First Language Acquisition
Is language acquired naturally or is it learned through a
How do researchers from different fields study language development? • \~t do linguists say about first language acquisition?
At every level, teachers are teaching their students language. A kindergarten teacher might be concerned about whether her children are developing their sounds. A fifth, grade teacher might wonder how to help his students comprehend their science textbooks. An eighth, grade teacher might face the challenge of in, tegrating a student with very limited English and limited formal schooling into his social studies-language arts block. A high school math teacher might question the best way to help her students develop the ,academic vocabulary needed to do word problems.
Even though the school may not refer to these teachers as language teachers, that is what they are. The task they have in common is helping their students gain the language proficiency they need to succeed in school. Their understand, ing of how students develop language will guide their curricular decisions. In this chapter, we review the research on lap.guage acquisition that comes from differ, ent fields of study. We invite readers to reflect on their own beliefs about language development as they study the different perspectives on language presented in this chapter.
First Language Acquisition
When children begin (0 develop language, they start by babbling. Soon they utter their first word. Not long after that, they begin to produce two, word sentences like
'lTommy go" and aDrink milk. 1I And it isn't long before these two . . word expressions
evolve into full sentences. Parents hang onto every sound infants make. They mar.. vel at how quickly their child teams to understand and speak. But parents aren't really surprised at the development of language in their child because most chil .. dren accomplish this incredible feat. How do children acquire language? What theory can best account for children's capacity for language development?
Early Views of First Language Acquisition: Behaviorism
During the first half of the twentieth century, the behaviorist view of language development was generally accepted. Behaviorists held that all Ie am ing , includ~ ing language learning, hap-pened as a process of stimulus and response. According to the behaviorists, children's language learning begins when the child produces a sound and a pal1ent or other caregiver reinforces that action positively. For example, if the child, in the babbling stage, utters something like "cla da" and the father is nearby, he might pick the child up, smile, and begin talking to the child.
This positive reinforcement would lead the child to respond by producing this sound again. This general process of positive reinforcement eventually leads to full adult language proficiency.
This is a simplified account of the behaviorist view. This theory of language development fits popular ideas of learning today. Behaviorists believed that lan~ guage is learned like anything else. Learning depends on the response of the in~ dividual to the environment. Whatever is reinforced is repeated. In this view, children have the potential for language and, given the right circumstances, be~ come proficient language users. The behaviorist view also fits the general idea that language is learned by imitation. Children try to imitate the sounds that adults make. When their attempts are rewarded, they repeat them and eventually learn to make certain sequences of sounds.
In 1959, Chomsky wrote a review of B. F Skinner's book Verbal Behavior
(1957). Skinner, the foremost proponent of behaviorism at that time, had written
Verbal Behavior to account for human language learning. However, Chomsky showed convincingly that language was too complex to be learned through Skin .. ner's behaviorist model. Chomsky's review signaled the end of wide acceptance of