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

Theories of Language Acquisition

Save Save
Print Print
Edit Edit
Sign up to use all features for free. Sign up now
English

Language acquisition refers to how humans can develop the ability to understand and use language. Numerous language acquisition theories 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.

4 theories of language acquisition

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

Let's have a look at these in more detail!

Behavioural theory (BF Skinner theory of langauge 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 language first through 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 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 StudySmarterA flowchart showing how Skinner proposed operant conditioning would affect language, StudySmarter Original

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. Chil 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 on 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 StudySmarterBruner believed regular interaction was important for language acquisition (Stocksnap)

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).

Sources

  • BF Skinner. (1957) Verbal Behavior.

  • Noam Chomsky. (1967). A review of BF Skinner's verbal behavior" Current Issues in Linguistic Theory.

  • Jean Piaget, The language and thought of the child, 1923.

  • Jerome Bruner, Child's talk: learning to use language, 1983.

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.

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.

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.

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

The four main theories of language acquisition are the Behavioural Theory (BF Skinner), Cognitive Theory (Piaget), Nativist Theory (Chomsky), and Interactionist Theory (Bruner).

Final Theories of Language Acquisition Quiz

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 is analytic philosophy?

Show answer

Answer

Analytic philosophy helps to analyse logical concepts emphasising the study of language.

Show question

Question

What does cognitive science study?

Show answer

Answer

Cognitive science is the study of mind and intelligence.

Show question

Question

True or false: Chomsky is a firm believer that syntactic knowledge is gained with inputs and feedback.

Show answer

Answer

False. Chomsky is a firm believer that syntactic knowledge is partially innate.

Show question

Question

What is syntactic knowledge?

Show answer

Answer

Syntactic knowledge is how we can combine words to create meaningful sentences.

Show question

Question

What are the “special properties” acquired by universal grammar?

Show answer

Answer

Children will distinguish function words from content words or distinguish nouns from verbs.

Show question

Question

True or false: If children have experienced sensory deprivation, they still validate the universal grammar theory.

Show answer

Answer

False. If children have experienced extreme sensory deprivation they won’t prove the theory.

Show question

Question

True or false:Chomsky argues that unless children have a significant innate knowledge of grammar, they can’t learn the language as quickly as they do.

Show answer

Answer

True.


Show question

Question

True or false:LAD by Chomsky states that languages have finite sequences of words and grammar.

Show answer

Answer

False. LAD by Chomsky states that languages have infinite sequences of words and grammar.

Show question

Question

What are the four limitations of Chomsky’s theories stated in this article?

Show answer

Answer

A: Inconsistent evidence

B: Based on hypothesis and not on behavioural observation

C:Lack of universal characteristics between languages

D: Unproven link between innate structures

Show question

Question

What do constructivist researchers believe?

Show answer

Answer

Constructivist researchers believe that we build our knowledge.

Show question

Question

True or false: Chomsky observed that all children tend to make the same language mistakes, regardless of the spoken language.

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Does the “innate ability” have the knowledge of vocabulary of any particular language?Does the child learn words?

Show answer

Answer

No, it doesn’t. The child has to learn the meaning of words.

Show question

Question

True or false: The child is conscious of the innate ability and it is fully formed at birth.

Show answer

Answer

False. It is not to say that the child is conscious of it or that this innate capacity is fully formed at birth.

Show question

Question

Choose the correct answer: What does LAD stand for?

Show answer

Answer

Language Acquisition Device

Show question

Question

Is Chomsky’s theory of language still considered valid?

Show answer

Answer

No, it is not. He was considered valid between 1960 and 1990, then it got rejected.

Show question

Question

What does language acquisition mean?

Show answer

Answer

Language acquisition refers to the way humans are able to develop the ability to understand and use language.

Show question

Question

What does BF Skinner’s theory of language acquisition propose?

Show answer

Answer

Skinner’s theory proposes that children learn by imitating caregivers’ use of language and then changing their own use of language in response to positive or negative reinforcement.

Show question

Question

What is the process of learning through positive or negative reinforcement called? 


Show answer

Answer

The process of learning through reinforcement is called operant conditioning.

Show question

Question

How would positive reinforcement improve a child’s use of language?

Show answer

Answer

Positive reinforcement rewards the child either with praise or with a response to a request, such as giving a child food when they correctly ask for it. This encourages the child to use correct language more.

Show question

Question

What does Piaget’s theory of cognitive development propose?

Show answer

Answer

Piaget’s theory proposes that before children can use language, they must develop cognitive abilities and schemas that they can then apply language to.

Show question

Question

In language acquisition, what is the meaning of assimilation? 


Show answer

Answer

In language acquisition, assimilation is when we fit new information into our existing schemas, like applying a newly learned word to an existing familiar object.

Show question

Question

What are Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development? 


Show answer

Answer

The four stages are the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational stages.

Show question

Question

What does Chomsky’s nativist theory of language acquisition propose? 


Show answer

Answer

Chomsky’s nativist theory proposes that children are born with an innate ability to learn or form language due to a language acquisition device in the brain that encodes language.

Show question

Question

What is the concept of universal grammar?

Show answer

Answer

The theory of universal grammar argues that language acquisition is innate to humans. It proposes that certain features of language are consistent across all normally developing humans, such as the ability to recognise the difference between words such as nouns and verbs.

Show question

Question

What does Bruner’s interactionist theory propose?

Show answer

Answer

Bruner’s theory proposes that while children are born with some ability to acquire language, they must be supported by caregivers in order to fully develop it.

Show question

Question

What does Bruner call the concept of caregivers helping children to develop language?

Show answer

Answer

Bruner calls the idea of caregivers helping children to develop language the ‘Language acquisition support system’ or LASS.

Show question

Question

How might adults help children to acquire and develop language?

Show answer

Answer

Caregivers often help children by turning their attention to objects and naming or explaining them, or by asking them questions and trying to involve them directly. Caregivers also often use CDS (child-directed speech).

Show question

Question

What is CDS? 


Show answer

Answer

CDS or child-directed speech is a way of speaking that is adopted by caregivers or adults in general while talking to a child. Bruner believes this makes it easier for children to acquire and understand language.

Show question

Question

What are some features of CDS?

Show answer

Answer

Features of CDS include slower speech, simple sentences, and more obvious intonations for questions and orders. This makes it easier for children to understand language.

Show question

Question

What is language acquisition theory?

Show answer

Answer

Language acquisition theory studies how humans learn and develop language.

Show question

Question

Who was B. F. Skinner?

Show answer

Answer

B. F. Skinner was a psychologist who specialised in behaviourism.

Show question

Question

What is radical behaviorism?

Show answer

Answer

Radical behaviourism was pioneered by B. F Skinner. It suggests that there is no true free will, and our behaviour is dictated by situational factors.

Show question

Question

What does B. F. Skinner’s theory of language acquisition propose?

Show answer

Answer

B. F. Skinner’s theory proposes that language acquisition is a result of imitation and operant conditioning.

Show question

Question

What is meant by operant conditioning?

Show answer

Answer

Operant conditioning is the process of actions being influenced by reinforcement.

Show question

Question

How might positive reinforcement occur in the language acquisition process?

Show answer

Answer

Positive reinforcement would occur if the child used language correctly, and this would be in the form of verbal praise or a reward (such as food).

Show question

More about Language Acquisition
60%

of the users don't pass the Theories of 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.