Theories of Language Acquisition

Language acquisition refers to how humans can develop the ability to understand and use language. Numerous language acquisition theories in the English Language aim to understand and explain how the process begins and progresses. Let's take a look at some of the most notable theories of language acquisition, along with the theorists of language development. 

Theories of Language Acquisition Theories of Language Acquisition

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Table of contents

    4 theories of language acquisition

    There are 4 main theories of language acquisition that we learn in English Language. These are:

    There are also certain theorists of language development who have contributed to the development or further study of a certain language acquisition theory.

    Theorists of Language DevelopmentLanguage Acquisition Theory
    BF SkinnerBehavioural Theory
    Jean PiagetCognitive Theory
    Noam ChomskyNativist Theory
    Jerome BrunerInteractionist Theory

    Behavioural theory (BF Skinner theory of language acquisition)

    The Behavioural theory of language acquisition, sometimes called the Imitation Theory, is part of behaviourist theory. Behaviourism proposes that we are a product of our environment. Therefore, children have no internal mechanism or ability to develop language by themselves. BF Skinner (1957) suggests that children learn the language first by imitating their caregivers (usually parents) and then modifying their use of language due to operant conditioning.

    What is operant conditioning?

    Operant conditioning is a way of learning that focuses on the reward (positive reinforcement) or punishment (negative reinforcement) of desired or undesired behaviour.

    You can train a dog to sit by feeding it a treat when it obeys your commands, or you can stop it from sleeping on your bed by ignoring it or verbally discouraging it.

    How does operant conditioning apply to language acquisition?

    Skinner suggested that children first learn words and phrases from their caregivers or others around them and eventually try to say and use those words correctly. In this case, operant conditioning occurs when a caregiver responds to the child's attempt at using language. If the child uses language correctly, the caregiver may respond by telling the child they're clever or otherwise showing their approval. If the child makes a request, such as asking for food, the caregiver may reward the child by providing it. This is positive reinforcement.

    If the child uses language incorrectly, makes a mistake, or is incoherent, they are more likely to receive negative reinforcement from the caregiver. They can be told they're wrong and then be corrected or simply be ignored. Negative reinforcement teaches the child which mistakes to avoid and how to correct them.

    Theories of Language Acquisition Skinner flowchart StudySmarter Fig 1. The above flowchart shows how Skinner proposed the ways operant conditioning affects language.

    Cognitive theory (Jean Piaget theory of language acquisition)

    The Cognitive theory of language acquisition suggests that the primary drives behind our actions are our thoughts and internal processes. Jean Piaget (1923) assumes that children are born with relatively little cognitive ability, but their minds develop and build new schemas (ideas and understanding of how the world works) as they age and experience the world around them. Eventually, they can apply language to their schemas through assimilation (fitting new information into what is already known) and accommodation (changing one's schemas to support new information).

    Piaget believed that cognitive development had to come before language development because it would be impossible for children to express things that they don't yet understand. For example, a younger child with no sense of time couldn't express things in the future tense or speak hypothetically, no matter how much they are taught language.

    Piaget proposed that this cognitive development could be split into four stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational stages. Let's take a brief look at them.

    Piaget's four stages of cognitive development

    First is the sensorimotor stage. This takes place from birth to around two years of age. At this stage, the child is developing sensory coordination and interacting with their environment by feeling and playing with things. Their use of language extends primarily to babbles and few spoken words.

    The next stage is the pre-operational stage, which takes place from ages two to seven. At this stage, children are able to use language with a better grasp of grammatical structure, context, and syntax. Child thinking at this stage is still very egocentric (their understanding of the world is limited to how it affects them).

    Next is the concrete operational stage. It takes place from ages seven to eleven. At this stage, children understand concepts such as time, numbers, and object properties and gain reasoning and logic, which allows them to rationalise their beliefs and speak in greater detail about their own thoughts and the world around them. They can also speak to others about their beliefs and understand how outcomes or viewpoints may differ.

    Finally, we have the formal operational stage. This takes place from twelve years old to adulthood. At this stage, children can engage in higher reasoning and think and speak about the abstract, such as hypotheticals, morals, and political systems. Language is essentially unlimited, as there is no cognitive limit to one's understanding of the world at this stage.

    Nativist theory (Noam Chomsky theory of language acquisition)

    Noam Chomsky (1957) proposes that children are born with an instinct or drive for language learning which he calls the language acquisition device (LAD). He argued that even if a child is not educated in their country's language, so long as they grow in a normal environment, they will still devise a system of verbal communication. Therefore, there must be an innate, biological component to language acquisition.

