Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
Log In Start studying!
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free

All-in-one learning app

  • Flashcards
  • NotesNotes
  • ExplanationsExplanations
  • Study Planner
  • Textbook solutions
Start studying

Language Acquisition

Save Save
Print Print
Edit Edit
Sign up to use all features for free. Sign up now
X
Illustration You have already viewed an explanation Register now and access this and thousands of further explanations for free

Want to get better grades?

Nope, I’m not ready yet

Get free, full access to:

  • Flashcards
  • Notes
  • Explanations
  • Study Planner
  • Textbook solutions
English

Language is a uniquely human phenomenon. Animals communicate, but they don't do it with 'language'. One of the most intriguing questions in the study of language is how it is acquired by children. Are babies born with an innate, or built-in, ability to acquire language? Is language acquisition stimulated by interaction with others (parents, carers, and siblings)? What would happen if a child was deprived of communication, left isolated during the optimal time for language acquisition (roughly the first 10 years of a child's life)? Would the child be able to acquire language after that age?

Disclaimer / Trigger Warning: Some readers may be sensitive to some of the content in this article. This document serves an educational purpose to inform people of important information and uses relevant examples related to language acquisition.

Language Acquisition

In 1970, a 13-year-old girl called Genie was rescued by social services in California. She had been kept locked in a room by her abusive father and neglected from a very early age. She had had no contact with the outside world and was forbidden to speak. When Genie was rescued, she lacked basic language skills and could only recognize her own name and the word 'sorry'. However, she had a strong desire to communicate and could communicate nonverbally (e.g. through hand gestures).

This case fascinated psychologists and linguists, who took Genie's language deprivation as an opportunity to study child language acquisition. The lack of language in her home environment led to the age-old nature vs. nurture debate. Do we acquire language because it is innate or does it develop because of our environment?

What is language?

Language is a communication system, used and understood by a group with a shared history, territory, or both.

Linguists consider language to be a uniquely human ability. Other animals do have communication systems. For example, birds communicate in a series of different sounds for different purposes, such as warning of danger, attracting a mate, and defending territory. However, none of these communication systems appears to be as complex as human language, which has been described as 'the infinite use of a finite resource'.

Language Acquisition communication alphabet StudySmarterLanguage is considered to be unique to humans (Pixabay)

Meaning of Language Acquisition

The study of child language acquisition is (you guessed it!) the study of the processes by which children learn a language. At a very young age, children begin to understand, and gradually use, the language spoken by their caregivers.

The study of language acquisition involves three main areas:

  • First-language acquisition (your native language ie child language acquisition).
  • Bilingual language acquisition (learning two native languages).
  • Second-language acquisition (learning a foreign language). Fun fact - There's a reason why French lessons were so difficult - babies' brains are much more primed for language learning than our adult brains are!

Definition of Language Acquisition

Language acquisition refers to the process of acquiring a language, usually due to immersion (i.e. hearing the language often and in everyday contexts). Most of us acquire our native language just from being around others such as our parents.

Stages of language acquisition

There are four main stages in child language acquisition:

The babbling stage (3-8 months)

Children first start to recognize and produce sounds eg 'bababa'. They don't yet produce any recognizable words but they are experimenting with their newfound voice!

The one-word stage (9-18 months)

The one-word stage is when babies start to say their first recognizable words, eg using the word 'dog' to describe all fluffy animals.

The two-word stage (18-24 months)

The two-word stage is when children start communicating using two-word phrases. For example, 'dog woof', meaning 'the dog is barking', or 'mummy home', meaning mummy is home.

The multi-word stage (telegraphic stage) (24-30 months)

The multi-word stage is when children start to use longer sentences, more complex sentences. For example, 'mummy and Chloe go school now'.

Theories of language acquisition

Let's take a look at some of the key theories of child language acquisition:

What is Cognitive Theory?

Cognitive theory suggests that children go through stages of language development. Theorist Jean Piaget emphasized that we can only move through the stages of language learning as our brains and cognitive processes develop. In other words, children have to understand certain concepts before they can produce the language to describe these concepts. Theorist Eric Lenneberg argued that there is a critical period between two years old and puberty in which children need to learn language, otherwise, it cannot be learned sufficiently well.

What is Behavioral Theory (Imitation Theory)?

Behavioral theory, often called 'Imitation Theory' , suggests that people are a product of their environment. Theorist BF Skinner proposed that children 'imitate' their caregivers and modify their language use through a process called 'operant conditioning'. This is where children are either rewarded for desired behavior (correct language) or punished for undesired behavior (mistakes).

