Language Acquisition

Theorists and Theories of Child Language Acquisition; Overview, Postives, Negatives and (sometimes) a conclusion.

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BEHAVIOURISM - Skinner (1957)


  • Children acquire language by Imitatiing the speech of others.
  • He/She receives praise and encouragement when repeated successfully
  • Skinner regards langugage as similar other kinds of human behaviour
  • Success = Reward 
  • The child sees the parents are happy and approving = REINFORCEMENT


  • Phonological development and acquiring of words = imitation playing a part
  • Children develop regional accents showing they imitate sounds around them
  • They pick up words and "parrot" them as they acquire a vocabulary
  • All children pass through the same stages of language development regardless of the tope and amount of adult reinforcement they receive
  • There would be more variation between children if this theory was accurate
  • Cannot acquire grammar through imitation and have not been encouraged to make mistakes.
  • They can produce orginial sentences - they aren't limited to sentences they have heard
  • They discover the priniciples and generate new utterances
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NATIVISM - Chomsky (1965)


  • Children have an innate ability to extract the rules underlying language from the words they hear
  • When the brain is exposed to speech at birth it automatically begins to receive and make sense of utterance
  • Language Acquisition Device (LAD) 
  • The child has to learn the rules by applying them
  • E.g. Sentences contain a subject, verb and objective - children possess an innate awareness of this deep structure


  • LAD explains; the speed at which children learn to speak, children of all cultures pass through similar stages, existence of grammatical features are common to all languages and children understand and use new sentences without hearing them before
  • Underestimates the power and role of language as a social phenomenon
  • Language will happen automatically: Genie - human contact IS essential to speak properly
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  • Developed Chomsky's idea of the LAD
  • A Critical Development Period within which a child must be exposed to language for him/her to develop normally.
  • A child must acquire the basics of langue through human interaction by the time he/she reaches puberty.
  • Occasional cases of wild (feral) children who have been deprived of normal contact with humans and have therefore never acquired a language.
  • Discovered at a young age and have rapidly caught up on language development
  • Cases discovered as teenagers, rarely manage more than a few odd words, even in the face of intensive training. 
  • Genie: 13 yrs old, 1970's. Parents hadn't spoken to her and had punished her if she made a sound. She was denied social contact and despite years of teaching she never grasped the grammar the even a normal 5 year old uses. 
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COGNITION - Piaget (1896-1980)

  • Stages in language acquisition are said to be linked to stages in cognitive development. 
  • Children can only use a certain linguistic structure when they understand the concept involved.

Object Permanence

  • The ability to recognise that objects have an existence independent of the child's interaction with them. 
  • Before this, children believe that an object does not exist when it can't be seen
  • Develops during first year but is not complete until 18 months - sharp increase in child's vocab at this time.


  • Child's ability to classify objects and actions. 
  • Once a child can classify, they are ready to divide words into linguistic categories.
  • The 'ordering' of language prepares for sentence construction.

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COGNITION - Piaget (cont.)


  • The ability to arrange objects, such as stories, in order or in size.
  • When children can't do this, they describe objects as 'long' or 'short' but children who are aware of seriation can use comparative terms, 'longer' and 'shorter'
  • A size judgement is a conceptual skill and the child's cognitive development must be mature to be able to do this.


  • Studies conducted on children who's mental development is retarded but still speak fluently.
  • A child's ability to grasp grammar and sentence structure is independent of cognitive development.
  • Neglects language as communication e.g. relationships

Further Research

  • Vigotsky; emergence of linguistic skills has an effect on cognition.
  • cause and effect are difficult to determine as the two abilities appear to develop in parallel 
  • Through language children may make faster cognitive discoveries about family relationships
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INPUT - Bruner (1970's)


  • Stress the role of interaction in the development of language
  • In particular the interaction that takes place between children and parents - 'Motherese' or 'Caretaker speech' - Child directed speech
  • Language acquisition depends on the input made by parents

How adults alter speech when talking to children:

  • Parents speak more slowly - use simplified constructions and less complex vocab - easier for child to imitate parents
  • Parents expand the child's speech
  • Introduce new words by using familiar sentence frames
  • New word is highlights as the rest of the sentence is familiar
  • Conventions of conversation: turn taking, question and answer, assisting with pragmatic development
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INPUT - Bruner (cont.)

A Question of Terminology

  • Researches were concerned with the language mothers used towards children. 
  • Mothers and fathers were not always the main/significant adult in a child's life
  • Similar patterns in the language used by adults, some differences
  • Fathers are more demanding than mothers, using more direct questions and wider vocab.


  • Slower, clearer pronunciation - language more accessible. 
  • More pauses - give child opportunity to absorb what is said and to respond
  • Higher pitch and more range of pitch - keep child's attention
  • Exaggerated intonation and stress - makes speech distinctive


  • Simpler, more restrictive vocab 
  • Diminutive - "baby" forms of words: doggie, horsie
  • Reduplication - mama, choo-choo
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INPUT - Bruner (cont.)


