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Children's Language Acquisition

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Children's Language Acquisition

How does someone learn to speak? No matter what country or geographic area you are from, we all learn a native language. How is this possible?

  • How do children acquire language?
  • What are the stages of children's language acquisition?
  • What are theories of children's language acquisition?
  • What is an example of children's language acquisition?

The Meaning of Children's Language Acquisition

Language acquisition is a large-scale operation and begins early in an individual's life.

Children's Language Acquisition, clip art symbol of a globe with symbols from different languages, StudySmarterLanguages around the world, flaticon.com

What is language? What is the definition of language in psychology?

Language is our spoken and written communication methods.

Language is an incredible element of our lives. The noises and sounds from our mouths, the positioning of our bodies, the expressions on our faces, and (sometimes) the intricate movements of our hands are used to convey important information to others!

There are three key basic structures to language:

  • Phonemes

  • Morphemes

  • Grammar

Phonemes

The small noises that we make as we speak are called phonemes. In the English language, words such as cat have three phonemes or sounds: the sound for the letter c, the sound for the letter a, and the sound for the letter t. No language has the same number of possible phonemes, and each language of the world possesses its unique phonemes.

The English language has 40 phonemes, while Spanish only has 14. The language with the most phonemes is Ta'a (a language native to Botswana), and it has a total of 161!

Morphemes

Morphemes are the smallest units of a word that carry meaning in them. An example of this is the personal pronoun "I" in English. Also, morphemes can be phonemes and can be combined with other phonemes. Another example in English is prefixes and suffixes. Both the suffix -ed at the end of the word studied and the prefix a- at the beginning of asymmetry are morphemes.

Grammar

Each language has its own set of rules or guides so that our words are used in a specific order known as grammar. This makes it easier to understand one another within a large area, such as in the United States. Typically, these rules are all the same within local dialects in the language.

There are so many possible combinations of phonemes, morphemes, and grammar. As we learn a language, it is hard to use all of these correctly.

Learning our first language begins very early in life and happens in stages that everyone must complete in order to learn and acquire a language.

Children's Language Acquisition, an entry for the word dictionary in a dictionary,  StudySmarterBasic elements of a language, pexels.com

The Stages of Children's Language Acquisition

Early in life, we absorb so much information, including information about our native language. Research shows that within only the first few years of our lives, we learn about 60,000 words!

Your native language is the language you learned earliest in life. It is not necessarily the dominant language of the country where you lived or the language native to your geographic area.

Stage 1: Receptive Language

As early as four months old, we begin learning and understanding speech sounds. Also, at this early stage of life, babies learn to read lips and recognize facial expressions. They learn that making an "ah" sound requires opening the mouth wide because they watch and listen to other people talk even before they start speaking. This stage of language acquisition is known as receptive language.

At seven months old, a baby can begin to make sounds. Starting to make sounds around this age helps the baby later on, around ages 2 to 5, to build on these sounds to form words.

Stage 2: Productive Language

Babies love to babble. The productive language stage (or the babbling stage) begins as early as four months and is a baby's way of mimicking and producing sounds. Most of the sounds produced by babies are vowel-constant combinations (ba-ba or da-da). The baby is not trying to repeat sounds they hear from adults; they are just making noises. The noises are not unique to particular languages - they are universal.

Babies who are deaf or hearing may begin moving their hands as they make sounds if they see adults and children moving their hands as they talk.

Children's Language Acquisition, a baby waving his hand, StudySmarterEarly language acquisition, pexels.com

Stage 3: The One-Word Stage

As babies get closer to their first birthday, they enter the one-word stage, and they are now aware that sounds carry importance and are used to communicate. They begin purposefully using sounds to form words to communicate with others. You can actually communicate a lot using only one word at a time! These words can be labels, names, or simple communication (cat, dog, mama, mine, hi, bye, etc.).

Still, some of the sounds and words a baby of this age uses may not be recognizable, but the baby can generally communicate much better with family members than before. Many of the words used in this stage are nouns (mama, dada, dog, ball, car, cup, etc.). Once the child passes through the one-word stage (around two years of age), they enter the two-word stage.

