Language Acquisition

Notes based on the AQA A2 English Language B textbook.

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Stages of Development

Pre-verbal Stage - Vegetative (0-4 months), Cooing (4-7 months), Babbling (6-12 months), Proto-words (9-12 months) - all approximations as not all children develop at the same rate.


Lexical and Grammatical Stages of Development -

  • Holophrastic/one-word (12-18 months)
  • Two-word (18-24 months)
  • Telegraphic (24-36 months) three and more word utterances
  • Post-telegraphic (36+ months) More grammatically complex combinations. Key literacy skills of reading and writing start to develop.
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Chomsky (Nativist Theory)

  • American Linguist
  • Argues a biological basis of acquisition
  • Argues a LAD (Language Acquisition Device) - an innate brain mechanism that is inbuilt to acquire language and have an innate understanding of grammatical rules
  • Universal Grammar - the explanation that all world languages share the priniciples of grammar despite surface differences in lexis and phonology.

Supporting evidence - children all over world develop at similar rate in similar stages of development, regardless of environment and intelligence. Supported by 'wug' test.

Against - study of Genie (girl deprived of social contact until 13 then unable to learn speech beyond a basic level). Supports the 'critical period' hypothesis.

Against - children need input to give them more skills than grammar e.g. pragmatic understanding

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Alan Cruttenden (1974)

  • Compared adults and children to see if they could predict football results from listening to the scores.
  • Found that adults could successfully predict winners by the intonation placed on the first team.
  • Children (up to age 7) were less accurate.
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Early Phonological Errors

  • Children master language by making mistakes until they fully acquire the skills (trial and error).

1. Deletion (Omitting the final consonant in words) e.g. do(g), cu(p)

2. Substitution (Substituting one sound for another) e.g. 'pip' for 'ship'

3. Addition (Adding an extra vowel to the end of words, creating a CVCV pattern) e.g. doggie

4. Assimilation (Changing one consonant or vowel for another) e.g. 'gog' for 'dog'

5. Reduplication (Repeating a whole syllable) e.g. dada, mama

6. Consonant Cluster Reductions (When a child makes a word into a smaller unit) e.g. 'pider' for 'spider'.

7. Deletion of unstressed syllables (Omitting the opening syllable in polysyllabic words) e.g. 'nana' for 'banana'

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Berko and Brown (1960)

  • 'fis' experiment
  • Found that a child who referred to a plastic inflatable fish as a 'fis' (substituting the 's' sound for the 'sh') couldn't link an adults use of 'fis' with the same object.
  • Therefore - children can understand more than they can say
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Kathrine Nelson (1973)

  • Identified 4 categories for first words
  • 60% of first words were nouns (the naming group)
  • Verbs came second - usually with action or location words like "up" or "down"
  • Modifiers came third.
  • Personal/social words came forth
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Early Vocabulary - Content & Function Words

Early vocabulary contains:

  • Content words (nouns, verbs and adjectives) - have an independent 'dictionary' meaning.
  • Function words (determiners, prepositions and auxiliary verbs) - have a grammatical function to express a grammatical relationship. They are aquired later
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B.F Skinner (Behaviourist Theory)

  • Children imitate and copy adults
  • Positive and negative reinforcement for verbal behaviour conditions child to use the right language - forms the basis of a childs knowledge of language
  • This is the behaviourist approach (believes that language is acquired through imitation and reinforcement)
  • For - children imitate accent & dialect. They learn politeness & pragmatic aspects of language.
  • However, significant problems with this theory.
  • Children do not seem to automatically pick up 'correct' forms from imitation. e.g. overextending the language patterns
  • Evidence suggests that the child language acquisition cannot be based on reinforcement and imitation alone.
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Eve Clark - First Words

  • Study of 1st words found that children base overextensions on the physical qualities of objects and features such as taste, sound, movement, shape, size and texture.


  • Found that childrens 1st words connect to their experiences of the world & are dominated by senses.


  • More recent study found that common adjectives ('nice', 'big') are among childrens first 50 words but spatial adjectives ('wide'/'narrow', 'thick'/'thin') are acquired later.
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Leslie Rescorla

Divided overextensions into three types:

Categorial overextension: 60% of overextensions (the name for one member of a catefory is extended to all memebers of the category. e.g. apple for all round fruits.

Analogical overextension: 15% of overextensions (e.g. ball used for a round fruit) - word for one object extends into a different category.

Mismatch statements: 25% of overextensions (e.g. saying 'duck' when looking at an empty pond) - making a statement about one object in relation to another.

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Aitcheson - Lexical & Semantic Development

Stage 1: LABELLING - Linking words to the objects they refer to, understanding that things can be labelled.

Stage 2: PACKAGING - Exploring the labels & to what they can apply. Over/underextension occurs in order to eventually understand the range of a words meaning.

