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Language Acquisition Notes

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Olivia Alter


'Children do not 'learn' their first language, they 'grow' one.' Discuss. It is an undeniable fact that the topic of language acquisition has received much attention over the last half a century, and mainly in the form of a controversial debate concerning the role of nature against that of nurture. Since the 1960s, what are now known as the 'cognitive sciences' have aimed to explain the workings of the human brain, with reference to intelligence and capabilities. From this, there has been great interest in the role of language: whether it is present in the brain much like an organ in the body, or whether it is more of a social and cultural invention, and thus whether language acquisition belongs to the nature or nurture side of the argument; whether a child 'learns' or 'grows' their mother tongue. Behaviourism in the 1950s, with Watson and Skinner at the forefront, suggested a stimulus-response learning mechanism, whereby language is acquired through external factors, such as experience, imitation, and instruction, with no recourse to internal events or constructs. Chomsky, perhaps the most famous of 20th century linguists, responded by stating that language is actually innate; it cannot comprise a 'repertoire of responses' 1 since each utterance is not just a novel construction of finite units, but can be something which no one has said before. Also, children develop highly complex grammars despite the limited 'input' data, or experience in their first few years (parents do not speak to children the same way as they do to adults). Hence there must be something in the human brain which allows for language to 'grow' rather than be 'learnt'. However, this may not rule out the influence of external factors entirely. One must examine Chomsky's ideas and the recent developments made, along with findings by various other people, to decide if the social environment is significant for the development of language in children, and so behaviour 2 is an emergent process based on interactions, or if children already have all the required information in them from birth, and simply need a 'trigger' for that language to surface. Chomsky's ideas contrast with Skinner's aforementioned behaviourism by emphasising biological predisposition instead of conditioning. Around the 1950s it was generally assumed that one's social environment is the most important factor in the 1 2

Pinker, S. (1995) Anything an organism can do, including the production of speech, is considered a 'behaviour'.

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