Child language aquisition theorists



Behavourism was developed while carrying out a series of experiments on animals.

They observed if animals could be taught various tasks by encourgaing habit-forming.

Researchers rewarded desirable behaviour.

This was known as positive reinforcement.

Undesirable behaviour was punished or simply not rewarded - negative reinforcement.

B.F Skinner then proposed this theory as an explaination for language aquisition in humans, calling postive and negative reinforcement operant conditioning.

Skinner suggested that a child imitates the language of its parents or carers.

  • Successful attempts are rewarded because an adult recognises a word spoken by a child and/or gives it what its asking for.
  • Successful utterances are therefore reinforced while the unsuccessful ones are forgotton.
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Evaluation of behaviourism

  • Language is based on a set of structures and rules, which could not be worked out simply by imitating individual utterances. The mistakes made by children reveal that they are not simply immitating but actively working out and applying rules. These are refered to as virtous errors(nativism).
  • The vast majority of children go through the same stages of language aquisition. There appears to be a definite sequence of steps. We refer to these as developmental milestones. Apart from certain extreme cases the sequence seems to be largely unaffacted by the treatment the child recieves or the type of society in which they grow up in (i.e. children who aren't corrected on their speech when they're young don't appear to 'fall behind').
  • Children are often unable to repeat what an adult says.
  • Few children recieve much explicit grammatical correction. Parents are more interested in politeness and truthfulness.
  • There is evidence of a critical period, children who have not acquired language by the age of about 7 will never catch up.
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Chomsky published a criticism of the behaviourist theory, focusing on the impoverished language input children recieve suggesting adults do not speak in gramatically complete sentences and a child hears on a small sample of language.

Noam Chomsky concluded that children must have a inborn faculty for language aquistion. According to this theory the process is biologically determined - the human species have an evolved brain which contains linguistic information at birth and the childs natural predisposition to learn language is triggered by hearing speech and the brian is able to interpret what they hear according to the underlying principles or structures it already contains.

This natural faculty is known as the Language Aquisition Device (LAD). He stated all human languages share common principles and it is the childs task to establish how the specific language they hear expresses these underlying principles.

Slot and frame theory (Tomasello) links well with the idea of CLA being an innate/internal process.Children quickly realise there is an order to words and only certain types of words can 'slot' into a particular place with the 'frame' of an extended utterance, e.g. Mummy is Xing it. In these examples the child internalises the structure and subconciously will use these frames when using particular 'nouns', 'verbs' etc...

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Evaluation of nativism

  • Chomsky's work on language was theoretical. He never studied real children. The theory relies on children being exposed to language but takes no account of the interaction between children and their carers, nor does it recognise the reasons why a child might want to speak, the functions of language.
  • In 1977, Bard and Sach's study of a child known as Jim, the hearing son of deaf parents, suggests being exposed to language is not enough.
    • Jims parents wanted their son to learn speech rather than the sign language they used between themselves. He watched a lot of television and listened to the radio, therefore recieving frequent language input. However, his progress was limited until a speech therapist was enlisted to work with him. Simply being exposed to language wasnt enough and without interaction, it meant little to him.
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Jean Piaget placed aquisition of language within the context of the childs mental or cognititive development. He argued that a child had to understand a concept before they can acquire the particular language from which expresses that concept.

  • A good example of this is seriation. There will be a point in the childs intellectual development when they can compare objects in relation to size. Piaget suggested that a child who had not yet reached this stage would not be able to learn and use the comparitive adjectives like 'bigger' or 'smaller'.
  • Object permenance as well as sense of self and time are also commonly related to the cognitive theory.
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Evaluation of cognitive theory

  • During the 1st year to 18 months, connecions of the type explained above are possible to trace but as a child continues to develop, it becomes harder to find clear links between langauge and intellect.
  • Syntax in particular does not appear to reply on general intellectual growth and the complexities of ordering words according to meaning is all but achieved at a very early stage of life whilst a child might be considered very different in terms of understanding about other concepts.
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In contrast to the work of Chomsky, more recent theorists have stressed the importance of the lanuage input children recieve from their care-givers.

Language exists for the purpose of communication and can only be learned in the context of interaction with people who want to communicate with you.

Interactionists such as Bruner suggest that the language behaviour of adults when talking to children (CDS) is specially adapted to support the language aquisition process.

The support is often described as scaffolding for the childs language learning.

Bruner also coined the term Language Aquisition Support System or LASS in response to Chomsky's LAD.

He concluded that the turn-taking structure of conversation is developed through games and non-verbal communication long before actual words are uttered.

  • Supported by case study of Jim.
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What did Vygotsky believe in terms of interactioni

Vygotsky believed that learning always preceeds developmen in the ZPD (zone of proximal development).

In other words, through the assistance of a more capable person, a child is able to learn skills or aspects of a skill that go beyond the childs actual development or maturation level.

Therefore, development always follows the child's potenitial to learn.

In this sense, the ZPD provides a prospective view of cognitive development, as opposed to a retrospective view that chracterises development in terms of a childs independent capabiltities.

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Evaluation of interactionism

  • These theories serve as a useful corrective to Chomsky's early position and it seems likely that a child will learn more with frequent interaction.
  • However, it has already been noted that children in all cultures pass through the same stages in acquiring language.
  • We have also seen that there are cultures in which adulta do not adopt special ways of talking, so the CDS may be useful but seems not to be essential.
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Child language aquisition case studies

  • A childs first 50 words.
    • Mainly nouns (tangible objects) like 'jam', 'shoes', 'bowl'...
    • Social words used with parents and carers like 'hello', 'bye', 'yes'.
    • Proper nouns 'Nanny', 'Jasper', 'Daddy'.
    • Plosive sounds 'duck', 'book'.
    • Abstract noun 'cuddle' (based on need).
    • Indeterminate determiner 'more'.
  • Jean Berko's Wug Test.
    • Developed a test to see how children might pluralise or inflect a word (an experiment to see what their parents understood about language. Used a 'wug' because there was no way the child could have heard it before. Most children could pluralise the word (two wugs'), showing they can internalise and apply rules without hearing them - suggesting a LAD or an innate sense of grammer.
  • Genie.
    • Kept prison by her father from 20 months to 13 years 7 months with very little contact from the outside world. When she was discovered trained linguists set about trying to teach her language, being able to learn objects, colours and emotions but struggled with grammer, eventually lapsing into no speach - critical period.
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Name the 7 features of the telegraphic stage?

  • 24-36 months.
  • 3 or more words combined.
  • Typically uses concrete nouns.
  • Syntactical order often correct.
  • Refers to self in the 3rd person.
  • Syntax typically S-V-O/A/C/.
  • Simple sentences/single clauses.
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Name the 8 features of the post-telegraphic stage?

  • 36-48 months.
  • 4 or more words combined.
  • Begins to use prepositions.
  • Uses primary auxiliary verbs.
  • Uses conjunctions - adding clauses together.
  • Uses first person pronouns.
  • Use abstract and concrete nouns.
  • Syntax can change (e.g. A-V-S-O - Today was my birthday).
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