Stage 3: NETWORK- BUILDING - Making connections between words, understanding similarities and opposites in meanings.

It has been found that parents are more likely to use the specific words for objects (hyponyms) than the general (hypernym) - encourages network building & increases vocabulary.

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Piaget (Cognitive Theory)

  • Swiss Psychologist
  • Links language acquisition directly to intellectual development - emphasises that children are active learners who use their environment and social interactions to shape their language.
  • E.g. a child uses "wassat" therefore showing that she wants more labels to describe the objects around her. They use this word to be an active learner.
  • Suggests that children can only use certain linguistic structures when they understand the concept involved. e.g. can only understand the past tense when the understand the concept of past time.
  • As they grow, they develop awareness of concepts from their physical experiences e.g. size, touch sensations such as heat & cold.
  • Research - 7 year olds were taught phrases like 'more than and less'. Language tuition did not help them grasp concepts. Words are acquired after concept is learnt.
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Piaget - Stages of linguistic development table

Sensorimotor (Up to 2)

  • Child experiences physical world.
  • Begins classifying things
  • Lexical choices tend to be concrete rather than abstract
  • Object permanence develops (the concept that objects exist when out of sight)

Pre-operational (2-7)

  • Language & motor skills develop.
  • Language is egocentric (focused on child or used by child)

Concrete operational (7-11)

  • Children begin thinking logically about concrete events

Formal operational (11+)

  • Abstract reasoning skills develop
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Two areas of grammer (syntax and morphology):

1. Syntactial advances allow children to -

  • order words into phrases and clauses
  • make different types of utterances (simple, compound, complex) for different functions apart from declarative (interrogative & imperative require different word order)

2. Morphological advances allow children to -

  • add inflections to words (inflectional morphology - the alteration of words to make new grammatical forms)
  • experiment with language by adding prefixes & suffixes to make up words and to convert words from one word class to another (derivational morphology - the creation of new word by adding prefixes & suffixes)
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Grammar: One-word/holophrastic stage

  • This stage provides building blocks for syntax to develop


  • Having only one word makes meaning a matter of interpretation.


  • Carers depend on rising intonation, context, prosodic features and making sense of early words through trial and error e.g. "Are you hungry?"


  • Importance of having acquired & practised phonological skills show.
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Grammar: Two-word Stage

  • Stage marks the beginning of syntactical development
  • Once 2 words are joined the child can explore different combinations & learn correct English word order.
  • Roger Brown - 1970s study of 2 word sentences: found that children from all cultures and countries make the same relationships between grammatical concepts. - Supports chomsky's theory?
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Grammar: Telegraphic Stage

  • Meanings become more explicit at 3 word combinations.
  • Utterances are similar to the style & construction of a telegram or text message (function words are left out but content words are retained)
  • Verb inflections, auxillary verbs, prepositions & determiners all omitted early in stage.
  • Towards post-telegraphic stage, these function words appear accurately in utterances.
  • Developments take place in construction of questions, negatives & pronouns

1. Questions:

  • feature in early speech but formed by rising intonation.
  • Subject & auxillary acquired in certain order - what, where, why, when.
  • "Why" shows cognitive awareness. "When" shows abstract thought - acquisition of sense of time
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Grammar: Telegraphic Stage (Bellugi)


  • Stage 1: uses 'no' or 'not' at beginning or end of sentence e.g. "no wear shoes"
  • Stage 2: moves 'no'/'not'  inside the sentence e.g. "I no want it"
  • Stage 3: attaches negative to auxillary verbs e.g. "No, I don't want to go to nursery" "I am not"

David Crystal - adds another way of learning to say no to bellugi's stages. Uses 'maybe' to mean 'no' - learnt from parents who don't want to be direct in disagreeing with their children.


  • Can be difficult to use accurately.
  • Stage 1: child uses their own name e.g. "Tom play"
  • Stage 2: child recognises I/me pronouns e.g. "I play toy", "Me do that"
  • Stage 3: child uses pronouns according to whether they are in the subject or object position within a sentence e.g. "I play with the toy", "Give it to me"
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Grammar: Post Telegraphic Stage

Morphological Development -

Child needs to understand that not only can word order change - the words themselves can change too.

'Virtuous errors' and overgeneralisations -

  • A virtuous error is a syntactic error made by young children.
  • It is usually applied to mistakes children make as they develop grammatically.
  • Some linguists call these overgeneralisations e.g. I runned (overgeneralisation of the -ed inflection)
  • Common overgeneralisation - adding the plural -s inflection to nouns e.g. mouse/mouses instead of mice. Irregular plurals have to be learnt.
  • Children go through the process of applying rules & then learning the exceptions
  • Supports Chomsky's view because it shows children produce language that they have never heard an adult say
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Grammar: Post Telegraphic Stage - Jean Berko (1950

The 'Wug' Test

  • Study into childrens pronunciation and morphological development 
  • She gave children a picture of an imaginary creature called a 'wug' & asked them what more than one wug would be called.
  • Three-quarters of the 4- and 5 year-olds surveyed formed the regular plural 'wugs'


  • Another inflectional morphology that children need to acquire. e.g. possessive -s inflection.
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Developing Pragmatics & Haliday

Pragmatic understanding and conversational skills are crucial to childrens successful language development.

