Theories of Language Acquisition

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  • Created by: Sarah
  • Created on: 03-05-11 20:47

To what extent does the Behaviourist theory play a role in acquiring language? 


Skinner believes that children acquire language through imitation of those around them. He also believes that reinforcement from those around them is key; when a child produces language successfully, they may receive positive reinforcement, e.g. praise, which motivates them to repeat that certain behaviour; if they are unsuccessful, negative reinforcement, e.g. telling off, will discourage the same behaviour. This reinforcement shapes the child's use of language and ensures that it develops successfully. 

The fact that children develop regional accents suggests that Skinner is correct as children will imitate this. Imitation is also important in the development of vocabulary. However, children cannot always have imitated people because of errors made in language. For example, overgeneralisations, such as 'wented', cannot have been imitated. Regression shows that the child's newly acquired rule is more important than imitation and reinforcement. Research also suggests that children cannot always assimilate adult corrections, e.g. Martin Baine's failed attempt to stamp out his daughter's grammatical errors. 

However, there are four other theories regarding language acquisition. 

Chomsky proposed the Nativist theory in 1965, which suggests that children have an inbuilt Language Acquisition Device (LAD) which is a part of the human brain that allows us to develop language by extracting rules from language we hear, and applying them to our own speech. Chomsky says that all children are 'pre-programmed' with Universal Grammar, and simply need to be exposed to their own native language to allow the LAD to extract the particular rules for that language. This theory says that children play and active, deductive, experimental part in acquiring language. 

The existence of grammatical features common to all languages, e.g. subjects, objects and verbs, suggests that Chomsky is correct. Jean Berko's 'wug' experiment also suggests the theory is correct as the children automatically added the suffix '-s' when asked to name what was shown them; this suggests inbuilt grammatical ability. However, this theory may underestimate the need for social interaction as suggested in Bard and Sachs' study of 'Jim', the child with deaf parents who could not develop language corrected until he interacted with a speech therapist, despite listening to the radio and television. 

The cognitive theory, proposed by Piaget, suggests that language acquisition is part of a much wider development of understanding and knowledge in children. They suggest language acquisition is linked to cognitive development (which is why they differ from Nativists). Piaget says that children need to understand a concept before they can use the words based around that concept, e.g. they must understand past time before they can use past tense. The theory believes in a concept: 'object permanence'. This is said to be the…

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