How Children Acquire Language
Language acquisition studies seek to explain how human beings acquire
language. Language acquisition is broadly categorized into two: one is
how the first language is acquired, and the second is how to acquire a
second or foreign language. First language, which is the subject of this
essay, studies how infants acquire their native language. As the name
suggests, second language acquisition is the process individuals go
through as they learn a new language, assuming foreknowledge of a native
or first language (Rachel 1993). First language acquisition centers on
children since the native language is acquired beginning from infancy.
Native language acquisition has been an interesting debate among
scientists over the centuries. This has been an effort to unravel how
children, in less than five years, are able to master their native
language despite the complexity and mostly implicit grammatical rules of
native languages (Rachel 1993). Noam Chomsky focused on the complexity
of human grammars, the ambiguity and finiteness with which it is relayed
to children and the relatively inadequate perceptive abilities in
children. He concluded that the language acquisition process in infants
must be limited and guided by some biologically given brain capacities.
It is principally accepted that language acquisition is related to the
way the human brain is wired, hence the inability of non-human beings to
acquire human language. Among the earliest individuals to posit
observation-based language acquisition ideas, was Plato. He felt that
the ability to map words and meaning was innate in some form (Goodluck
2010). Though subject to much debate, there’s common agreement to a
large extent that language acquisition has an innate part as well as a
contribution from the environment (Gopnik 1997).
The learning influence debate varies across biological and environmental
factors, facts such as the stages of learning are fairly static and
non-debatable. Language learning falls into two broad categories namely:
receptive and expressive language (Goodluck 2010). Receptive learning
refers to the ability to understand what is said or written. Expressive
learning, on the other hand, refers to the ability to speak or write
what one has learnt overtime. The various stages of language development
in children bring out these modes of learning at different times (Clark
Research has determined that there is a definite time in a child’s
life when they can learn a first language quite easily. It is argued
that a child may never attain full proficiency of a first language if
its learning does not occur during this sensitive learning period (Naja,
Amy & Rachel 2013). Though the cut-off is not definite, this critical
period is twelve years and below. After puberty, it becomes difficult to
learn a new language (Singleton et al 2004). This has earned criticism
to the introduction of foreign languages in high schools instead of
elementary schools.
Christophe Pallier noted that before speech and perception, a child’s
mind is a blank slate on which writing takes place in the coming years
and takes a permanent form. From birth to six months, children are able
to discriminate phonetic contrasts of all languages (Clark 2009). Past
this age, the child only perceives the phonemes definite to the native
language that they have begun to learn (Naja, Amy & Rachel 2013). Though
the human brain is wired to learn new languages, the ability to learn
them effortlessly does not continue into adulthood.
Children below six months cry many times and make some sounds
accompanying the cries. These sounds are known as coos. Babies all over
the world make the same sounds, some that are not used in their
environment (Naja, Amy & Rachel 2013). This is in line with Chomsky’s
nativity theory.
Six months and above, babies start to identify sounds that are used in
their environment and produce them. These selective sound production is
known as babbling. Both cooing and babbling are not externally
stimulated but are internal behaviors expressed by infants. Above six
months is the linguistic period that has three main stages (Singleton et
al 2004):
The Holophrastic Stage
One year and above, the child has begun to associate sounds with their
meaning. They start uttering one word associated to their emotion,
action or naming function.
Two-word utterance
Babies between one and two years old make an effort to pronounce two
words. Though they may lack syntactic accuracy, the words have some
semantic relation and word order can be traced.
Telegraphic stage
Between two and three years, the child begins to make short sentences,
and the pronunciation closely resembles an adult’s. The child then
advances from this stage to formulate multi-word sentences with
grammatical accuracy.
It is broadly accepted that apart from being of critical age, the health
of the child and the environment they are exposed influences their
learning (Fletcher et al 1986). The debate on the extent to which both
nature and nurture influence learning of the first language has been
ongoing for decades. Some researchers emphasize on the external
influences on learning while others emphasize on the biological
influences. The nature versus nurture debate is also referred to as the
nativist versus non-nativist theory.
One of the strongest proponents of biological influences on language
acquisition is linguist Noam Chomsky. He believed that human brains have
an innate mechanism, possibly possessing a language acquisition device
that allows children to develop language acquisition skills (Chomsky
He claimed that children are born with a universal grammar, a hard-wired
background that makes them understand certain grammar when exposed to it
(Goodluck 2010). He substantiated his arguments with the following
observations (Chomsky 1986):
Language development among children takes a similar pattern despite
variations in cultures and geographical locations.
Though growing up in different environments, the language development
stages in children mostly occur at the same time.
In general, children acquire language skills quickly and without much
effort. Language learning is not triggered but starts on its own.
Children who have not been exposed to language, particularly deaf,
usually make up their own language. These new languages formulated in
totally different environments resemble each other in sentence
Contrary to Chomsky’s proposition, B.F Skinner championed the
environmental influences on language acquisition. He believed that
language learning mainly depends on principles of conditioning which
include imitation, association and reinforcement (Naour 2009). His view
was that a child learns to associate definite combinations of sounds
with their meaning if they are used repeatedly.
His argument that language learning is a form of operant conditioning
suggests that signs are used successfully if the child is understood.
Signs in this language learning are words. Responding to a child’s
sign affirms the child’s understanding of the meaning of that word. It
makes it likely for the child to apply it in the future to a similar
Skinner’s theory of language learning is based on behaviorism
(Erneling 1993). This suggests that all behavior is either rewarded or
reprimanded until it becomes natural. This would mean that children’s
language acquisition is purely a sequence of praise or punishment from
parents according to the level of accuracy until the language is
mastered. Being a behaviorist, Skinner believed that biology plays a
very minute role if any, in the process of language acquisition.