What is Nativist Theory and Language Acquisition Device?

Nativist theory, sometimes referred to as the 'innateness theory', was first proposed by Noam Chomsky. It states that children are born with an innate ability to learn language and that they already have a "language acquisition device" (LAD) in their brain (this is a theoretical device; it doesn't really exist!). He argued that certain errors (eg 'I runned') are evidence that children actively 'construct' language rather than just imitating caregivers.

What is Interactionist Theory?

Interactionist theory emphasises the importance of caregivers in child language acquisition. Theorist Jerome Bruner argued that children do have an innate ability to learn language however they require lots of regular interaction with caregivers to achieve full fluency. This linguistic support from caregivers is often called 'scaffolding' or a Language Acquisition Support System (LASS). Caregivers may also use child-directed speech (CDS) that helps a child learn. For example, caregivers will often use a higher pitch, simplified words, and lots of repetitive questioning when talking to a child. These aids are said to enhance communication between the child and caregiver.

What are Halliday's functions of language?

Michael Halliday suggested seven stages that show how the functions of a child's language become more complex with age. In other words, children express themselves better and better as time goes by. These stages include:

  • Stage 1- Instrumental Stage (language for basic needs eg food)
  • Stage 2- Regulatory Stage (language to influence others eg commands)
  • Stage 3- Interactive Stage (language to form relationships eg 'love you')
  • Stage 4- Personal Stage (language to express feelings or opinions eg 'me sad')
  • Stage 5- Informative Stage (language to communicate information)
  • Stage 6- Heuristic Stage (language to learn and explore eg questions)
  • Stage 7- Imaginative Stage (language used to imagine things)

How do we apply these theories?

Babies and young children say all kinds of funny things such; 'I runned to school' and 'I swimmed really fast'. These may sound ridiculous to us but these errors suggest that children are learning common English grammar rules. Take the examples' I danced ',' I walked ', and' I learned'- why do these make sense but not 'I runned '?

Theorists who believe that language is innate, such as nativists and interactionists, argue that these errors are virtuous errors. They believe that children build up a set of internal grammar rules and apply them to their own language; for example 'the suffix -ed means past tense'. If there is an error, children will modify their internal rules, learning that 'ran' is correct instead.

Cognitive theorists may argue that the child has not reached the level of cognition required to understand the use of irregular verbs. However, as adults don't say 'runned' we cannot apply the behaviorist theory, which suggests that children imitate carers.

How do we apply these theories to the case of Genie?

In the case of Genie, many different theories were put to the test, especially the critical period hypothesis. Was it possible for Genie to acquire language after 13 years? Which is more important, nature or nurture?

After years of rehabilitation, Genie began to acquire plenty of new words, appearing to go through the one word, the two words, and eventually the three-word stages. Despite this promising development, Genie never managed to apply grammatical rules and use language fluently. This supports Lenneberg's concept of a critical period. Genie had passed the period in which she could fully acquire language.

Due to bringing up the complicated nature of Genie's, further research would be needed before coming to any conclusions. Her abuse and neglect meant that the case was very special as she was deprived of all kinds of cognitive stimulation which could have affected the way in which she learned language.

How do I apply what I've learned in the exam?

In the exam, you are expected to apply the theory that you have learned to a piece of text. You should understand the following:

  • Features of child language acquisition such as virtuous errors, overextension / underextension, and overgeneralization.
  • Features of Child-Directed Speech (CDS) such as a high degree of repetition, longer and more frequent pauses, frequent use of the child's name, etc.
  • Theories of child language acquisition such as nativism, behavior, etc.

The question:

It is essential to read the question word by word as you need to answer the question fully to gain as many marks as possible! You are often asked to 'evaluate' a point of view in your exam. For example, you might be asked to evaluate the view that “child-directed speech is essential for a child's language development”.

The word 'evaluate' means that you have to make a critical judgment on the point of view. In other words, you have to argue using evidence to back up your point of view. Your evidence should include examples from the transcript and from other theories you have studied. It is useful to consider both sides of the argument too. Imagine yourself as a movie critic - you analyze the good points and the bad points to make an evaluation of the film.