Stage 4: The Two-Word Stage

The two-word stage allows the child to speak using telegraphic speech or language. Rather than just combining two random words (although the toddler may do that!), the two words are usually a noun and a verb (dog go, cup please, mama come, etc.). Even though the sentences are very basic, the toddler uses proper syntax (combining words in the correct sequences).

After the age of two, the toddler begins using more words and forming longer sentences. Remember: the language development up to this point is typically only in the child's native language unless the child is exposed early to more than one commonly used language.

Children's Language Acquisition Theories

Now that you know when we begin learning a language, let's look at some theories about how we do it.

The Theory of Innateness

Noam Chomsky (1957) asked how we learn our native language, and he discovered through his research that there are commonalities in all languages. Each language of the world (around 7000 total) has similar or universal grammar rules, such as verbs, nouns, and adjectives. Chomsky also observed that humans seem to possess a predisposition or an innate ability to understand and learn grammar. He observed this in young children.

Chomsky also noticed, though, that we are not born preprogrammed with a language. We are born with the innate ability to learn a language, but we are not born already knowing and using a particular language. He named this natural ability to learn a language the language acquisition device (LAD).

The Cognitive Theory of Language Development

Jean Piaget (1936) is another theorist who studied language acquisition. Specifically, he wanted to know how our cognitive abilities develop in early life. He emphasized the idea that a child must cognitively know and understand a language before speaking the language.

When a child is learning about the concept of different sizes, they have to understand what the ideas "bigger" and "smaller" mean before they can intelligently use words like big and small. Piaget suggested that by around 18 months of age (generally before the two-word stage), children may already have a more extensive vocabulary than we realize due to understanding object permanence and knowing labels for objects (big ball).

Object permanence means knowing that an object exists even if it is not within sight.

While playing peek-a-boo, a 3-month-old baby will forget that your eyes exist when they are hidden behind your hands. Every time you reveal your eyes, the baby will be just as surprised as the last time! Toddlers who understand object permanence know that they can ask for something or search for something out of their sight, like their favorite cup or toy.

The Language Acquisition Support System (LASS) Theory

Bruner's theory of language development is heavily focused on the interactions between a child and a caregiver. He stressed that how the caregiver speaks or communicates with the child is the catalyst for language acquisition. His theory is called the language acquisition support system (LASS).

Based on his theory, children learn the language of their caregivers. The child's way of communicating will be similar to the parent's. This theory only explains a part of how language develops, though, and it does not address underlying cognitive processes or innate ability.

Some parents or caregivers know and use more than one language. The second language could be a language they learned in adulthood, or they have different native languages (one uses American Sign Language (ASL), and the other speaks English). If both languages are used daily, children are able to learn both early on.

Children's Language Acquisition, a parent reading to her small child, StudySmarterSupportive language acquisition, pexels.com

Children's Language Acquisition Process

What process do we complete in order to learn a language? Are there more stages than the ones we have already talked about? What about learning a second (non-native) language?

Statistical Learning

Have you noticed that when you listen to a language you do not know, the words sort of run together? A child around the age of one does not have the same issue. In the early stages of language acquisition, we can better learn and understand the statistical aspects of language. These include picking up breaks between words, syllables, and grammar usage.

Research shows that infants of seven months old can learn syllables, words, and simple sentence structures much more easily than adults. These findings support the idea that humans have a preprogrammed ability to learn a language.

Critical Periods of Learning

Why is it easier to learn a language when you are a baby than later in life? Can the same language acquisition abilities happen in our adult years? Unfortunately, the answer is no. There are critical periods in our early childhood years that allow for language acquisition to happen as easily and smoothly as it does. If we do not learn a language during this critical biological period, we lose most or all of the ability to learn a language at any time in life.

Genie's Early Life

There is a famous case study about a girl named Genie (1973) who was rescued from a home of severe abuse and neglect when she was 13. Basically, Genie heard almost no language from the time she was 20 months old until she was rescued. This lack of exposure to language during Genie's critical development period caused the left hemisphere of her brain to deteriorate. After being rescued, she began learning a language, but her right hemisphere did all the work! Language is usually processed in the left hemisphere of the brain. Even though Genie could learn to talk, her abilities were limited and different from others her age and others in the early years of life.