  • Short and simple constructions with many pauses
  • Frequent use of imperatives (commands) - quickly assimilates these
  • A lot of repetition - new words to clarify meaning
  • Frequent questions - get a response. Tag Questions, "aren't we?" "isn't it?"
  • Infrequent personal pronouns - proper nouns used instead- "Give it to Mummy"


  • Questions and tag questions
  • Expansion: build on child's speech and time and energy spent in obtaining feedback


  • Not possible to identify the links between structures parents use and their appearance in their child's language. 
  • Difficult to be certain about what has cause an advance to the next stage in development.
  • Not essentinal that adults address children in a particular way
  • Other contexts; lovers, pets, carers and elderly people
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  • Pragmatics is the study of the part that language plays in social situations and relationships.
  • Del Hymes: "communicative competence"  - developing all the skills associated with conversation; when to speak and be silent, how to respond to others, which register to use and what functions language is used for. 
  • Even before they say anything that sounds like a word, babies know utterances work for them in a number of ways. 
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  • Michael Halliday identified seven functions that language has for children in their early years and David Crystal added another two.
  • A cry can be instrumental. A smile can be interactional/personal and a bawl can be regulatory. 
  • Routine events (feeding, bathing) are accompanied by language. 
  • Bancroft (1996): 'Peek-a-Boo' has several parallels with a typical conversation; turn taking, participants respond to each other, common purpose and sequence and it's enjoyable.
  • In the early stages, the adult begins the exchanged, then the child takes more control initiating games like 'Peek-a-Boo'
  • Non verbal aspects of speech (NVAS) are developing; hand movements, facial expressions, voice tone, lip movements. 
  • Gaze is very important, parents work out where the baby is looking and comments on the objects. 
  • Harris Et Al (1995): pointing coincided with a child's first understanding of object words (concrete nouns)
  • John Dore: Labelling, Repearing, Answering, Requesting Action, Calling, Greeting, Protesting, Practising
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Before Birth: 

  • Within the womb, the child can hear and detect rhythm. 
  • A Chinese embryo can detect pitch rhythm of the oriental language, a French embryo can detect the syllable timing of French and an English baby detects the distinguishable sounds of stress-timed rhythm. 

Sound Perception

  • Eimas (1971): Child's ability to differentiate the sounds 'pa' and 'ba' at 4 weeks old. 2-4 month olds respond to tone and by 6 months intonation related context is understood. 


  • Child expresses itself vocally through crying - different kinds can be identified (hunger, distress or pleasure).
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Stage One: 0-8 weeks, Basic Biological Noises

  • States of hunger, pain or discomfort cause crying and fussing - reflexive noises.
  • A normal, basic cry is a series of pulses, each pulse around one second.
  • Babies from different countries make the same sound - no linguistic differences.
  • The child can vary its rhythm and pitch patterns.
  • Context often help the parent understand what the cry means, for example, preceding events such as sleep, feeding or nappy changing. 

Stage Two: 8-20 weeks, Cooing and Laughing

  • Sounds are quieter, lower pitched, more musical - cooing is short (1/2 second)
  • Consists of a short vowel-like sound and can be quite nasal. 
  • 'Coo', 'goo' and 'ga-ga' - developing control over vocal chords.
  • Cooing involves extensive movement of tongue up and down, side to side.
  • More lip movement at this stage and start of the phoneme.
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Stage Three: 20-30 weeks, Vocal Play

  • Cooing sounds die down, single vowel-like or consonant-like sounds are repeated over and over - made at the front of the mouth (mmm, nnnn)
  • Practice for future speech. 
  • Consonant-vowel (CVCV) sequences e.g. Mama, Dada - greater range of consonant-vowel.
  • Parents notice much more variety in child's noises.

Stage Four: 25-50 weeks, Babbling

  • Ababababa/Dadadada - reduplicative babbling with variegated sequences
  • Complex friction sounds - 's' and 'sh'.
  • Cluster consonants are avoided
  • Random manner and continues to 18 month.
  • Phonemic Expansion - wide range of sounds of world's languages not just their own native tongue. 
  • 10 months - phonemes reduces (phonemic contraction)
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Stage Five: 9-18 months, Melodic Utterance

  • Melody, Rhythm and tone develop - also, 'scribble talk'
  • Children from different language backgrounds now sound different
  • Children produce 'proto-words' where the sounds are clear but meanings are not. 
  • Proto-words: come in between babbling and melodic utterance. Babbling consists of C-V and proto-words can sound exactly the same. 
  • Helen Benedict (1979): Comprehension ability is at least a month ahead of production.

