Language acquisition theory is a theory that attempts to explain how languages are learned. In the field of linguistics, there are various approaches that assign different importance to predisposition and environmental influences as factors in language learning. The most important theories of language acquisition are behaviourism, nativism, cognitivism and interactionism.
The question of whether internal or external factors play a greater role in children’s linguistic development drives linguists all over the world. On the one hand, the genetic prerequisites for language acquisition are examined and, on the other, the outside influences such as linguistic role models and the encouragement of language acquisition. To date, it has not been conclusively clarified how children learn language. The most important language acquisition theories are explained in this article.
Definition of language acquisition
Language acquisition generally refers to the acquisition of the mother tongue by a child. The process of language development takes place under natural conditions and therefore does not require teaching.
Language acquisition by children
As a rule, children begin to speak at the age of one to two years. Although their cognitive development is still in its infancy, they are already able to form grammatically correct sentences. Today it is assumed that language acquisition is influenced by social and biological as well as cognitive factors. So, on the one hand there is a genetic predisposition to language learning, but at the same time the process is also influenced by family and culture.
The most common language acquisition models
There are various theoretical approaches to the origin of language, some of which complement each other. The four most common theories of language acquisition are behaviourism, nativism, cognitivism and interactionism.
The behavioural theory of language acquisition
Behaviourism is a theoretical learning approach from the 20th century, which attributes all behavioural changes to environmental stimuli. According to this theory, which was significantly influenced by the psychologist Burrhus F. Skinner, children learn language through imitation and reinforcement. By the environment reacting to “correct” utterances with praise and paying no or negative attention to “incorrect” utterances, children are conditioned to acquire language. Skinner’s behavioural theory of language acquisition is now considered outdated.
The nativist theory of language acquisition
In the 1960s, the linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky developed nativism in a critical confrontation with behaviourism. It states that children have innate abilities to acquire language. Furthermore, cognitive skills are needed to recognise linguistic patterns and memories, and social skills to understand other people’s needs. Chomsky sees language acquisition primarily as the acquisition of rules. Mere imitation cannot capture linguistic diversity. The basic assumption of nativism, that there is a genetic predisposition to language acquisition, is now considered proven. However, it is not entirely clear what exactly this predisposition consists of.
The cognitive language acquisition theory
According to cognitivism, language acquisition does not occur through environmental conditions but through cognitive processes. The founder of the theory in the early 1920s was the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, who saw the development of language as part of the mental development of the human being. A prerequisite for children’s cognitive development is therefore active engagement with the environment, through which a child expands their knowledge and learns to classify it. According to Piaget, language acquisition thus takes place on the basis of cognitive abilities that are further developed through concrete experiences with the environment. Today, cognitivism is criticised for its one-sided focus on information processing during the learning process.
The interactionist theory of language acquisition
Interactionism sees the social environment as the most important instance for language acquisition. Psychologist Jerome Bruner is considered the founding father of interactionist language acquisition theory. He assumes that language acquisition and the recognition of logical structures occur primarily through interaction with parents and other people in the child’s immediate environment. According to Bruner, important prerequisites for successful language development are the innate language acquisition system (nativism) and cognitive abilities (cognitivism), even though the social environment plays the most important role in the process.
FAQ: More questions on language acquisition theory
What are the theories of language acquisition?
There are many theories that deal with the acquisition of language. The most important are behaviourism, nativism, cognitivism and interactionism.
What is language acquisition?
Language acquisition refers to the uncontrolled process of acquiring a language by a child.
How does language acquisition work?
Children go through several stages of language acquisition, which are only briefly mentioned here. As early as in the mother’s womb, the foetus perceives the mother’s voice. After birth, the infant first learns sounds that become whole words over time. Between the ages of 18 and 24 months, the child begins to form sentences, first with two words and later with more words, because by then they have recognised that words and sentences are based on a certain grammar. At around three years of age, most children can form complete sentences and improve their skills in the following years.
When is language acquisition complete?
According to language acquisition research, the process of language development is completed at around seven years of age.
What factors promote language acquisition?
Attention, interaction and patience are important factors when it comes to supporting a child in their language development.
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