Psycholinguistics/Theories and Models of Language Acquisition

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Language Acquisition- An Overview[edit]

Language acquisition is the process by which humans acquire the capacity to perceive, produce and use words to understand and communicate. It involves the picking up of diverse capacities including syntax, phonetics, and an extensive vocabulary. However, learning a first language is something that every normal child does successfully without much need for formal lessons. Language development is a complex and unique human quality but yet children seem to acquire language at a very rapid rate with most children's speech being relatively grammatical by age three (Crain & Lillo-Martin, 1999).[1] Grammar, which is a set of mental rules that characterizes all of the sentences of a language, must be mastered in order to learn a language. Most children in a linguistic community seem to succeed in converging on a grammatical system equivalent to everyone else in the community with few wrong turns, which is quite remarkable considering the pitfalls and complexity of the system. By the time a child utters a first word, according to the Linguistic Society of America, he or she has already spent many months playing around with the sounds and intonations of language, [2] but there is still no one point at which all children learn to talk. Children acquire language in stages and different children reach various stages at different times, although they have one thing in common and that is that typically developing children learning the same language will follow an almost identical pattern in the sequence of stages they go through. The stages usually consist of:

  • cooing- 6 months- use phonemes from every language
  • babbling- 9 months- selectively use phonemes from their native language
  • one word utterances- 12 months- start using single words
  • telegraphic speech- 2 years- multi-word utterances that lack in function
  • normal speech- 5 years- almost normal developed speech

Language acquisition is a complex and unique human quality for which there is still no theory that is able to completely explain how language is attained. However most of the concepts and theories we do have explaining how native languages are acquired go back to the approaches put forward by researchers such as Skinner, Chomsky, Piaget and others. Most of the modern theories we have today have incorporated aspects of these theories into their various findings.

Historical Theories and Models of Language Acquisition[edit]

Behaviourist Theory[edit]

B.F Skinner 1950

In 1957 a piece of literature appeared that would come to affect how we view language, human behaviour and language learning. B.F Skinner's Verbal Behaviour (1957) applied a functional analysis approach to analyze language behaviour in terms of their natural occurrence in response to environmental circumstances and the effects they have on human interactions.[3] Skinner's behaviour learning approach relies on the components of classical, which involves unconditioned and conditioned stimuli, and operant conditioning but particularly the elements of operational conditioning. Operational conditioning refers to a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behaviour. Behaviour operates on the environment to bring about favorable consequences or avoid adverse ones. These same ideas of operant conditioning can also be applied to language acquisition because Skinner believed that language could be treated like any other kind of cognitive behaviour. According to the behaviourist theory, language learning is a process of habit formation that involves a period of trial and error where the child tries and fails to use correct language until it succeeds. Infants also have human role models in their environment that provide the stimuli and rewards required for operant conditioning. For example, if a child starts babblings, which resembles appropriate words, then his or her babbling will be rewarded by a parent or loved one by positive reinforcement such as a smile or clap. Since the babblings were rewarded, this reward reinforces further articulations of the same sort into groupings of syllables and words in a similar situation (Demirezen, 1988).[4] Children also utter words because they cause adults to give them the things they want and they will only be given what they want once the adult has trained or shaped the child through reinforcement and rewards speech close to that of adult speech. Before long children will take on the imitation or modeling component of Skinner's theory of language acquisition in which children learn to speak by copying the utterances heard around them and by having their responses strengthened by the repetitions, corrections and other reactions that adults provide. However, before a child can begin to speak, they first start by listening to the sounds in their environment for the first years of their life. Gradually, the child learns to associate certain sounds with certain situations such as the sound of endearment a mother produces when feeding her child. These sounds then become pleasurable for the child on their own without being accompanied by food and eventually the child will attempt to imitate these sounds to invite the attention of his mother or another adult. If these sounds resemble that of adult language the mother will respond with reward and the operant conditioning process begins.

