First Language Acquisition
Write about the 2 theories of 1st language acquisition and choose which one you find most tenable and provide examples and relevant literature
In this essay, I will explain as well as compare two theories of first language acquisition, behaviorism and innatism. I will explore the differences between them in such categories as the role of the learner, the role of the environment and as well as their strengths and weaknesses. I will then state and explain which one I find more tenable with examples of relevant literature.
Role of the Learner
Behaviorism, credited to B.F. Skinner in the 1950s, states that the learner knows nothing to start with, he is an empty slate [o1] to be taught. The learner is passive and learns by positive-negative reinforcement, only repeating what he hears.
Innatism, credited to Noam Chomsky in 1965, states that the learner is wired from birth for language. The learner is equipped with a LAD, a language acquisition device. This device allows the learner to discover the rules of his language, any language.
Role of the Environment
Behaviorism states that the role of the environment is key and vital to the learning process. The environment is the active agent while the learner is the passive agent. The environment produces the necessary language input for the learner. It is up to the environment to give positive and negative reinforcement for the learner.
Innatism states that the role of the environment is minimal because it only acts as the trigger for learning. It is also thought the environment is flawed and can’t be relied upon to always give perfect information. Therefore, it is up to the learner to find the rules of the language[o2] .
There are a few strengths to support the behaviorism theory. It is easy to monitor the learners’ performance. This is how parents (as teachers) usually teach their children, through nurturing which puts emphasis on the role of the environment. This theory can also explain why learners have the ability to memorize.
On the other hand, there are several strengths of the innatism theory. A learner cannot memorize all the possible different language and grammar combinations that he learns through the environment. The LAD helps the learner to generalize rules and make his own creative use of the language. A child will resist using an irregular form because of over-generalizing, and he will create his own form of a word according to the rules that he has internalized. And these rules don’t necessarily conform to adult grammar rules which include many exceptions. By applying these internalized and generalized rules, a child is able to acquire a language at a fast pace.[o3]
The Behaviorism theory only accounts for the performance of the learner, and not on his competence. The learner is passive, so this theory does not focus on the learner’s mind and knowledge. It also does not explain why children acquire a language so quickly even if they are exposed to different environments. In addition, this theory also doesn’t offer an explanation of why children over-generalize rules such as the simple past tense of irregular verbs even though they hear irregular forms in the environment.
There are also several weaknesses to the Innatism theory. One of the first weaknesses is that it demands the existence of the Language Acquisition Device (LAD), its existence is difficult to prove and is immeasurable. This theory also doesn’t take into account different kinds of learners, just ideal learners with ideal grammar. The environment plays a minor role in this theory, so it doesn’t take into account the social aspect of the learner.
Looking at the two of these theories, I find the Innatism theory the most tenable. In my own experience with my children and students, the learners do not always model my behavior. This usually occurs with irregular patterns, particularly past tense verbs. This is similar to the “wug” test where a child will form a past tense of a verb that he has never heard before by applying the general grammar rules that he has learned. This behavior cannot be memorized and must be driven by an internal structure. Another reason to support this theory is that learners with impaired intelligence have been able to learn the structure of language. It has also been proven that American Sign Language which is taught to the deaf also has its own language structure. In addition, the creation of Creole languages supports the theory. As a Creole develops, grammar and structure are built in. The LAD would account for the formation of these languages as well as for creative uses of language by a learner.
In this essay I have explained two theories of language acquisition, behaviorism and innatism. In doing so, I have explained the different roles of the learner as well as the environment. I have also explored strengths and weaknesses of each theory and why I support the innatism theory over the behaviorism theory[o4] .
[o1]Good one, I forgot this in my essay
[o2]Do you think you should mention poverty of stimulus here?
[o4]Well done Michelle. Do you think you should include UG and CPH in your essay? I think UG is an important part of Innatism, what do you think?
One theory of first language acquisition is Universal Grammar, set forth by Chomsky in 1959 as a response to Skinner’s (1957) Verbal Behavior. Whereas the latter theory, proposed that the learning of language is through the acquisition of habits, which are positively or negatively reinforced, Chomsky posited that humans come into the world with an innate language faculty in their mind, or a universal grammar. Universal grammar is built off of two propositions, that all languages are governed by a set of universal principles, and that the mind is equipped with parameters which are set intuitively by the child according to the language input they receive.
