First Language Acquisition Development Theories: Nature vs. Nurture


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We are Wired to Acquire Language

“When we study human language, we are approaching what some might call the ‘human essence,’ the distinctive qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man.”  (Noam Chomsky)

Unlike the behaviourist approach that does not take into consideration the child’s own cognitive processes,  the ‘Innateness Hypothesis’ proposed by linguist Noam Chomsky supports the idea that language acquisition has a biological foundation. Facts that support this theory include the following:

  •  Children acquire language sounds in a certain sequence, and the first sounds that children learn are those that are common to all world languages: a stop consonant followed by an open vowel:  thus a child’s first utterances are usually those found in words for ‘mother’ and ‘father,’ sounds such as ‘pa,’ ‘ma,’ ‘ba’ or ‘ta,’ as seen in French: maman, papa; Greek: mama, baba; Hebrew: eema, aba.
  • Children tend to learn language in the same sequence, suggesting that universality of language exists and the environment alone cannot be responsible for language acquisition.
  • Children acquire function words such as ‘or’ and ‘on’ and the less salient sounds connected to possessives, pluralisation and third person singular in a certain order. Interestingly, the plural ‘s’ and other forms of ‘s’ are not all developed in unison.

Language Development: An Innate Neurological Process

For language development to occur, interaction has to take place; language cannot be acquired passively. Although imitation and habit forming do have a role in language acquisition, children seem predisposed to acquire speech and competency in language by being able to map language, possibly onto what Noam Chomsky calls a ‘language acquisition device.’

Further Reading:

Chomsky, N. Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use. (1986). Praeger.

Chomsky, N. Language and Mind. Third edition. (2006). Cambridge University Press.

Skinner, B. F. Verbal Behavior. (2009). Copley Publishing Group.

IASCL. Trends in Language Acquisition. Accessed December 7, 2011.

Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Language Acquisition and Language Processing Lab. Accessed December 7, 2011.

Cornell University. Virtual Center for the Study of Language Acquisition. Accessed December 7, 2011.

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