinct to communicate via speech. In the book The Language Instinct by the psycholinguist, Steven Pinker, he expands on this idea in an accessible and fascinating way.

in the first few years of life, children learn to talk at an astonishing rate. But how do they get started? Public domain image by Petr Kratochvil: Source

in the first few years of life, children learn to talk at an astonishing rate. But how do they get started?
Public domain image by Petr Kratochvil: Source

As well as a thought-provoking discussion of the nature of language acquisition, Pinker debunks common misconceptions surrounding language. Do you believe that Inuit people have umpteen different words for snow? Before I read Pinker’s book, I did. However, according to Pinker, this is nothing more than an urban myth. He mentions an essay written by the linguist, Geoffrey Pullum, who talks about how this myth became so widespread. If you are interested in reading Pullum’s paper, “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax”, I have provided a link to it in the references section at the end of this article [5].

The field is constantly expanding as more and more research is carried out. There are debates and disagreements, conversations and collaborations. This post mentioned only two of the theories but Chomsky’s nativist theory is certainly one of the most influential and well-known approaches. Language acquisition is a fascinating and lively area of academia because there are numerous ideas, theories and hypotheses about language learning. How do we acquire language? As infants, how do we learn to break the continuous stream of sound down into sentences, phrases, words and syllables? As the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, said: “Language is a part of our organism and no less complicated than it”.


[1] Kuhl PK et al. “Linguistic experience alters phonetic perception in infants by 6 months of age”, Science, vol. 255, no. 5044, pp. 606-608, January 1992.

[2] McLeod S. Skinner – Operant Conditioning [Internet]; 2007 [cited 2013 Dec 11]. Available from: http://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html

[3] Pinker S. The Language Instinct. London: Penguin Books Ltd; 1995. p. 21

[4] Pinker S. The Language Instinct. London: Penguin Books Ltd; 1995. p. 112

[5] Pullum G. The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax [Internet]; 1989 [cited 2013 Dec 11]. Available from http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/EskimoHoax.pdf

The joy of great radio: 6 reasons why I love This American Life

Ira Glass, the host and executive producer of This American Life. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (image author: Tom Murphy VII)

Ira Glass, the host and executive producer of This American Life. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (image author: Tom Murphy VII)

In the New Year of 2011 I was standing at the kitchen sink, washing the dishes after dinner. So far, so ordinary. But then I switched on my iPod and something magical happened. My first time listening to This American Life happened. On that dark January evening as I scrubbed saucepans clean and rinsed soapsuds from plates, This American Life opened my eyes to a whole new way of looking at money and thinking about the world.

It all started when I got my iPod for Christmas 2010 and I explored the podcasts section on iTunes. The first episode of TAL I downloaded to my podcast was The Invention of Money (you can listen here: The Invention of Money). Like a paradigm shift, it gave me a completely new perspective on money and the world. From that moment on, I was captivated.

Now, over two years after my first time listening, I am a fan, a devotee, an addict. I listen to This American Life every week. If I miss an episode, I start to get withdrawal symptoms. Why do I love it so much? Let me count the ways…

1. FormatThis American Life has a very simple but very effective format.

In the words of its host, Ira Glass, “Each week we choose a theme and put together different kinds of stories on that theme”.

This sentence, like a mantra, is always tucked into the first few minutes of each TAL broadcast. The audience is ready, waiting like children eager to hear a story, and the show begins.

2. Theme – the show covers an endless variety of themes. I looked through the TAL Radio Archives and picked out a few of my favorite episodes:

The Invention of Money – the first episode I ever listened to. It is truly enthralling.

Invisible Made Visible – this is the radio version of a live show which TAL produced last year. I picked it as one of my favorites because of Ryan Knighton’s contribution. Ryan is blind and in Act 1 he talks about trying to explain what that means to his young daughter.

Return to the Scene of the Crime – I spent a while trying to remember the name of this episode and trawling the archives for it because I really want to share it with you. It made me wince and laugh (Mike Birbiglia in Act 1: “D-u-why?!”) and cry (Dan Savage talking about his mom’s death in Act 3: “Our Man of Perpetual Sorrow”).

In Dog We Trust – stories about the animals in our lives. I particularly recommend listening to the last act, Act 3: Resurrection.

3. Journalism – the stories that TAL produces are examples of journalism at its finest hour, encouraging listeners to think creatively and giving them a different angle on everyday life. This article from the July/August 1999 edition of the American Journalism Review explains exactly what sets TAL apart.

This American Life wordle

4. Storytelling – On the About Our Radio Show page on the TAL website, they explain that the journalism on the program “tends to use a lot of the techniques of fiction: scenes and characters and narrative threads”. That technique is what struck me when I first listened to This American Life on that dark winter evening two years and eight months ago. The producers took an ostensibly humdrum topic of money and opened my eyes to a whole new perspective. The program was factual but the method of presentation was like a riveting novel that I couldn’t bear to put down.

Conversely, “the fiction we have on the show functions like journalism”. Some of my favorite moments on TAL are stories told by contributors such David Sedaris and David Rakoff, for example, the unique retelling of Franz Kafka’s short story, The Metamorphosis, which is about a man, Gregor Samsa, who wakes up as a cockroach. What would happen if Samsa wrote to Dr Seuss, imploring for help? Act 2, “Oh! The Places You Will Not Go”, of episode 470 is a correspondence between Samsa (Jonathan Goldestein) and Dr Seuss (David Rakoff).

5. Ira Glass – Ira Glass is a public radio veteran, having worked in the field of public radio for more than thirty years. As host and executive producer of This American Life, he is one of the masterminds behind the show and he is definitely part of what makes it great.

6. Relaxation – Listening to This American Life is one of my most favorite ways to relax. My preferred way to listen is to download each week’s episode in podcast form to my iPod and curl up under the covers to listen. TAL is an excellent sleeping aid! If I can’t sleep, all I have to do is put TAL on a low volume and before you can say “This is Public Radio International”, Ira’s voice lulls me into a peaceful slumber.

In short, This American Life is funny, moving and brilliant. The stories range from the day-to-day lives of ordinary Americans to bizarre stories which challenge your views and make you reconsider your opinions. And these things are all part of a unique listening experience: the joy of truly great radio.

Are you a This American Life listener? What do you love about the show? If you’re not a TAL listener, have I convinced you to check it out?