UG researchers have found a number of universal principles. One of the more prominent principles is structure dependency. Structure dependency states that all sentences regardless of the language are built off of propositions that carry both a noun and a verb phrase; in other words, every sentence in every language must have at least a subject and a verb (Chomsky, 1959). One parameter setting that is contained in the LAD is the head setting. Some languages such as English are head first, other languages such as Japanese are head last.
Various arguments have been used to support the existence of universal grammar. Chomsky (1959) has proposed the poverty of the stimulus argument, positing that the input children receive cannot account for what they produce, and therefore, children must have an innate facility. He argues that the input is marred in two ways; first it contains a hodgepodge of performance slips, and secondly, it does not contain any negative evidence. How do children acquire language when they don’t know what they can’t say, or how do they learn to speak correctly when the input they here is at times in correct? They do so, according to Chomsky, through this innate capacity. Jackendoff (1994) offers another argument in support of universal grammar, the argument from expressive variety. Jackendoff argues that given that languages are recursive, there is simply no way of storing all of the possible sentences one can create in one’s mind. In other words, sentences don’t come from habits, but rather from creative expression.
Universal grammar has had a lot of capital in language acquisition theory, although it has been critiqued on some fronts. Connectionists, particularly, N. Ellis (2006) has argued that language acquisition is not due to an innate faculty and the creative expression of humans, but equates it to a usage-based approach where children learning piecemeal frequently reoccurring chunks of language. Another argument against the innate language faculty is that UG researchers have claimed that only humans have access to syntax, yet this has been found not to be true. Certain animals, such as the humpback whale and songbirds have been found to possess a recursive syntax, suggesting that syntax and language may have evolved from lower order primates.
Whereas universal grammar begins with language from the inside, Sociocultural theory, another prominent first language acquisition, posits language acquisition begins from the outside. Vygotsky, the founder of sociocultural theory, argues that language is a psychological tool, which children acquire and learn to manipulate as they interact with their environment and with more capable peers (Vygotsky, 1978).
Children first learn language as they interact with their parents. Parents use caretaker speech, which makes it easier for the child to understand and grasp a hold on the concepts of the language. As the child begins to understand and produce simple utterances, they are able to use the language to mediate their psychological functioning (Vygotsky, 1978).
Vygotsky argues that children begin learning language by first learning single words, which are pure meaning. As they develop their language skills, and engage in social speech, single word sentences are augmented through incorporation of non-meaningful elements, such as function words, and the child’s thoughts and words begin to develop more sense meanings. For instance, where the word ‘cat’ for the 1 or two year old child could have served as an exemplar for all cats, by the time the child is nine, and having undergone a variety of experiences related to cat, they have imbibed the word with their own unique senses. Thus syntax and word senses expand, the more a child learns.
Now, whereas social speech began from one and developed into many, inner speech, the speech that goes on inside of our heads becomes more and more truncated. Vygotsky argues, contrary to Piaget, that egocentric speech does not ‘disappear’ rather it becomes internalized as inner speech. And this inner speech is something that could not be understood by anybody but the person who is thinking it. Vygotsky suggests that just as people who have known each other for many years, and who have had a large amount of experiences together exhibit language tendencies of shortened syntax because of their historical shared experience, a person’s inner speech also exhibits this characteristic, but even more so; the stuff of thought is nothing but psychological predicates (Vygotsky, 1978).
One of the primary ways humans learn anything, according to Vygotsky, is through the zone of proximal development. This concept explains that what a person can do today with assistance, they can do tomorrow by themselves (Vygotsky, 1978). Applied to first language acquisition, the child may receive help from an expert, such as their parents, who point at objects and say their name, for example, cat. After seeing this, the child may repeat ‘cat’ immediately after. The next day, as the child sees the cat, it says the word ‘cat’ without needing to be told by their parents. The closer an expert is able to gauge one’s ZPD, the more optimal the learning environment becomes.
