This essay is going to address how children acquire English as a first language. The reason I am writing this report is to look at the different strategies children use to first acquire language and the process that leads up to them saying their first coherent word. The first part of this essay will discuss whether language is learnt or acquired. Afterwards, I’ll be taking a look at whether infants pick up language aimlessly or if this acquisition occurs in a highly organized manner. Then, we will take a look at what researchers think about the existence of stages in L1 acquisition and finally, which has a bigger role in First Language Acquisition, nature or nurture.
The Acquisition of Language
Language Acquisition seems to be a very easy task to children. It occurs seemingly effortlessly. However, there is a difference between language being learned and acquired. Learning a language requires studying the rules, looking at grammar among many other guidelines. On the other hand, acquiring a language is a less conscious effort. Some cultures spend time reading with their children for pleasure, while enriching their vocabulary. Infants who are being read to start to babble in a different way called book babble. (Smith, 1997) Before joining school or any other program, young children are exposed to a form speech called Child Directed Speech (CDS) which is a way a mother or caregiver speaks to their infant. In this form of speech intonations are exaggerated and there is an apparent rhythmic pattern. Grammar is simple and words are often repeated. This is also another reason young children are equipped with a large vocabulary of words. (Vialle & Lysaght & Verenikina, 2008, p.110-111) This is evidence that language is acquired rather than learned. Schooling only helps with polishing the language that has previously been acquired.
An Organized System
From birth, infants are processing the sounds of speech around them, which are referred to as Phonology, alongside the form of the phrases, called Syntax. Later as they grow, they start using Semantics, which is the combination of words. Once a child has turned 3 years old, they have basically grasped the concept of language and the basics of the system. (Yang & Lust, 2009) According to Kopko: “Infants learn language according to a highly organized set of rules containing five systems: Phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and Pragmatics.” (Kopko, Research Sheds Light on How Babies Learn and Develop Language, n.d.) Using these components that make up language, children are able to use speech flexibly. This shows that rather than randomly using different words, children have a rather organized set of rules in their minds, and these components of language are what allows children to vocalize their first words. However, research has found that a child growing up in Hong Kong learning Cantonese is progressing faster in using Phonology than English speakers are. This occurs due to many words and syllables being easier to pronounce in Cantonese than in English. (Berk, 1989)
The Stages of Language Acquisition
At around 2 months, infants make noises using vowels called cooing. At 6 months, they start babbling. At 7 months, babbling includes consonant-vowel syllables and by 10 months, some of the intonation patterns make up the infants first words. In a book by Berk, she writes: “Children’s errors are similar across a range of languages.” (Berk, 1989) Although language varies in different parts of the world, infants make many similar errors in speech. There are several stages that begin from an infant’s birth all the way to adolescence that are part of the child’s language development. (Vialle & Lysaght & Verenikina, 2008) The first stage is Babbling which is approximately 6-8 months of age. Then occurs the Holophrastic stage from 9-18 months. After that comes the Telegraphic stage from 24-30 months. Lastly, the later multiword stage which is from 30 months and above.
Doug McGlothlin wrote in his research about how he attempted to observe his son, Colin, as he speaks a new word, noting down it’s meaning and when it was first used, starting from his birth in September 1985 until December of 1987. His wife and himself use the correct form of English words as they speak to their child and he seems to understand, but when he talks, his words are incomprehensible. McGlothlin wrote that the learning process of language is separated into two parts: how new language comes to the learner and how the learner comes to the language. As McGlothlin observed his son, he noticed that his vocabulary lacked verbs and held more simple nouns. This proves that children are very aware of the language being spoken around them from a young age and these words are stored in their vocabulary. However, they don’t include them in their speech right away, rather, they start using them after a period of observation. (McGlothlin, 1997)
Nature or Nurture
B.F. Skinner is a theorist that believed reinforcement is how young children acquire different abilities, one of them being speech. For example, a parent would command their child to say ‘I want a cookie’ and then praise them for saying it, giving them a cookie. This is what’s called reinforcing this behavior within the child, so that they can develop their speech. In theorist Noam Chomsky’s view, language is something that’s built into the brain and children have a system in their minds called the language acquisition device (LAD) that enables them to take in words and form grammatically correct sentences. Not all children speak the same language, which is why Chomsky stated that within the Language Acquisition Device, there is a built in set of rules that are the same for infants worldwide called the Universal Grammar (UG). Another theory with a focus on Interactions as a means of development, is called the Interactionist Perspective contributed to by theorists like Vygotsky and Bruner, in which social interactions are highly emphasized. On a daily basis, infants interact with their parents, not necessarily using speech, but even facial expressions and various noises. Berk wrote: “An active child, well-endowed for making sense of language, strives to communicate. In doing so, she cues her caregivers to provide appropriate language experiences, which in turn help her relate the content and structure of language to it’s social meaning.” (Berk, 1989, p.366) Humans are inherently social beings, needing to communicate with other people. This theory shows that without interactions or speech between humans, language would not develop.
There has been a lot of research done on the topic of language acquisition and the findings imply that although language differs across the world, and infants learn at a slightly different pace, the acquisition process is similar. Infants pick up language in an organized pattern in recognized stages of First Language Acquisition.
Opinions vary on this topic, but in my view, language cannot be acquired without the intervention of the people in the child’s life, for instance, parents, family members and other caregivers. At the same time, children are able to comprehend so much even before they begin to speak. (Kopko, Research Sheds Light on How Babies Learn and Develop Language, n.d.) In the end, there is no single theory that can justify the whole process of a child’s initial acquisition of language. I believe that a child acquires language due to interactions, behavior modification and certain innate skills. Therefore, Nurture plays a bigger role in this process, because without interaction and communication, speech development is hindered.