The transcription key:

At the top of the page, you will find the transcription key. This will help you to understand the features of speech, such as LOUDER SPEECH or stressed syllables. It may be useful to revise this before the exam so that you can get stuck into the question straight away. For example:

Transcription Key

(.) = short pause

(2.0) = longer pause (number of second shown in brackets)

Bold = stressed syllables

CAPITAL LETTERS = louder speech

At the top of the text, you will find the context. For example, the age of the child, who is involved in the conversation, etc. This can be really useful information as we can find out what kind of interaction is taking place between participants and what stage of language acquisition a child is at.

  • Features of child language acquisition such as virtuous errors, overextension / underextension, and overgeneralization.
  • Features of Child-Directed Speech (CDS) such as a high degree of repetition, longer and more frequent pauses, frequent use of the child's name, etc.
  • Theories of child language acquisition such as nativism, behavior, etc.

Looking at the context:

At the top of the text, you will find the context. For example, this may state the age of the child, who is involved in the conversation, etc. This can be really useful information as we can find out what kind of interaction is happening between participants and what stage of language acquisition a child is at.

For example, if the child is 13 months old then they would normally be at the one-word stage. We can also study the text to suggest which stage the child is at and give reasons for why we think that, using examples from the text. Children can appear to be in other stages of language development than what is expected eg a child of 13 months may still appear to be at the babbling stage.

It is also useful to look at the significance of any other context that is shown throughout the text. For example, a book to point to pictures or other props can be used to help describe words.

Analysing the text:

Always remember to answer the question. If the question asks us to evaluate then we are looking to consider multiple points of view and come to a conclusion.

Let's take the example "evaluate the importance of Child-Directed Speech":

Child-directed speech (CDS) is a major part of Bruner's interactionist theory. This theory includes the idea of 'scaffolding' and the features of CDS. If we can identify features of CDS in the text then we can use these as examples in our answer. Examples of CDS in the transcript could be things like repetitive questioning, frequent pauses, frequent use of the child's name, and change in voice (stressed syllables and volume). If these attempts at CDS do not get a response from the child then this suggests that CDS may not be completely effective.

We can also use contradicting theories to help us evaluate the importance of CDS. For example,

Another example is Piaget's cognitive theory that suggests that we can only move through the stages of language development as our brains and cognitive processes develop. This theory, therefore, does not support the importance of CDS, instead, it suggests that slower language development is due to slower cognitive development.

Top tips:

  • Revise the keywords used in exam questions. This includes: evaluate, analyse, identify etc.
  • Look at the text both word for word and as a whole. Label any key features that you find. This will help you to analyse the text with a high level of detail.
  • Make sure to include plenty of 'buzz-words' in your answer. These are keywords that you've learned in theory, such as 'telegraphic stage', 'scaffolding', 'overgeneralization', etc.
  • Use examples from the text and other theories to support your argument.

Language Acquisition - Key takeaways

  • Language is a communication system in which we express our ideas, thoughts, and feelings through sounds, written symbols, or gestures. Language is a uniquely human trait.
  • Child language acquisition is the process by which children acquire language.
  • The four stages of language acquisition are babbling, the one-word stage, the two-word stage, and the multi-word stage.
  • The main four theories of language acquisition are Behavioural Theory, Cognitive Theory, Nativist Theory, and Interactionist Theory.
  • Halliday's 'functions of language' shows how the functions of a child's language become more complex with age.
  • It is important to know how to apply these theories to a text.

Frequently Asked Questions about Language Acquisition

Language acquisition is about the way we learn a language. The field of child language acquisition studies the way children acquire their first language.

The main 4 theories of language acquisition are: Behavioural Theory, Cognitive Theory, Nativist Theory, and Interactionist Theory. 

The 4 stages of language acquisition are: babbling, the one-word stage, the two-word stage, and the multi-word stage.

Language acquisition refers to the process of acquiring a language, usually due to immersion (i.e. hearing the language often and in everyday contexts). Most of us acquire our native language just from being around others such as our parents. 


The term language learning refers to the process of studying a language in a more theoretical way. This is often learning the structure of the language, its use, its grammar, and so on. 

Theories of second language acquisition include; the Monitor Hypothesis, the Input Hypothesis, the Affective Filter hypothesis, the Natural Order Hypothesis, the Acquisition Learning Hypothesis, and more.

Final Language Acquisition Quiz

Question

Child language acquisition is the process in which children acquire the ability to __________ and __________ language. Fill in the blanks.

Show answer

Answer

Child language acquisition is the process in which children acquire the ability to perceive and understand language. (Also accept ‘speak’, ‘produce’, and ‘comprehend’).

