Language acquisition is the process by which humans acquire the ability to learn and understand language whilst using the skill to develop relationships, communicate ideas and initiate a voice in the world. The ability to grasp the concept of language acquisition is remarkable with researchers finding infants as young as twelve months being aware of the grammar needed to understand fully formed, adult sentences, as shown through the psychological study by Rowland & Noble (Who did what to whom; e.g. the Bunny pushed the Frog (2010) After more than sixty years of analysis, the methods in which children develop this complex process, to understand and produce language, is an ongoing debate that divides scholars. Many psychologists have come to the conclusion that the ability of children to learn language is a genetically inherited skill which is governed by biological factors, whereas others believe that language is acquired following birth due to environmental factors, language and imitation. When discussing Child Language Acquisition, there are four prominent theories, each originating from a variety of scientific backgrounds, with different arguments and evidence to support the theories. This essay will look at these four areas of research within CLA and highlight evidence which both supports and challenges each theory.
One of the earliest scientific explanations of child language acquisition was provided by B.F Skinner (1957) who first created the theory of Behaviourism. Skinner proposed that the influences of nurture, the child’s upbringing and environment, were the most important factors for language acquisition.
Through his research on rats and pigeons, where he found animals could be conditioned into performing a variety of tasks due to imitation and reinforcement, Skinner formed his theory of operant conditioning. The theory suggested that actions which are followed by reinforcement will be strengthened and more likely to be repeated in the future therefore creating a method for learning.
Skinner then applied this theory directly to human learning, arguing that children acquire language through nurture, also by imitation and reinforcement. He called this the “operant process” which states that children are essentially passive, a blank slate, with language being shaped by consequences of behaviour such as positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement which are the application of a stimulus or reduction of a stimulus. For example, correct utterances are positively reinforced when the child realises the value of words and meanings in communication. Therefore, when a child is thirsty and says “milk” which is an imitation of behaviour they’ve observed, the care giver will acknowledge the correct utterance used by the child and consequentially, will give them some milk as a result. As a consequence of this action by the care giver, the child will find this outcome rewarding and is more likely to repeat the phrase, enhancing their understanding of the word “milk” and overall language ability. (Ambridge & Lievin, 2011)
There has been little direct support for Skinner’s behaviourist theory from fellow theorists and the general public. On the other hand, there has been an increased interest in the nurture side of children’s language development, especially the social interaction between caregivers and children. For example, psychological evidence has shown that children gain a wider vocabulary from parents that talk to them whereas children who suffer from language depravity show a smaller range of vocabulary.
However, despite psychological evidence, Skinner’s behaviourism theory received various forms of criticism. For example, children regularly make grammatical mistakes that adults, such as their care givers, wouldn’t have used themselves such as “wented” or “goed” instead of “went” These are forms of