Chomsky (1959) opposed Skinner’s (1957) behaviorist viewpoint in language acquisition, who claimed that language acquisition takes place through habit formation and stimulus-response. Skinner, believed that as a child acquires language, he internalizes a finite set of responses to stimuli. Chomsky on the other hand, believes that language acquisition is rule governed and that children construct their own rules, which may not comply with adult rules. Chomsky maintains that languages consist of an infinite number of sentences and cannot be learned through habit formation. Language is too complex to be learned in such a short amount of time (Chomsky, 1959). He believes that every human is born with an innate language learning capacity, which is embedded in the language acquisition device (LAD).
Chomsky believes that all language share grammatical structures. This is called universal grammar (UG). Proof of UG includes poverty of stimulus, which explains how children acquire the language despite their limited exposure and incorrect input they may receive. Another evidence for UG that languages are recursive, (Jackendoff, 1994). It is impossible to know all the possible combinations; however, they are learned by children. According to UG, there must be some sort of innate capacity that provides the additional information. The fact that children are resistant to correction once again proves that language is developed through an innate capacity.
According to Chomsky (1959), all languages share principles, which are invariable across languages. For example, noun phrases and verb phrases. This is called structure dependency. All languages have verbs and nouns. What distinguishes languages from each other according to Chomsky, are parameters, which are language specific. For example, some languages are head first, and some are head last.
In relation to UG, Eric Lenneberg (1967) introduced the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH), which is a window of language learning opportunity before puberty. Proponents of CPH believe after this period, language learning becomes a much more difficult task and adults tend to rely on other mechanisms such as problem solving skills, reasoning, and deductive instruction to learn a language. Evidence of the CP is for example abused children, who despite being removed from the environment where they were deprived of social contact, were not able to learn the language.
There have been many criticisms to Chomsky’s UG, for example, the LAD cannot be located and is immeasurable. Also, Chomsky’s theories overlook the effects of social contact and the environment on language learning.
Vygotsky (1978) was a strong proponent of the social interaction hypothesis. He believed that learning takes place through social interaction, and give and take of information with caregivers, parents, or peers. According to Vygotsky, children begin with external speech, which could consist of one word only, but have the meaning of a whole sentence. Gradually, as the child grows older, he develops more complex and longer sentences and associates more meaning with his words. A child also engages in private speech (similar to adults), which is usually meant for problem solving or thinking out loud, but is not meant for sharing although articulated. Vygotsky believes that as the child develops more linguistic skills, this private speech becomes internalized and turns into inner speech, which is pure meaning, and does not consist of subjects; it is predicated. On the contrary, Piaget (1955) believed that inner speech simply disappears.
Vygotsky also proposes the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), which is the distance between what a child can do without help, and what he can do when scaffolding or support is provided. When a child receives the right scaffolding, he will eventually be able to perform the task on his own.
Noam Chomsky (1959) introduces Innatism as a rebuttal to B.F. Skinner (1957) and his Behaviorist Theory. In direct opposition to the environment being the active participant in language learning, Chomsky flips behaviorism on its head and presents the learner as having a primary role while environment becomes secondary. Within the Universal Grammar Theory (UG), Noam Chomsky (1959) presents a Language Acquisition Device (LAD) that is responsible for the language learning process. Purely biological, language is filtered through the innate LAD that is structured with principles that are unchanging and parameters that vary according to the language being learned.
Proofs to support this theory are many. Syntax and the head-first/head-last parameter are two such proofs. As a child learns language, they hold to one of only two possibilities in any given language – head-first and head-last – and language is formed through recursion and syntactic movement that follow a pattern within a particular language. This shows that language is rule-governed and that the LAD is programmed with language foundations from which a child can develop. That children are resistant to correction follows this same thought as they develop language through the LAD.
Language is not linked to intelligence as we see in brain damaged adults who are completely coherent in language skills and others who are cognitively normal but cannot speak correctly. Stroke victims also show that, depending on the area of the brain that is affected, intelligence and speech are not linked. Broca’s and Wernicke’s Aphasias show that certain areas of the brain affect speech while intelligence remains unaffected. As evidenced by the Gopnik family, genetic impairments have also proven that a glitch in the UG can be passed down from one generation to another, thus proving that the LAD is indeed biological (Jackendoff, 113).
