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Imitation Theory

Skinner suggested that language is acquired through imitation and reinforcement:

  • children repeat what they hear (imitation) 
  • caregivers reward childs efforts with praise
  • they also reinforce what child says by repeating words and phrases back and correct mistakes

this approach says children learn all the specific pronuciations of indivual words by coyping and adult - therefore explains an important part of their phonolgical development

Problems with Imitation

  • children able to construct new sentence never heard before
  • don't memorise thousands of sentences to use later, so development can't be exclusively based on repeating what they have heard
  • can't explain overgeneralisation  like "he runned away" (can't be copied becuase adult would not use say this) 
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Language Acquisition Devise (Innate)

  • Chomsky argued that a child's ability to acquire language was inbuilt. Not taught but is a natural development that occurs when children are exposed to language
  • suggested language acquistion devise allowing them to use grammatical rules of the language that's spoken where they live
  • explains overgeneralisations and why inflections are learnt in certain order (as if brain programmed to learn language)
  • explains how all children pass through that same early stages of language acquistion, before refining their range  of sounds to their native language 


Innate approach underestimates significance of Skinner's argument that interact, imitation and reinforcement are important in language development

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Cognitive Approach

Cognitive approach focuses on importance of mental processes. Piaget stated that a child needs to have developed certain mental abilities before he or she can acquire particular aspects of language. 

  • At first a child can't mentally process concept that something can exist outside their immediate surroundings (egocentric)
  • by time they're 18 months old, children realise that things have object permanence. This coincides with big increase in vocabulary 
  • child is then mentally better equipped to understand abstract concepts like past, present and future


  • dosn't explain how some people with learning difficulties are still linguistically fluent
  • suggests that Cognitive development and language development aren't as closely connected as the cognitive approach suggests  
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Language Acquisition Support System

Language development needs input from others

The input approach argues that in order for language to develop there has to be linguistic interaction with caregivers

  • Bruner suggested thoery of Language Acquistion Support System (LASS) - system where caregivers supports child's linguitic development in social situations
  • clear patterns of interaction between child and caregiver in everyday situations like meal times, bath-time and when playing. Caregiver talks to child and encourages reponds such as asking questions e.g. "what is that, is it a doggy?". As result child becomes more active in social situations like asking caregiver questions
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Critical Period Hypothesis

  • children deprived of language early on don't seem able to acquire it easily later. So Lenneberg proposed Critical Period Hypothesis stating that without linguitic before age 5-6 language development severly limited
  • View supported by rare cases where children without exposure to language in first 5 years e.g. child abuse subsequently fail to develop normal speech 
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Socio-cultural Theory

theory suggests that social interactions and experiencing different social and cultural contexts are very important for lanuage development. Vygotsky identified two significant factors contributing to language development - Private speech and Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) 

Private speech:

  • child talk aloud to itself
  • Vygotsky saw this as a major  step forward in a child's mental development - this is evidence child is thinking for itself


  • when child needs a caregiver's help in order to interact e.g. if doctor asks "where does it hurt?" child may not answer.
  • caregiver either repsonds for child or tries to encourage a response.
  • Giver child a model to apply to similar situations in future when it might respond without help

This kind of support known as Scaffolding. children require it less and less once they become able to deal with different social situations on their own.

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