Language Acquisition in Linguists and Psychologists Point of View

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Language acquisition is one of the most appealing and controversial subjects among the linguists and psychologists. It has been the core of many debates, hence still remains unsolved. For many decades debates regarding the issues whether language acquisition is innate ability or ability which is learned by the time, how a child acquires native language, how he learns a new language, how this process happens in adults, what supports and challenges the language acquisition process, etc. have become the most discussed ones.

Everyone has witnessed how a child learns to speak starting to babble and coo. The child produces utterances of speech to get the attention of people surrounding him. He ‘communicates’ by trying to imitate the sounds that he hears around himself. By the age of one and a half, he starts producing simple two- or three-word phrases. Later on, within a few years, those phrases are developed into grammatically correct and meaningful sentences. But how does it happen? A child is never taught, still, he masters native language within a few years of his life.

Behaviorism is considered as a foundation in explaining the first language acquisition issue. According to Behaviorist theory, language acquisition happens in four stages: imitation, practice, reinforcement and habit formation. This means, that the child repeats what he hears, gets positive reinforcement and consequently develops his language skills. If we look back to history, Nativist theory researchers attacked the explanation provided by the Behaviorists about this fantastic phenomenon. Nativists believed that a child has an innate ability to acquire the language.

Noam Chomsky (1981) claimed about the existence of ‘little black box’- Language Acquisition Device (LAD) – which enables the child to acquire the language. In other words, children have an innate knowledge of basic language rules – Universal Grammar. This assumption was based on linguistic universals. Suppose it so, why can’t deaf children speak if LAD exists? Moreover, the disadvantage of the theory was that it ignored the relationship between cognition and language. In contrast, a proponent of Social Constructivism theory, Vygotsky (1978) argued that there is a strong relationship between the thought and language. He believed that the environment has a crucial impact on language development of the child. By interacting with adults and getting meaningful input the child learns how to use the language in the comprehensible context. One more supporter of the Social Constructivists theory, Piaget (1953), claimed that children go through four stages of cognitive development: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational.

According to him, children aren’t born with basic mental structure. They build up their knowledge based on their experiences. Children develop their thoughts through facing up with variances between what they know and what they discover. Thus, it is vital to provide experience with the real world in the early stages of language acquisition. In order the child to understand the world better, abstract and hypothetical ideas should be explained by linking with concrete events that are familiar to them.

Stephen Krashen (1985) proposed the second language acquisition theory which explains how adults learn a new language. He developed five hypotheses for second language acquisition: the acquisition-learning hypothesis, the natural order hypothesis, the monitor hypothesis, the input hypothesis, and the affective filter hypothesis. The acquisition-learning hypothesis shows the clear distinction between acquiring a language and learning it. Language acquisition is a subconscious process which happens without explanation of grammatical rules. Imagine a child who acquires his native language. He is just focused on the meaning of the words and communication itself, not the form of the language. On the other hand, language learning is a conscious process, where language rules are explained. This is usually concerned with learning a new language. However, even if the child or adult has perfect grammar, he may not be able to write or speak the language fluently. This is explained by the emphasis of the learner on the grammatical rules rather than the text of the communication.

The natural order hypothesis claims that some complex structures of the language are learned later and some are prone to be learned in the early stages of the language learning process. For example, statements in present simple tense are comprehended and learned earlier than those in present perfect. The monitor hypothesis explains that the learned language affects the acquired language. In other words, the learner is focused on the grammar rules he knows and tries to use them correctly in his statements to sound more accurate. The input hypothesis suggests that learner acquires the language efficiently if there is a natural context. The context should be one level higher than his current level of proficiency, so the learner acquires it through analyzing and figuring out the rules. The affective filter hypothesis claims that the effectiveness of language acquisitions is based on the following: motivation, self-confidence, and anxiety. If learner’s motivation and self-confidence is higher than his anxiety, he is more likely to master the language. But if the ‘filters’ – barriers, such as low motivation, lack of self-confidence and anxiety are present, the learning process will be hindered.

How second language acquisition happens? Adults experience harder challenges in learning new language rather than children. Some language learners become proficient in second language as in their native language while others don’t. Few language learners can even achieve native-like proficiency in several foreign languages. What counts for all of these results? In what ways second language acquisition is similar and in what ways different from the first language acquisition? Adults rarely achieve native-like fluency in the second language. This could be explained that they don’t pick up the second language the way children do. Children acquire their native languages in somewhat similar way and time, while adults’ language learning styles and paces show considerable diversity. Adults, learning the second language have prior knowledge of grammar in their native language, while children start from the scratch.

Thus, adults find it hard to learn new language as they transfer grammatical rules of their native language into the target language. Children learn the native language spontaneously without any planning to learn. Adults usually have intentions to learn the second language. In both cases the learner gets reinforcement. Children have desire to communicate and establish relationship with people surrounding them, in contrast adults are driven by approval of their accurately formed statements or getting higher grades. Hence, children are not in need of instructions, they just need to be exposed to the speaking environment. At this point, it is vital to mention that there are two Critical Age periods: from birth to about 6 age and from 7 till the age of 16. If the child hears the language during the first 6 years, he can acquire it without any accent. Moreover, the child can acquire several languages with native-like competency if he gets exposure to the authentic language. The second period is concerned with language acquisition when child still can easily acquire the language but without native-like fluency.

The relationship between the first and second languages can be summarized as follows. A lot of practice is necessary to learn a new language just the way a child learns his native language through repetition. The same is expected to be done in second language learning. First, we practice separate sounds, words, phrases and finally sentences. That is the natural order and the right way of learning a language. Watch how child learns his native language. First he gets a lot of input through listening which proceeds to speaking. He understands the language through listening to it many times in many variety of contexts. The same should be applied in the second language acquisition. A small child figures out the meaning and structure of the sentences on his own. He is never taught the meaning of the words or grammatical rules.

In language learning it is necessary to develop listening skills and consequently speaking skills. A child is never given instructions on reading and writing before he masters his listening and speaking skills even in his native language. No one would expect it to be the other way. Therefore, this must be the right order of presenting skills in a foreign language. Reading and writing are advanced stages of language development. Natural order of both acquiring and learning languages is listening, speaking, reading and writing. A small child is not explained the structure of the sentences, for example that subject is followed by the verb. He just listens and gets the feeling of what is correct and how should the language be used. Why would the second language be different from the way the native language acquired?

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Language Acquisition in Linguists and Psychologists Point of View. (2020, Nov 22). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/language-acquisition-in-linguists-and-psychologists-point-of-view/

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