Children's Language Acquisition Example

What about learning a second language? Our first language seemed so easy to learn, so why are we unable to pick up another language just as easily? Research shows that the critical period of language learning closes as early as seven years old. The window of opportunity to learn a new language as easily as your first language is over before most of your life has even begun.

Our early experiences with languages are important. Studies show that children who immigrate to another country at an early age can acquire both their native language and a new language. The same is true for those who learn sign language as a young child. The child can learn both sign language and another native tongue. Later in life, if there is a need to learn ASL or any second language, the learning process is typically much slower.

Language Acquisition - Key takeaways

  • Receptive language: As early as four months old, we begin learning and understanding speech sounds.
  • The productive language stage (or the babbling stage) begins as early as four months old and is a baby's way of mimicking and producing sounds.
  • One-word stage: The child can understand that sounds carry importance, and now they are adding their singular words understandings to the mix.
  • The two-word stage allows the child to speak using telegraphic speech or language.
  • Chomsky observed that humans seem to possess a predisposition or an innate ability to understand and learn grammar.
  • Bruner's theory is called the Language Acquisition Support System (LASS).
    • Bruner stressed that how a caregiver speaks or communicates with a child is the catalyst for language acquisition.

Frequently Asked Questions about Children's Language Acquisition

Aptitude affects language learning through natural early exposure to second languages.

Language acquisition is how we learn our spoken and written communication methods, and it is important because it is what we use to communicate with others.

The three theories of language acquisition are the theory of innateness, the cognitive theory of language development, and the language acquisition support system (LASS) theory.

Chomsky's language acquisition theory proposes that humans possess a predisposition or an innate ability to understand and learn grammar. 


The stages of first language acquisition are: 


  • Stage 1: Receptive language 
  • Stage 2: Productive language
  • Stage 3: The one-word stage
  • Stage 4: The two-word stage

Final Children's Language Acquisition Quiz

Question

What is the meaning of language and what is the definition in

psychology?

Show answer

Answer

Language is our spoken and written language and the ways that we combine them to communicate with one another.

Show question

Question

There are three key structures to language learning. What are they?

Show answer

Answer

phonemes, morphemes, grammar

Show question

Question

_____ are the smallest units of a word that carries meaning with them.


Show answer

Answer

Morphemes

Show question

Question

Each language has its own set of rules or guides so that our words have a specific order is known as ____.

Show answer

Answer

 grammar.

Show question

Question

The ____ stage begins as early as 4 months old and is a baby's way of making sound variations to mimic and (hopefully) produce their sounds.

Show answer

Answer

babbling

Show question

Question

____ stage - The child has understood that sounds carry importance and now they are adding their singular words understandings to the mix.

Show answer

Answer

One-word

Show question

Question

Once the one-word stage is familiar and becomes easier, (around the age of 2 years) there is the beginning of the ____ stage.

Show answer

Answer

 two-word

Show question

Question

______ aspects of language - At earlier ages, we can know and understand when there are word breaks as well as understand syllables.

Show answer

Answer

Statistical

Show question

Question

There are ___ periods in our early childhood years that allow for our language acquisition to happen as smoothly as it does.

Show answer

Answer

 critical

Show question

Question

_____ language -As early as four months old we begin learning and understanding speech sounds.

Show answer

Answer

Receptive

Show question

Question

What are three language acquisition theories?


Show answer

Answer

Innateness, cognitive theory, and language acquisition support system (LASS). 

Show question

Question

Piaget suggested that there was, at ____ months, children typically have a larger vocabulary due to object permanence and labels for objects (big ball, for example.).

Show answer

Answer

18

Show question

Question

The sentences that are being developed by the child are at most two words that are contrived of ___ and ___(dog go!).

Show answer

Answer

nouns and verbs

Show question

Question

True or False: A baby who is born deaf learns to babble with their hands.


Show answer

Answer

True!

Show question

Question

True or False: Chomsky believed that we are  preprogrammed with a language

Show answer

Answer

False. Who understood that we are not born already knowing which language we will speak but it was a learned event. 

Show question

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