Innateness Theory[edit]

Noam Chomsky's innateness theory (or nativist theory) proposes that children have an inborn or innate faculty for language acquisition that is biologically determined. According to Goodluck (1991), nativists view language as a fundamental part of the human genome, as a trait that makes humans human, and its acquisition is a natural part of maturation.[5] It seems that the human species has evolved a brain whose neural circuits contain linguistic information at birth and this natural predisposition to learn language is triggered by hearing speech. The child's brain is then able to interpret what she or he hears according to the underlying principles or structures it already contains (Linden, 2007).[6] Chomsky has determined that being biologically prepared to acquire language regardless of setting is due to the child's language acquisition device (LAD), which is used as a mechanism for working out the rules of language. Chomsky believed that all human languages share common principles, such as all languages have verbs and nouns, and it was the child's task to establish how the specific language she or he hears expresses these underlying principles. For example, the LAD already contains the concept of verb tense and so by listening to word forms such as "worked" or "played". The child will then form a hypothesis that the past tense of verbs are formed by adding the sound /d/,/t/ or /id/ to the base form. Yang (2006) also believes that children also initially possess, then subsequently develop, an innate understanding or hypothesis about grammar regardless of where they are raised.[7] According to Chomsky, infants acquire grammar because it is a universal property of language, an inborn development, and has coined these fundamental grammatical ideas that all humans have as universal grammar (UG). Children under the age of three usually don't speak in full sentences and instead say things like "want cookie" but yet you would still not hear them say things like "want my" or "I cookie" because statements like this would break the syntactic structure of the phrase, a component of universal grammar. Another argument of the nativist or innate theory is that there is a critical period for language acquisition, which is a time frame during which environmental exposure is needed to stimulate an innate trait. Linguist Eric Lenneberg in 1964 postulated that the critical period of language acquisition ends around the age of 12 years. He believed that if no language was learned before then, it could never be learned in a normal and functional sense. It was termed the critical period hypothesis and since then there has been a few case examples of individuals being subject to such circumstances such as the girl known as Genie who was imposed to an abusive environment, which didn't allow her to develop language skills.

Cognitive Theory[edit]

Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist that was famous for his four stages of cognitive development for children, which included the development of language. However, children do not think like adults and so before they can begin to develop language they must first actively construct their own understanding of the world through their interactions with their environment. A child has to understand a concept before he or she can acquire the particular language which expresses that concept. For example, a child first becomes aware of a concept such as relative size and only afterward do they acquire the words and patterns to convey that concept. Essentially it is impossible for a young child to voice concepts that are unknown to them and therefore once a child learns about their environment then they can map language onto their prior experience. An infant's experience of a cat is that it meows, is furry and eats from a bowl in the kitchen; hence they develop the concept of cat first and then learns to map the word "kitty" onto that concept. Language is only one of the many human mental or cognitive activities and many cognitivists believe that language emerges within the context of other general cognitive abilities like memory, attention and problem solving because it is a part of their broader intellectual development. However, according to Goodluck (1991), once language does emerge it is usually within certain stages and children go through these stages in a fixed order that is universal in all children.[8] There is a consistent order of mastery of the most common function morphemes in a language and simple ideas are expressed earlier than more complex ones even if they are more grammatically complicated. Piaget's cognitive theory states that, children's language reflects the development of their logical thinking and reasoning skills in stages, with each period having a specific name and age reference.[9] There are four stages of Piaget's cognitive development theory, each involving a different aspect of language acquisition:

  1. Sensory-Motor Period- (birth to 2 years) Children are born with "action schemas" to "assimilate" information about the world such as sucking or grasping. During the sensory-motor period, children's language is "egocentric" and they talk either for themselves or for the pleasure of associating anyone who happens to be there with the activity of the moment
  2. Pre-Operational Period- (2 years to 7) Children's language makes rapid progress and the development of their "mental schema" lets them quickly "accommodate" new words and situations. Children's language becomes "symbolic" allowing them to talk beyond the "here and now" and to talk about things such as the past, future and feelings.
  3. Egocentrism- Involves "animism" which refers to young children's tendency to consider everything, including inanimate objects, as being alive. Language is considered egocentric because they see things purely from their own perspective.
  4. Operational Period- (7 to 11 years) and (11 years to adulthood) Piaget divides this period into two parts: the period of concrete operations and the period of formal operations. Language at this stage reveals the movement of their thinking from immature to mature and from illogical to logical. They are also able to "de-center" or view things from a perspective other than their own. It is at this point that children's language becomes "socialized" and includes things such as questions, answers, commands and criticisms.