A group of modern theorists in agreement with Skinner’s principles
came up with the Relational Frame theory (Dymond, 2013). Relational
Frame Theory tries to account for human language and cognition
psychologically. These theorists distinguished their work from
Skinner’s by defining a distinct part of operant conditioning known as
derived relational response. It is a process that appears to take place
only in human beings with the cognitive abilities to acquire language.
Closely related to RFT is the Social Interactionist Theory. It
emphasizes on the role played by the social interactions between the
learning child and linguistically knowledgeable adults. This theory
borrows mainly from Lev Vygotsky’s social-cultural theories and is
publicized by psychologist Jerome Bruner (Lefrancois 2012). This theory
asserts that the interactions with parents and other adults who
regularly provide informative corrections accounts for the large part of
a child’s linguistic development.
Also in support of Skinner are the Empiricists. They believe that human
beings have no distinctive inborn capability to acquire knowledge
(Erneling 1993). Their argument is based on the belief that the only
source of ideas is actual interactions. Consequently, they posit that
language is entirely learnt through behavioral response and
environmental stimulus. Empiricists believe that to speak children have
to imitate adults.
Although all these theories have made massive efforts in explaining the
mystery behind language acquisition, none has been found without a flaw.
To emphasize on innateness only is a big omission of the environmental
influences and the opposite is also true. Linguist Melissa Bowerman and
psychologists such as Jean Piaget and Elizabeth Bates agreed that there
are learning processes involved in language acquisition. They criticized
the purely nativist proposition of language acquisition arguing that the
ignored role of learning may have been a huge omission.
Other nativist theory critics have tried to determine whether the inborn
capabilities are domain-general or specific to language. One of the
anti-nativist empiricist’s facets is that language stems from usage in
social interactions using learning mechanisms that are partly innate
(Goodluck 2010). This position has been supported by David M Powers,
Elizabeth Bates and Catherine Snow in the field of Cognitive
The effort to categorize grammar into core and peripheral has been
criticized by some linguists. Chomsky’s views as expressed through his
idea of universal grammar core suggest that grammar is the real object
of language. The question is where to draw the line between core grammar
and peripheral grammar. Most linguists hold that all grammar is
conventional and hence Chomsky’s distinction does not hold water.
Transformational grammarians have also critiqued Chomsky for reducing
language to grammar only. They argue that Chomsky disregards meaning and
the social situation and hence disregards the environment within which a
child acquires their first language.
Skinner’s behaviorism theory also comes under heavy criticism for
making several assumptions. One is that children learn by imitation
(Naour 2009). General observation will prove that children often make
simple grammatical mistakes on commonly used words. This suggests that
children do not copy what the adults say because the adults say them
correctly. Children also tend to over-use grammatical rules and end up
with over-generalized phrases that do not feature in adult
The second assumption is reinforcement. Also provable by observation,
children continue making the same grammatical mistakes even after
relentless effort by their parents to say the words or phrases
correctly. Learning cannot account for the quick speed at which children
learn language skills, neither can the infinite words and phrases in a
language be learnt through imitation.
The many flaws on the primary theories necessitated new attempts to
explain how children certainly acquire their first language. One of the
modern language acquisition theorists is Michael Tomasello. His
Usage-based theory suggests that children build their language based on
the speech they hear and use (Tomasello 2003). He believes that children
first understand definite concepts before going ahead to use them in
constructing sentences. For example, for a child to use the words
‘more than’ or ‘less than’, it would mean they have an
understanding of quantity and comparison concepts.
As symbols and patterns continue to be used frequently, they become more
entrenched in the child’s mind and the child begins to use them
automatically. Pre-emption is also another facet of usage-based theory.
It suggests that if a child experiences difficulty with a new word or a
rare sentence construction, the child will avoid using that word stick
to the common sentence structure.
Another modern language acquisition theory is Patricia Kuhl’s Native
Language Magnet Model. It explains how infants distinguish all the
phonemes used in world’s languages (Zsiga 2013). Kuhl suggests that
speech perception in infants goes beyond mere selection of familiar
sounds to the ability to form phonetic representations. These phonetic
representations accumulate and later used as perceptual magnets to
sounds of a similar category.
Recently, Kuhl and her colleagues have revised and expanded the Native
Language Magnet Model to include neural commitment (Zsiga 2013). Neural
commitment to the native language describes the brain’s early coding
to the native language, and how that affects the ability to learn
phonetic schemes of other languages in the future. Increased commitment
of the neural networks to the patterns of a native language results in a
reduced ability to learn a foreign language later.
Among the latest researchers in the field of child language acquisition
is Matthew Saxton. He furthers the nature-nurture debate. His argument
explores the learning process in favor of the Child Directed Speech
framework (Saxton 2010). This framework emphasizes on the role played by
both the input the child receives, and the interactions with adults.
Ultimately, Saxton establishes sound criticism to Chowsky’s claim that
the input a child receives is purely degenerate.
From the above discussions, it is evident that despite the extensive
research and discussion on the topic, there has not been a common
agreement as to how children acquire their first language. There are no
purely new theories independent of the initial suggestions by Chomsky
and B.F Skinner. Modern theorists tend to take a side by either
partially agreeing with the behaviorist or the nativist then try to
build modern ideas around it. Though there is no common agreement, the
positions from which they argue provide two fundamental pillars to first
language acquisition namely: innate capabilities to learn languages and
environmental influences on learning.
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