Show question

Question

What unique case study was used to study child language acquisition?

Show answer

Answer

The language of the ‘feral child’ Genie was a unique study in child language acquisition.

Show question

Question

Animals can speak all kinds of languages. True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False. Language is a uniquely human trait. Whilst animals do have communication systems, they are not the same as human language.

Show question

Question

What is the name of the errors made by children learning grammar rules?

Show answer

Answer

These errors are called ‘virtuous errors’ by linguists. An example of a virtuous error is ‘I runned’ as it is using the common rule of the past tense -ed.

Show question

Question

What are the 4 stages of language acquisition?

Show answer

Answer

The 4 stages of language acquisition are; babbling, the one-word stage, the two-word stage, and the multi-word stage.

Show question

Question

Babbling is the stage where children first start to recognise and produce words/ phrases/ sounds/ sentences. Choose the correct answer.

Show answer

Answer

Babbling is the stage where children first start to recognise and produce sounds. For example, ‘bababa’.

Show question

Question

What is the one-word stage in language acquisition?

Show answer

Answer

The one-word stage is when babies start to say their first recognisable words. These words may not always be used in the right context.

Show question

Question

Children can speak full, coherent sentences in the two-word stage. True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False. Children can only form two-word sentences in the two-word stage such as ‘mommy home’.

Show question

Question

What is the final stage in language acquisition?

Show answer

Answer

The final stage is called the multi-word stage. This is when children put together multiple words to form more coherent sentences e.g. ‘mummy eat apple’.

Show question

Question

Put these stages of language acquisition in order; 

  • the two-word stage
  • babbling
  • the one-word stage
  • the multi-word stage

Show answer

Answer

1. Babbling 2. the one-word stage 3. the two-word stage 4. the multi-word stage.

Show question

Question

What are the 4 theories of language acquisition?

Show answer

Answer

The main 4 theories of language acquisition are; Behavioural Theory, Cognitive Theory, Nativist Theory, and Interactionist Theory.

Show question

Question

Skinner’s behavioural theory suggests that children ________ their caregivers. People are a product of their ___________.

Show answer

Answer

Behavioural theory suggests that children imitate their caregivers. People are a product of their environment.

Show question

Question

Piaget’s cognitive theory suggests that children go through different stages of language development as their brain develops the ability to understand concepts. True or false?

Show answer

Answer

This is true! In other words, children have to understand certain concepts before they can produce the language to describe these concepts.

Show question

Question

What does Chomsky’s nativist theory suggest?

Show answer

Answer

Nativist theory suggests that children are born with an inn​ate ability to learn language. (e.g. they already have a thing called a language acquisition device in their brain.)

Show question

Question

What is Bruner’s interactionist theory?

Show answer

Answer

Theorist Bruner argued that children do have an innate ability to learn language, however, they require lots of regular interaction with caregivers to develop language to a level of full fluency.

Show question

Question

True or false - Nativists believe that children will learn a language depending on the environment in which they grow up.

Show answer

Answer

False. Nativists believe that children will learn a language regardless of the environment in which they grow up.

Show question

Question

True or false - Scientists of the nativist theory believe that children are born with the ability to understand basic rules of grammar, like combining nouns and verbs to form sentences.


Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

What is the concept regarding the brain area used in the interactionist theory?


Show answer

Answer

Instead of having just one area of the brain dedicated to language, interactionists believe that children use the same area in their brains to learn the language and any other skill.

Show question

Question

What is the language acquisition device (LAD)?


Show answer

Answer

LAD is a tool in the child's brain that allows them to learn and develop the rules of the language quickly.


Show question

Question

What are the three factors in the development of the language that Chomsky believed in?


Show answer

Answer

The three factors are genetic endowment, external data and independent principles.

Show question

Question

What does Chomsky mean by a genetic endowment?


Show answer

Answer

For genetic endowment, he means genes inherited from the parents, which sets the limit on the language, making it possible to learn. 


Show question

Question

True or false - For nativists, learning the language is all about the child’s direct experiences with the environment.


Show answer

Answer

False. For behaviourists, learning the language is all about the child’s direct experiences with the environment.

Show question

Question

True or false - The universal grammar theory affirms that we have to learn a language faculty that knows these grammar rules, making it easier for children to learn and speak than it otherwise would be.


Show answer

Answer

False. The theory proposes that we have an innate language faculty that knows these grammar rules, making it easier for children to learn and speak than it otherwise would be.