    What is the language acquisition device?

    Chomsky suggests that the language acquisition device (LAD) must be located somewhere in the brain, serving as an encoder that provides us with a baseline understanding of grammatical structure. As children learn new words, they are able to incorporate them into their use of language independently.

    Chomsky argues that this independent 'building' of language is evidence that language acquisition is biological and not purely a product of being taught or copying caregivers. Chomsky suggested that the LAD contained knowledge of universal grammar - the basic shared grammar rules that all human languages share.

    Interactionist theory (Jerome Bruner theory of language acquisition)

    Jerome Bruner (1961) believed that children are born with an ability to develop language but they require regular interaction with their caregivers or teachers to learn and understand it to a level of full fluency. This idea is known as the Language Acquisition Support System (LASS).

    Caregivers tend to correct mistakes that children make when using language and also regularly teach them what objects are and what their purposes are. Bruner suggests that this helps to build the scaffolding that children will later rely on when further developing language.

    Theories of Language Acquisition A mother interacting with child StudySmarterFig. 2 - Bruner believed regular interaction was important for language acquisition.

    A caregiver may also use child-directed speech (CDS), altering their own use of language to make it easier for a child to conceptualise language independently.

    What is CDS and how does it aid language acquisition?

    CDS or child-directed speech is commonly known as ‘baby talk’ in everyday life. It is when an adult changes their use of language when talking to a young child. This includes changes such as slower speech in a higher voice, more obvious intonations for different types of speech (i.e., questions, statements, orders), and very simple sentence structure. These strategies all simplify language to make it as easy as possible for the child to understand.

    Bruner believed that CDS was adapted to make language more simple, accessible, and easy to understand. According to this theory, children cannot develop an understanding of the more complex parts of language alone. Thus, CDS acts as an infant-friendly introduction to language that can be built on throughout infancy, early childhood, and into school.

    Theories of Language Acquisition - Key takeaways

    • The four theories of language acquisition are BF Skinner's behavioural theory, Piaget's cognitive development theory, Chomsky's nativist theory, and Bruner's interactionist theory.
    • BF Skinner believed that children learned language by imitating caregivers and responding to positive or negative reinforcement in a process known as operant conditioning.
    • Piaget believed that children must first develop cognitive faculties before they can develop language. This development takes place over four stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational.
    • Chomsky believed that children are born with an innate ability to acquire language, due to the 'language acquisition device' which is thought to be a language encoder in the brain.
    • Bruner believed that children are born with some capacity for language acquisition, but require attention and support from caregivers in order to develop language fully. This idea is known as the language acquisition support system (LASS).

    • BF Skinner. Verbal Behavior. 1957
    • Noam Chomsky. A review of BF Skinner's verbal behavior" Current Issues in Linguistic Theory. 1967
    • Jean Piaget.The language and thought of the child. 1923
    • Jerome Bruner. Child's talk: learning to use language. 1983
    Frequently Asked Questions about Theories of Language Acquisition

    What are the different theories of language acquisition?

    The four theories of language acquisition are BF Skinner’s behavioural theory, Piaget’s cognitive development theory, Chomsky’s nativist theory, and Bruner’s interactionist theory.

    How do language acquisition theories explain the characteristics of language?

    Chomsky’s theory proposes that there is a universal grammar as everyone has a language acquisition device. This would suggest that there must be some core characteristics of language that are consistent across all languages, such as the use of verbs and nouns.

    What is Chomsky’s theory of language acquisition?

    Chomsky’s theory of language acquisition is the nativist theory. The theory proposes that children are born with a ‘device’ in the brain, which acts as an encoder for language acquisition.

    What is a functional theory of language acquisition?

    Chomsky’s nativist theory is a functional theory of language acquisition.

    What are the four theories of language acquisition?

    The four main theories of language acquisition are the Behavioural Theory, Cognitive Theory, Nativist Theory, and Interactionist Theory. Some of the main theorists of language development who have contributed to the development or further study of a language acquisition theory include BF Skinner, Jean Piaget, Noam Chomsky, and Jerome Bruner.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false - Nativist theorists believe that children are born with the ability to understand basic rules of grammar e.g. combining nouns and verbs to form sentences.

    Which theory argues for the following? “Language learning depends on essential interactions with parents and caregivers that motivate children to understand and use language.”

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

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