Social Interactionist Theory[edit]

Opening a window to the autistic brain.jpg

Vygotsky's social interaction theory incorporates nurture arguments in that children can be influenced by their environment as well as the language input children receive from their care-givers. Although the theories of Skinner, Chomsky and Piaget are all very different and very important in their own contexts, they don't necessarily take into account the fact that children don't encounter language in isolation. The child is a little linguist analyzing language from randomly encountered adult utterances. The interaction theory proposes that language exists for the purpose of communication and can only be learned in the context of interaction with adults and older children. It stresses the importance of the environment and culture in which the language is being learned during early childhood development because this social interaction is what first provides the child with the means of making sense of their own behaviour and how they think about the surrounding world. According to Williamson (2008), children can eventually use their own internal speech to direct their own behaviour in much the same way that their parents' speech once directed their behaviour.[10] Speech to infants is marked by a slower rate, exaggerated intonation, high frequency, repetition, simple syntax and concrete vocabulary. This tailored articulation used by care-givers to young children to maximize phonemic contrasts and pronunciation of correct forms is known as child-directed speech (CDS). Vygotsky also developed the concepts of private speech which is when children must speak to themselves in a self guiding and directing way- initially out loud and later internally and the zone of proximal development which refers to the tasks a child is unable to complete alone but is able to complete with the assistance of an adult. The attention and time that a mother spends talking about topics that the child is already focused on highly correlates with early vocabulary size. In the early stages of a child`s life this is usually done through motherese or ``baby talk`` which may allow children to ``bootstrap`` their progress in language acquisition (Williamson, 2008).[10] The mother and father also provide ritualized scenarios, such as having a bath or getting dressed, in which the phases of interaction are rapidly recognized and predicted by the infant. The utterances of the mother and father during the activities are ritualized and predictable so that the child is gradually moved to an active position where they take over the movements of the care-taker and eventually the ritualized language as well. Basically the care-giver is providing comprehensible contexts in which the child can acquire language (Mason, 2002).[11] Another influential researcher of the interaction theory is Jerome Bruner who elaborated and revised the details of the theory over a number of years and also introduced the term Language Acquisition Support System (LASS), which refers to the child`s immediate adult entourage but in the fuller sense points to the child`s culture as a whole in which they are born. Adults adapt their behaviour towards children to construct a protected world in which the child is gradually inclined to take part in a growing number of scenarios and scripts and in this way the child is lead gradually further and further into language. However, one must remember that although our social context provides support for language acquisition, it does not directly provide the knowledge that is necessary to acquire language and this perhaps where a child`s innate abilities come into play.

Modern Theories and Models of Language Acquisition[edit]

Usage-Based Theory[edit]

The usage-based theory of language suggests that children initially build up their language through very concrete constructions based around individual words or frames on the basis of the speech they hear and use. Basically this means, according to Tomasello (2003) the developer of the theory, that children learn language from their language experiences and a language structure emerges from language use.[12] The usage-based theory takes constructions, which are direct form meaning pairings, to be the basic units of grammar and believe that children learn constructions by first mastering specific instances before going on to generalize and use the constructions productively with other lexical items. Constructions gradually become more general and more abstract during the third and fourth years of life and grammar emerges as the speakers of a language create linguistic constructions out of recurring sequences of symbols (Tomasello, 2003). [12] Tomasello (2003) also emphasizes the effects of frequency of use on cognitive representations, as patterns that are repeated for communicative reasons seem to become automated and conventionalized. Research by Saxton (2010) indicates that, the more often a linguistic form occurs in the input, the more often it is experienced by the child and the stronger the child's representation of it becomes. It will then be activated more easily when using it themselves on subsequent occasions.[13] Therefore the child's mental representation is reinforced or increasingly entrenched and the more deeply entrenched a structure is, the more likely it becomes that this will form the basis of the child's speech output[14]. Usage-based linguistics holds that language use shapes entrenchment through frequency repetitions of usage, but there are separable effects of token frequency and type frequency(Doughty & Long, 2003).[15] According to Doughty and Long (2003), token frequency is how often in the input particular words or specific phrases appear and type frequency counts how many different lexical items a certain pattern or construction is applicable to. Linguistic forms with high token frequency will be learned early and lead to more strongly entrenched linguistic representations and seems to protect the child from error. Token frequency also has a strong influence on child learning and you often see a close relationship between adult input and child output (Saxton, 2010).[13] Type frequency determines productivity because high type frequency ensures that a construction is used frequently, thus strengthening its representational schema and making it more accessible for further use with new items. Also the more items the category must cover, the more general are its criteria features, and the more likely it is to extend to new items (Doughty & Long, 2003).[15] Another term coined in the usage-based theory is pre-emption which is an anti-frequency mechanism that suggests that children who experiences a verb in a rare construction this will cause the child to avoid using that verb in a more common structure.