Is about implicature (what we mean rather than what we say)inference (interpreting what others mean), politeness (using the right words and phrases to be polite), conversational management & turn-taking (knowing when to speak)

Hallidays functions of speech-

  • instrumental (to fulfil a need)
  • regulatory (to influence the behaviour of others)
  • interactional (to develop & maintain social relationships)
  • personal (to convey opinions, ideas & personal identity)
  • representational (to convey facts & information)
  • imaginative (to create an imaginary world - seen as play)
  • heuristic (learn about the environment)
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Developing Pragmatics - Politeness

  • Politeness encouraged by parents at a young age
  • "Please" and "thankyou" are important in social interaction
  • Politeness maintains conversations & is a part of the face theory by Brown and Levinson

Positive face - where the individual wants social approval & to be included.

Negative face - where the individual asserts thier need to be independent & make own decisions.

  • Accomodation theory - Giles - Convergence (to fit the style of the other speaker) or divergence (to signal social disapproval or social distance by using language that differs from the other speaker)
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Play and Language Acquisition

Vygotsky -

  • observed childrens play & linked it to both cognitive and social development. 
  • Found that young children often use props as 'pivots' to support their play. 
  • When older, they use their imagination instead.
  • Also observed how children role-play adult behaviours as a part of exploring their environment

Garvey -

  • Study of pairs of children playing
  • Found that children adopt roles and identities, acting out storylines, inventing objects & settings
  • Fulfils Hallidays imaginative language function
  • Play practices social interactions and negotiation skills. 
  • Players roles and responsibilities often decided as they play
  • Sometimes called sociodramatic play (involves both social and dramatic skills with explicit rules & reflects real-world behaviour). Usually begins around 4 years old.
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The Role of Parents

CDS - speech patterns used by parents or care givers when communicating with young children. Usually involving simplified vocabulary, melodic pitch, repetitive questioning & a slow or deliberate tempo.

  • repetition
  • a higher pitch
  • childs name rather than pronouns
  • the present tense
  • one-word utterances/short elliptical sentences
  • fewer verbs/modifiers
  • concrete nouns
  • expansions (making a childs utterance into a longer more meaningful form)
  • yes/no questioning
  • exaggerated pauses - giving turn taking cues.
  • Teaches children the basic function & structure of language.
  • Not all cultures use CDS e.g. in Samoa or Papua New Guinea where they don't speak to children until they have reached a certain age.
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The Role of Parents (2)

Chomsky - language cannot be learnt from CDS because of its random nature - using incomplete sentences.

However, studies of CDS reveal that this register is more structured and regular than previously thought.

  • Men seem to use more direct questioning styles, seek more information & use wider vocabulary than women.
  • Alison Clarke-Stewart - found that children had a larger vocabulary in thier mothers talked to them a lot. (1970s)
  • However, Roger Brown - found that chilren were rarely corrected for grammatical mistakes although corrected for their lexical errors or content of their speech.
  • Therefore, CDS alone cannot explain childrens acquisition of language, but may affect their linguistic competence.
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Bruner (Social Interactionist)

Bruner - ritualised activities e.g. mealtimes, bedtimes and reading books, make carers rules and meaning of these interactions more explicit & predictable so that children can learn.

e.g. Peek-a-boo is an educational ritual. Teaches the important linguistic aspects such as turn-taking, formulaic utterances & syntax.

Also introduced the concept of 'scaffolding' (the process of transferring a skill from adult to child & then withdrawing support one the skill has been mastered).

  • Adults alter the way they talk to children giving them specific opportunities to take part in the discourse.
  • Adults often expand on a childs speech.
  • There must be a LASS (language acquisition support system)
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Lenneburg (1967)

  • Furthered nativist argument arguing that language has to be acquired within a critical period - really within the first 5 years.
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Brown (1973)

Studied childrens language development between ages of 20-36 months.

Found that there is an order children acquire inflectional affixes.

  • 1. Ing
  • 2. Plural -s
  • 3. Possessive -'s
  • 4. 'the' 'a'
  • 5. Past tense - ed
  • 6. Third Person Singular very ending - s
  • 7. Auxillary 'be'

Piagets theory useful to Browns theory because - the increasing complexity of the morphemes acquired suggests at link between cognitive development & language acquisition.

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