How Children Acquire Language

How Children Acquire
Four Theories about Language
1. Imitation (modeling)
2. Reinforcement (Rewards and Punishment)
3. Constructing grammar from
(1- 3 are all learning theories)
4. Absorption of a specific language into
an already existing general language
structure in the brain: “innateness
Imitation :
Children memorize words
and sentences they hear from a
 •Cons
Children use forms of
words that adults never
• Language symbols are
arbitrary and not
logically connected to
the things they
• Children only learn the
language people
around them speak
Consensus says
“Cons” Win ! 
• The mistakes children
make are consistent
between children and
between language
• Children produce words
and sentences they have
never heard.
• Children undertand
words and sentences
they have never heard.
Children learn to
speak by being praised or corrected by
• Corrections are rare
X Pros
when total number of
speech events is
• Praise is rare when the
total number of speech
events is considered.
• Even without ANY praise
or corrections children
acquire language
Consensus says
“Cons” Win ! 
• Praise or corrections
frequently don’t change
child language.
Input/Experience :
Children figure
out and learn grammatical patterns
from hearing adult language patterns
 Cons
 Pros
The speed with which
Children make
systematic mistakes
in grammar by “over
regularizing” forms
A Tie?
children acquire all
of the grammatical
patterns of a
language is so rapid
that is is difficult to
see how they can
figure out all
grammar from
experience in so short
a time
Over Regularized Forms
Verb Forms
Children learn such past tense patterns as
e.g. walked, hugged, wanted,
then apply the rules to irregular verbs
e.g.“bringed”, “eated”, “runned”
Given nonsense nouns like “wug”
children make them plural by adding “s”
Children regularize plurals of
nouns e.g. womans, mans
Innateness Hypothesis
1. Children’s brains have a “language
acquisition device” that already
contains the full range of structural
possibilities inherent in language
(“universal grammar”) . This device
absorbs the specific language the child
2. Children use the structural patterns
they hear and discard the structural
patterns they do not hear.
3. Children do not have to learn
structural patterns. They only have to
choose between them.
Lenneberg’s Six Components
of Innate Behavior
1. Emerges before it is necessary.
2. Is not the result of a conscious
3. Is not triggered by external events.
4. Teaching and practice have little
5. There is a regular developmental
6. Emerges during a critical period of
1. Language emerges before
it is necessary.
• Language emerges between the
ages of 12 and 24 months while
the child is completely dependent
on parents for survival.
• Although language will be an
important survival tool, it is
important to survival at this age.
2. Language acquisition is
not the result of a
conscious decision.
• There is no evidence that children
decide to learn language.
• Early language is an spontaneous
game that happens between babies
and their caretakers, not a
conscious goal.
3. Language acquisition is
not triggered by external
• There is nothing that causes the
emergence of language to begin. All
children begin playing with sound and
language regardless of the context in
which they live.
• Children require input, but even
children who do not interact with
others begin the stages of language
acquisition. Without external input
they may not succeed in acquiring
language, but they still initiate the
same behaviors as isolated children.
4. Teaching and practice have
little effect on language
• Parents do not give lessons to their
children to get them to acquire
• Praise and correction do not occur
with enough frequency to account for
language proficiency
• Praise and correction may have little
effect on language acquisition.
• Children produce language they have
not heard from others
• Children learn language too rapidly to
logically derive all linguistic rules
from experience
“Poverty of the Stimulus”
• If language is learned, then
children should only produce
words and sentences they have
• If language is learned, then
children should only
understand words and sentences
they have heard.
5. There is a regular
developmental sequence
to language acquisition.
Language is acquired in a universal
series of stages regardless of the cultural
and/or linguistic context
a. Babbling
b. Holophrastic speech (1 word)
c. Telegraphic speech (2 word)
d. Functional morpheme acquisition
e. Acquisition of negatives
a. Babbling
• 4 to 12 months
• Babies begin with strings of sounds
and by 12 months are babbling the
full range of sounds used in human
• Syllables can be detected in babbling
• Intonation patterns can be detected
in babbling
• Deaf children babble with gestures
b. Holophrastic Speech
• At about 1 year
• The first stage of symbolic
connection of sounds with
• One word sentences
e.g. Go!
e.g “afuf”
e.g. “ahbee”
c. Telegraphic Speech
• 18 to 24 months
• Two word sentences
e.g. Mommy up.
e.g. Me go.
• Evidence of syntax – ordering two
meaning symbols
• Lack function words like articles,
helping verbs, etc.
c. Functional Morphemes
• At 2 ½ to 3 years
• Add functional morphemes that adjust
the meanings of words
1. Addition of ing to verbs
2. Add prepositions in and on
3. Addition of “s”
1st to plural nouns
2nd to possessive nouns
3rd to present tense verbs
4. Addition of articles (a, an, the)
5. Forms of “to be” (is going ra th go)
c. Acquisition of Negatives
1. No in front of sentence
“No I go.”
2. Negative between subject and
“I no go.”
3. Correct grammatical
6. There is a critical period
for language development.
• Childhood stages are quite regular
• Ability to acquire language after
puberty declines in all humans
regardless of cultural and/or linguistic
• People who learn a language after
puberty retain their first language
• Deaf individuals who learn to sign
after puberty sign significantly
differently than those who learn before.
Language Development
and Lateralization of the
Lenneberg hypothesized that the
acquisition of language is tied to
the lateralization of the brain,
which begins at about 2 years old
and proceeds until puberty.
Isabelle and Genie
• found at 6.5 years
• found at 13 years
• cognitively delayed
• cognitively delayed
• no aural linguistic
• no linguistic input
• lived w/ deaf mom in
• chained in dark room
• at 8.5 yrs, achieved
normal language skill
• learned complex
vocabulary but never
acquired syntax
Out of the Mouths of Babes