Child Acquisition Theories

Notes for all of the Child Acquisition Theories needed for AS Level English Language.

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Behaviourist Theory - Front

Behaviourist Theory



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Behaviourist Theory - Back

B.F.Skinner believes that behaviour can be controlled by consequences. 

For example, praising a child for saying a word correctly (eg pointing at a dog and saying "dog") would encourage a positive response from the caregiver, thus reinforcing the child to repeat the word.

Alternatively, telling a child off for saying the wrong word (eg pointing at a dog and saying "cat") would encourage a negative response from the caregiver, and so the child learns not to associate the word "dog" with a cat.

In a nutshell: Stimulus -> Response -> Feedback -> Reinforcement

(In this instance, stimulus = dog; response = what the child says; feedback = caregiver's response; reinforcement = the child learning whether or not to repeat)

Skinner believes that all children are born as clear slates, and it's due to reinforcement that we learn language.

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Nativist Theory - Front

Nativist Theory

(Noam Chomsky)


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Nativist Theory - Back

Noam Chomsky said that children are born with a Language Acquisition Device (LAD). This LAD helps the child make sense of people's utterances, sorting them into simple sentences (subject, verb, object). This explains why most children learn the same boundaries of words at the same time.

This is why children learn objects (nouns) first, as they come at the end of sentences, and then verbs or adjectives, for example, "Daddy go" or "Red shoes". They don't understand the structure completely when speaking, but they understand the message they are trying to convey.

Chomsky also suggests that children learn through their own trial and error; they try and match their utterances to adults' speech.

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Input Theory - Front

Input Theory

(Jerome Bruner)


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Input Theory - Back

Jerome Bruner elaborated on Chomsky's theory, but instead argued that whilst children may be able to understand simple sentences, they need a Language Acquisition Support System (LASS) to help them learn to correctly use grammar.

Children are always learning through predictable conversations, such as playing a game or eating a meal, where they know what responses to give.

Caregivers should introduce a conversation in a way the child can understand (Motherese - see Caretaker Theory), and, when the child responds, should encourage them to elaborate.


Caregiver: Where sweets gone?

Child: Allgone.

Caregiver: That's right, the sweets have all gone, haven't they? You've eaten them.

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Interactive Theory - Front

Interactive Theory

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Interactive Theory - Back

Caregivers tend to talk to children in Motherese. Features of Motherese are:

  • Simplified vocabulary: Naming objects in wider categories, eg 'dog', not 'Labrador'. Baby words are also used, eg 'bicky', not 'biscuit'.
  • Related topics:The caregiver only talks about the child's environment, so that they too can understand what's happening around them.
  • Short sentences: Caregivers use short and simple sentences when talking to their child, making it easier for them to comprehend.
  • Frequent commands: Caregivers give children lots of opportunities to speak by asking them to repeat statements.
  • Tag questions: Caregivers use questions such as "That's a noisy train, isn't it?" to encourage responses.
  • Repetition use: Caregivers ask children to repeat things to convey meanings and to reinforce the word onto the child.
  • Higher pitch: Caregivers use a higher intonation when talking to children to keep a child's attention.
  • Slower pace: Caregivers speak slower so that the child can hear what is being said clearly.
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Sociocultural Theory - Front

Sociocultural Theory

(Lev Vygotsky)


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Sociocultural Theory (Back)

Vygotsky said that a child's culture is vital in language development, as they observe, interpret and participate in social practices.

He suggested that children use internalisation to learn how to talk. This means that they listen to language through others talking and then use the language and understand it for themselves.

Private speech (i.e. speech through play) is extremely important as the child is verbalising their thoughts. Children are aware of any audience they may have. They also roleplay through past experiences, and though the conversations are similar to what they have experienced, they are not exactly the same.

In conclusion, every child learns language differently as every child has different experiences.

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Cognitive Theory - Front

Cognitive Theory

(Jean Piaget)


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Cognitive Theory - Back

Language development is directly linked to intellectual development.

Proof of this is object permanence. This is a process that children learn within the first eighteen months of their lives. Without object permanence, children are likely to believe that if an objects leaves their field of vision then it no longer exists. This explains why children cry when their parents leave the room.

Piaget has also suggested that children can only gain new linguistic devices if they understand the concept. For example, they will only describe a "big teddy" if they understand that that specific teddy is bigger than others.

He also believed that the child's environment is a major factor in development. The more interaction a child has with its environment, the more likely they are to develop language, as they are extending their mental patterns of thought.

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Critical Age Theory - Front

Critical Age Theory


Eric Lenneberg

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Critical Age Theory - Back

Lenneberg said that there is a certain point where language acquisition becomes impossible. He believes that by the age of 13, we have discovered all the linguistic devices we can.

A case study that supports this case is Genie. Genie was found at the age of 13 in the 1970s locked in a room alone all her life. She was beaten if she ever tried to speak, so she had learned to stay silent. Even after scientists had worked with her, she learnt to communicate using single words and gestures. This means that she hasn't developed all of the linguistic devices that she should have and Lenneberg would say that this is because she has surpassed the critical age.

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