Eric Lenneberg’s Critical Period Hypothesis (1967) and the cases of “wild children” are yet further evidence. Lenneberg holds that the LAD becomes dormant or ineffective after a certain age – around the age of 12 – and this is why children acquire language so much more quickly than adults who are attempting the same. Through these studies of particular children who did not learn language and who were void of contact with language as a whole, it shows that the younger the child, the more fully they were able to learn language. Once a child was passed the age of 12 or so, they were unable to acquire proper language skills. The younger children were not only able to learn more adequately but then went on to continue in the language learning process as a normal adult would.
As many proofs as there are for Chomsky’s UG and the LAD, criticisms are plentiful as well. First and foremost, where is the evidence that a device like LAD exists? It certainly has not been located in the brain, therefore, it remains immeasurable and some have serious doubt as to its legitimacy. This theory also limits the role of the environment and gives no account for the social context of the language learning process. It idealizes the speaker and the grammar itself to a certain degree and packages the entire process a bit too neatly.
Cognitive Development Theory
Jean Piaget’s (1955) work in cognitive development is foundational on many levels. Watching his own children, nature, and certain study groups of young children, Piaget introduces a theory that is completely developmental. As a child is ready and developed (both biologically and cognitively), they are able to assimilate, accommodate and adapt new experiences. Underlying in this theory is reasoning and logic.
The role of the environment is minimal and the learner is vital but only as they are cognitively developed and ready for new experiences. A child will not learn what they are not cognitively developed to receive at that point no matter what the instruction. Piaget holds to the notion of children developing schema. As a new experience is received and they are biologically and cognitively ready to receive it, they will develop new schema to fit into the framework of schema that they already have developed.
This theory also relies heavily on egocentric and socialized speech with each one serving a different function. Egocentric speech is what is used (mainly by children) when words and thoughts are spoken out loud but the one speaking is only dealing with their own thoughts and ideas. Socialized speech is a shift away from egocentric speech where one simply derives pleasure from speaking to being a way of exchanging their ideas or opinions.
Although Piaget’s work and theory is critical, it neither accounts for the child’s behavior as a whole nor for the cognitive development after the stage of ‘formal operation’ is reached. It offers vast insight into the developmental process of a child but little instruction on attaining language skills. It was also based solely on a Western model and is therefore quite limiting.
SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITION
Input & Output Hypotheses
As a result of older models of language teaching where attention was given to language grammar, Krashen (1981) places his focus on communication input. He contends that if the learner is given a chance to absorb the language, they will be better equipped to acquire it. Rather than forcing output immediately, Krashen holds to a silent period where learners have the privilege of just listening to language before attempting it…much like a young child would in learning their mother tongue.
Comprehensible input (i + 1) is the formula that Krashen holds to for optimal language learning for second language learners (SLLs). This states that if a SLL is offered input that is only slightly beyond what they already know, acquisition will take place. He also makes a differentiation between language learning and language acquisition, claiming that acquisition is what is needed for the language learning process.
Criticisms of Krashen’s hypothesis are that input alone cannot account for acquisition and that some grammatical forms cannot be learned without being taught. Swain (1985) introduces her Output Hypothesis in contrast to Krashen and claims that no matter the input, if the output is unintelligible, acquisition has not truly occurred. It is the output that forces learners to grapple with the grammatical processing and figure out what works. Through output, a learner can realize their problem areas, can experiment with new areas they are unsure of, and gives them the chance to analyze problems they are having in their language learning process.
As we can see in first and second language acquisition, there is not simply one way to which theorists hold in the process of learning or acquiring language. In looking at how one acquires their mother tongue, however, insights can be made into second language acquisition as well. In fact, it is through first language acquisition theories that other theories can spring from to delve into how second language acquisition occurs. These insights become helpful in the classroom and give the teacher foundational aspects that they can build off of.
Pass| 7.5.-8.5 (David)