Show question

Question

What is that Chomsky doesn’t believe?


Show answer

Answer

He doesn’t believe in the rule of imitation as it could mislead the child that hasn’t used that adult’s structure yet.

Show question

Question

What is the resolution of the Nicaraguan people regarding the nativistic theory?


Show answer

Answer

 The development of postnatal growth of the brain is associated with persistence in language learning.

Show question

Question

What was the discovery in the Nicaraguan deaf children?


Show answer

Answer

They started to communicate with each other with signs never learnt or known before.

Show question

Question

Read this sentence and write the theory that sustains it: “Language learning depends on essential interactions with parents and caregivers that motivate children to understand and use language.”


Show answer

Answer

 It is part of the interactionist theory.

Show question

Question

True or false - Interactionists also believe in joint attention, where children and their parents focus on the same thing while also interacting.


Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

What is Chomsky’s theory based on?


Show answer

Answer

His theory is based on biolinguistics, which is the linguistic’s side believing in the structure of language biologically present in the human mind, genetically inherited.

Show question

Question

True or false - Language development is instinctive, and Chomsky believes that every child has a Language acquisition device (LAD). 


Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

What period of a person’s life is the critical period?

Show answer

Answer

From around 2 years old until puberty.

Show question

Question

How are adolescents more capable of learning a new language than adults?


Show answer

Answer

The brain of adolescents has a higher level of neuroplasticity since they are still in the critical period.

Show question

Question

What field of linguistics did Lenneberg play a major role in creating?


Show answer

Answer

Lenneberg played a major role in the development of the field of biolinguistics.

Show question

Question

Where was the idea of the critical period first introduced?


Show answer

Answer

In the book ‘Biological Foundations of Language’ (1967) by Eric Lenneberg.

Show question

Question

Why was Genie unable to develop native proficiency in her first language?


Show answer

Answer

She didn’t have the opportunity to develop basic language skills during the critical period.

Show question

Question

True or False? Adults are unable to develop native proficiency in a second language.


Show answer

Answer

False. It is more difficult, but adults can still develop full proficiency in a second language.



Show question

Question

True or False? Lenneberg believed language was developed through social means.


Show answer

Answer

False. Lenneberg believed that the capacity for language acquisition was innate in all humans and that the learning pathways were already there.

Show question

Question

True or False? Lenneberg believed that a spoken language environment was needed to learn a language.


Show answer

Answer

True. Although he proposed that language acquisition was innate in all humans, he believed that the right environment was also necessary.

Show question

Question

What factors determine how successful an adult is in learning a second language?


Show answer

Answer

The effort put in, the time spent learning, the learning environment and their age.


Show question

Question

Why do adults who learn a second language often have a foreign accent?


Show answer

Answer

The neuromuscular system of adults is less adapted for change which affects their pronunciation of a new language.

Show question

Question

What period of a person's life is the critical period?


Show answer

Answer

From around two years old until puberty.

Show question

Question

Why are adolescents more capable of learning a new language than adults?


Show answer

Answer

The brain of adolescents has a higher level of neuroplasticity since they are still in the critical period.

Show question

Question

What is the sensitive period?


Show answer

Answer

A period where a person has a high level of neuroplasticity and can learn new skills quickly.

Show question

Question

Where was the idea of ​​the critical period first introduced?


Show answer

Answer

In the book 'Biological Foundations of Language' (1967) by Eric Lenneberg.

Show question

Question

Why was Genie unable to develop native proficiency in her first language?


Show answer

Answer

They didn't have the opportunity to develop basic language skills during the critical period.

Show question

Question

Adults are unable to develop native proficiency in a second language.


Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

True or False? The only reason Genie didn't obtain native proficiency in English was that she didn't learn during the critical period.


Show answer

Answer

False. Although researchers propose that to be one of the main reasons, Genie was subject to abuse and neglect which could have also contributed to her inability to learn.

Show question

Question

The study of deaf children supported the CPH in first language acquisition.


Show answer

Answer

True. 

Show question

Question

What factors affect how successful an adult is when learning a second language?


Show answer

Answer

The effort put in, the time spent learning, the learning environment, and their age.

Show question

Question

Why do adults who learn a second language often have a foreign accent?


Show answer

Answer

The neuromuscular system of adults is less adapted to change which affects their ability the pronunciation of a new language.

Show question

60%

of the users don't pass the Language Acquisition quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.