Speech Interaction:

  • Child's biological noises (sneezes, burps) are stimuli for parents to talk
  • Snow (1977): over 100 questions, comments etc. made by a mother trying to get her 3 month old to burp. 
  • A mother's linguistic behaviour is not random - large number of questions followed by pauses, a response is expected or an opportunity to respond.
  • Much greeting, even if she has only been away a few seconds. 
  • Only speaks when the child can respond, not during feeding. 
  • Exchanges become more emotive and varied
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  • Some children have 'favourite' sounds while other children avoid sounds either because they don't like them or they are difficult to articulate.
  • David Crystal records a child who pronounced blanket as 'bwati', 'bati', 'baki' and 'batit' with a few hours.
  • Consonants are first used correctly at the beginning of words. 
  • Olmstead (1971): 100 English children, p, b, k, n, f, d, g, n, and h were commonly used well in initial position. Only the first five were developed in final position.
  • Same survey, Vowels were developing well by the end of the second year. 
  • By age 4, all vowels are in use and only some consonants are causing problems.
  • Fricatives are difficult, often replacing 'see' with 'tii' 
  • Velar consonants are replaced by alveolar consonants e.g. 'gone' becomes 'don' - SUBSTITUTION 
  • Consonant clusters are avoided e.g. tree, glue, plastic
  • Extra vowels added e.g. egg becomes egu (ADDITION)
  • HARMONISING: when one consonant or vowel becomes the same e.g. dog becomes dod or gog
  • By the age of 3 the child can use almost all the vowels and twice as many consonants - words like elephant are accurate. 
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  • The learning of words is the most noticeable feature of the early months of language acquisition. 
  • Between 12 and 18 months an infant has a vocab of about 50 words and by the age of two has a command of about 200 words. 
  • Although these words may be said correctly, this does not know the child has grasped all meanings of these words.
  • Helen Benedict (1979): a child on average learns about 10 new words a month and will actively use them and they can understand 22 new words a month. A child understands five times as many words as they are capable of producing in 18 months.
  • Katherine Nelson: 18 children's first 50 words and following patterns: they have little concept of time and talk about the present, they build rapid vocab in semantic fields (relationships, food, humans, clothes, vehicles and their noises, animals, toys, household objects, body parts, properties, actions, personal/social greetings and situational words).
  • Errors occur when trying to work out the meanings of words: Over-Extension: word is given a broader meaning, Categorical Extension: over-extends on the basis of similar features e.g. anything with four legs is a cat, Analogical Extension: similarities in the uses of the object (anything holding liquid is a cup), Under-Extension: word is given a narrower meaning, Mismatch: no apparent basis for non-standard use of word
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  • Jean Aitchison (1987): identified three stages that occur during a child's acquisition of vocab
  • Labelling: first stage, making the link between the sounds of particular words and the objects to which they refer e.g. understanding 'mummy' refers to the child's mother
  • Packaging: understanding a word's range of meaning. Under-extension and over-extension occur before this stage is successful
  • Network Building: grasping the connection between words, understanding some words are opposite in meaning
  • Gardner (1975): child's ability to use language figuratively. 
  • Suffixing: children appear to know instinctively that an 's' inflection makes the plural in English. They soon realise generally '-ed' is the ending required to form the past tense. A child learns from word formation rule - there are some exceptions e.g. mouses, mans, fell/falled, breaked. 
  • Prefixes: A child can make a word negative by grasping prefixes/suffixes. They can make anegative by adding 'un' or 'dis' 
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  • Syntax; One Word Stage; One word utterances, occasionally more than one word will appear but the phrase will be used a single unit. 60% of words used at this time have a naming function and will develop into nouns. 20% express actions and develop into verbs. One word utterances convey sentences, parents rely on context to understand. (HOLOPHRASES) 
  • Two Word Stage; 18 months old, until the child develops syntactic component, the creativity and flexibility of language cannot be developed. Highly dependent on context and situation. Sometimes the words are brought together but the sequence is not uttered a single rhythmical unit - meaning is made but there is no fluency. 
  • Imitation: When a child repeats what an adult says, they omit words, but those that are retained will usually be in an appropriate grammatical order. 
  • Telegraphic Stage: Age 2+, three and four word utterances. Some will be grammatically complete but will convey the message at its most economical without appropriate grammatical words and word endings. Questions, commands and statements are used and different clause patterns are evident. Rapid progress.
  • David Crystal: non-fluency is bound to occur as the child copes with new skills. The repetition is not a speech defect, it is merely thinking time. 
  • Sorting of grammatical errors at about 4yrs old - irregularities of syntax/morphology are being mastered and sentences are co-ordinated.
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  • Baker and Freebody ('89): Written to Spoken Language; spoken does not take up physical space, whereas written does (moving from left to right and top to bottom), line break in writing so not affect meaning, pauses in spoken language do affect meaning, written language is repeatable in exact form, it is permanent, non-interactive (won't respond to questions).
  • Harris and Coltheart ('86): Learning to Read; Stage One: Whole Word Stage, children recognise written words as a whole and are not aware of their internal orthographic structure e.g. know the shape of the letters make up their name but don't recognise separate letters.
  • Stage Two; Discrimination Net: beginning to pay attention to orthography, when faced with an unfamiliar word, not in their sight vocab, they are likely to base their judgement on similarities between words they do know.
  • Stage Three; Phonological Recoding: extensive use is made of letter to sound correspondences and "sounding out" words. Necessary for decoding words that have never been encountered before - knowledge of letter to sound correspondences needed.
  • Stage Four; Orthographic Stage: where words are recognised directly from their spelling rather than by sound. much faster and less labourious than sounding them out. 
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