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What Is Language Acquisition?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Language acquisition concerns how humans learn to understand and represent the world they live in using language. It is a term applied to the first, or native, language learned and not to any subsequent languages learned at an older age. The language can be spoken and written or it can be a manual language such as sign language.

There are three key elements in language acquisition: syntax, phonetics and vocabulary. Syntax concerns how words are put together to form sentences. Phonetics concerns how written letters sound. These sounds can range from different interpretations of the same letter as in the Latin alphabet or to using two letters for the same sound as in the Japanese hiragana and katakana alphabets. The words a person uses and their meanings are called vocabulary.

Yaska and other Sanskrit linguists in the first millennium BC argued about language acquisition. They believed that a baby learns either through an act of God or by listening to those around it. Plato, the Greek philosopher, believed that babies were born with linguistic skills, whether placed there by God or by nature. The two theories, nature and nurture, have led to continued debate throughout the studies of linguistic development.

The social interaction theory strikes a balance between nature and nurture. Lev Vygotsky, in his theories on cognitive development, believed that adult input is vital to a baby’s language acquisition, but not the only element. Ernest L. Moek put the mother as the most important element in a baby’s linguistic development, as the baby would have most contact with her. Overall, they believed that some elements of language are inbuilt, such as syntax and grammar, but others, such as vocabulary, are external.

Relational frame theory (RFT) believes that any language acquisition is by nurture alone and has nothing to do with nature. Based on B. F. Skinner’s behavioral studies, RFT posits that babies learn only through their environment. Noam Chomsky, amongst others, believes this is incorrect. Emergentism is a reaction to this that believes neither nurture nor nature can alone account for the development of languages in humans.

Studies into syntax by the likes of Chomsky have also looked into language acquisition. Most theories on syntax development reflect general theories on language development, being either via nature or nurture. Empiricism posits that evolution cannot be credited with creating a natural syntax parameter in babies. Empiricists, therefore, believe learning is the most important element.

Chomsky leads another theory called generativism, which suggests that babies do actually have an inbuilt set of syntax and grammar rules waiting to be expanded. They believe the human brain is preprogrammed with a limited set of syntax options. The baby makes sense of other people’s words using these basic options until it learns to develop them further. Generativists use the grammar convergence seen in 5-year-olds as evidence of these in-built syntax options.

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Discussion Comments

By browncoat — On Aug 08, 2014

@Iluviaporos - It's such a complicated process that we are still arguing about how it works today, so it's little wonder that people didn't understand how it worked back then. It's difficult to prove any theory correct by simple observation and it's immoral to interfere with a baby's development in pursuit of science, so language acquisition theories are not going to be proved any time soon.

By lluviaporos — On Aug 07, 2014

@Ana1234 - It might be that it was stages of language acquisition that he was referring to. Not so much that a child was born knowing how to say hello, but was born knowing that there was a word for hello and then had that word slotted into place by the people around it.

It might also be that Plato simply didn't observe all that much language learning by children or didn't put those observations into practice. Back then science wasn't really about observations and experiments, it was about interpreting what could be seen in a way that made sense. Which is why they had so many strange (to us) ideas about health and elements and alchemy.

It was extraordinary that he was even thinking about the origin of speech, rather than taking it for granted, because his musings eventually led to people trying to prove things one way or another.

By Ana1234 — On Aug 06, 2014

Surely it would have been easy to disprove Plato's theory that babies had built-in language skills by observing babies that had been raised away from their birth culture. Ancient Greece must have had plenty of chances to see this happen, as children were taken into slavery or captured during war all the time back then.

Even the fact that it was possible for adults to learn other languages seems to discount it.

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