Optimality Theory[edit]

Optimality Theory (OT) was originally proposed by Prince and Smolensky (1993) and has subsequently been further developed by other researchers. OT suggests that the observed forms of language arise from the interaction between conflicting constraints and like other models of linguistics, contain an input and an output and a relation between the two.[16] A constraint is a structural requirement that may be either satisfied or violated by an output form and a surface form. A constraint is considered optimal if it incurs the least serious violations of a set of constraints, taking into account their hierarchical ranking. In optimality theory, the essence of both language learning in general (learnability) and language acquisition (actual development children go through) entails the rankings of constraints from an initial state of the grammar to the language specific ranking of the target grammar (McCarthy, 2004)[17]. OT is a development of generative grammar, a theory sharing the quest for universal principles such as universal grammar but differs from the theory proposed by Chomsky because optimality theory believes that these universal constraints are violable (Kager,1999)[18]. Languages are able to differ in their ranking of constraints by giving priorities to some constraints over others. Language acquisition can be described as the process of adjusting the ranking of these constraints that are considered universal:

Schematic view on the core of optimality theory
  • GEN- takes an input and generates the list of possible outputs or candidates
  • EVAL- chooses the optimal candidate based on the constraints, and this candidate is the output
  • CON- provides the criteria, the form of strictly ordered violable constraints, used to decide between constraints

According to Archangeli & Langendoen (1997) these constraints include constraints governing aspects of phonology, such as syllabification constraints, constraints governing morphology and constraints that determine the correct syntactic properties of a language. There is also one family of constraints whose properties cut across all subdisciplinary domains, called the faithfulness constraints, which say that input and output are identical. Faithfulness is the general requirement for linguistic forms to be realized as close as possible to their lexical "basic forms" and violations of faithfulness lead to differences between input and output (Archangeli & Langendon, 1997)[19]. Another term coined by the optimality theory is markedness, which refers to the continuum that language-universal and language-specific properties rest on, with completely unmarked properties being those found in virtually all languages and extremely marked properties being found quite rarely. However markedness embodies universality in a "soft" sense, with violations of universality existing between languages.

Native Language Magnet Model[edit]

Young children learn their mother tongue rapidly and effortlessly, following similar developmental paths regardless of culture. How infants accomplish this task has become the focus of debate especially for Patricia Kuhl who has developed the Native Language Magnet Model to help explain how infants at birth can hear all the phonetic distinctions used in the world's languages. According to Kuhl and colleagues (2005), to acquire a language, infants have to discover which phonetic distinctions will be utilized in the language of their culture and do so by discriminating among virtually all the phonetic units of the world's languages.[20] During the first year of life, prior to the acquisition of word meaning, infants begin to perceive speech by forming perceptual maps of the speech they hear in their environment. Kuhl's (2005) research focused on the mechanism underlying the development transition from an infants' universal phonetic capacity to native phonetic discrimination. They used ERP brain measure of infants' native and non-native speech perception in infancy to predict language in 2nd and 3rd years of life. Although we still remain capable of discriminating non native phonetic contrasts as we age, it is at a reduced level when compared with native contrasts. The idea that more than selection is involved in development phonetic perception has been clearly demonstrated by experimental findings showing that native language phonetic perception shows a significant improvement between 6 and 12 months of age. Previous studies had shown native language improvement after 12 months of age and before adulthood but newer studies such as Kuhl's and colleagues has gone beyond selection in explaining developmental change in infants' perception of speech. The Native Language Magnet Model (NLM) proposed by Kuhl (1994, 2000) focuses on infants' native phonetic categories and how they could be structured through ambient language experience.[20] The NLM specified three phases in development:

  • Phase 1- infants are capable of differentiating all the sounds of human speech and abilities are derived from their general auditory processing mechanisms rather than from a speech-specific mechanism
  • Phase 2- infants' sensitivity to the distributional properties of linguistic input produces phonetic representations. Experience accumulates and the representations most often activated begin to function as perceptual magnets for other members of the category
  • Phase 3- The perception termed perceptual magnet effect produces facilitation in native and a reduction in foreign language phonetic abilities

Recently Kuhl's research has initiated the revision of the NLM and expanded the model to include native language neural commitment, which explains effects of language experience on the brain. Native language neural commitment describes the brain's early coding of language and how it affects our subsequent abilities to learn the phonetic scheme of a new language. This is due to the fact that initial language exposure causes physical changes in neural tissue that reflects the statistical perceptual properties of language input (Kuhl 2005).[20] The neural networks then become committed to the patterns of native language speech. Another finding by Kuhl (2008) that has expanded the Native Language Magnet Model has been the research indicating that both native and non-native performances at 7 months of age predicted future language abilities but in opposite directions. Better native phonetic perception at 7 months of age predicted accelerated language development at between 14 and 30 months whereas better non-native performance at 7 months predicted slower language development at 14 and 30 months. Results supported the view that the ability to discriminate non-native phonetic contrasts reflects the degree to which the brain remains in the initial state, open and uncommitted to native language speech patterns.[20]

Learning Exercise A[edit]

Follow the link to get to the jeopardy challenge I created to test your knowledge on the theories of language acquisition. Try to answer correctly as many questions as you can, collecting jeopardy cash along the way until you meet the final jeopardy question at the end. Good luck!

Jeopardy Challenge[edit]

Learning Exercise B[edit]

Answer the following essay questions to the best of your ability, using external sources if needed.

1. You are a new theorist in the field of psycholinguistics and are trying to determine which perspective you are willing to take on how individuals acquire language. Being the great researcher that you are, you want your opinions to be based on evidence-based knowledge. Analyze and pick a position based on new evidence from within the field of linguistics defending why a certain perspective or theory better explains language acquisition. Make sure to contrast your arguments against other theories or models and clearly support why other theorists should accept your view. If you want to be really ambitious you can even create your own theory or model to endorse your ideas, but make sure that you have evidence backing why you think your theory could hold up against any other.

2. Recently someone you knew had a baby and with your new found psycholinguistics knowledge you realize that you may have some advice to help with the baby's language acquisition when the time comes. Using what you know about the theories and models of language acquisition, what tips or guidance could you give this person to help her baby to achieve language acquisition? Specifically describe with examples if there are certain aspects of the theories or models of language acquisition that could support the infant in developing language skills.


Language acquisition has been one of the central topics in cognitive science but has also been one of the most controversial. Languages are complex combinations of elegant principles and historical accidents, which is perhaps one of the reasons why there is no monolithic explanatory theory of language. The goal of language acquisition research is to describe how a child becomes competent to produce and understand language, select the proper processing strategies and achieve language "milestones." However, there are a range of theories of language acquisition that have been created but most of these theories cannot agree on the role that both nature and nurture play in language acquisition. The theories do have one thing in common though, and that is the fact that they all believe that language acquisition is the key aspect that distinguishes humans from other organisms and by understanding how different aspects of language are acquired we can better understand the main vehicle by which we communicate.


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  14. Boyland, J. T. 2009. Usage-based Models of Language. In D. Eddington (Ed.), Experimental and Quantitative Linguistics (pp. 351-419). Munich: Lincom. ISBN: 3895867373, 9783895867378
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