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Theories of first language learning

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  • Here the habit has been learned. The rat knows that to obtain food, it has to press the lever.
  • 2 – It would not lead to sequences
  • Distinguish sounds Tell what is possible Able to discover grammatical relationships Construct simplest grammar rules Analogy – computer program
  • Show Cognitive Development video clip of Piaget Stage 2
  • the present progressive tense, be doing , is used to describe an action that is taking place at the moment of speaking ( I'm writing now ), to describe a present situation that is temporary ( I'm living in Paris, but I usually live in London ) and to describe future plans ( I'm playing tennis tomorrow ).
  • Show video clip of child talking


  • 1. Theories of First Language Learning
  • 2. Questions
    • Why do children learn their first language in a short time?
    • Why do children learn their first language in sequences and stages?
    • How do children learn the rules of their first language when what is heard is variable?
    • Why do children produce language that they have never heard?
  • 3. Behaviorism in general
    • Learning is habit formation
  • 4. Behaviorism in language learning
    • Language learning is also habit formation
    • Successful performance of a behavior (pronunciation, grammatically correct sentences, new words) is rewarded, usually by parents, over and over again until the behavior becomes automatic
  • 5. Evaluation of behaviorism 1
    • Habit formation takes a long time
      • The same process must be repeated over and over again for each grammar feature and word
    • Habit formation would result in variation
      • What each child hears is unique so what she learns should be unique.
      • However, we observe sequences and stages
  • 6. Evaluation of behaviorism 2
    • Habit formation requires uniform language to be successful
      • Language is not uniform; it is variable
    • Children only imitate what they hear
      • Children, however, produce unique words and sentences
  • 7. Universal Grammar
    • Universal Grammar (UG) is an internal innate ability for languages
    • UG is a set of principles that are common to all languages
      • Not a set of grammar rules
      • For example, UG tells us that all languages use word order and hearing the language tells children which word order to use
  • 8. Evaluation of Universal Grammar 1
    • UG makes it simple for children to discover rules
      • Thus, language learning doesn’t take a lot of time
    • UG is an innate set of principles
      • Because UG is the same for everyone, sequences and stages are likely
  • 9. Evaluation of Universal Grammar 2
    • UG operates like a computer program and tells children what is possible and not possible
      • Children can still construct rules even though language is variable
    • UG helps children create rules
      • Rules allow children to be creative and make words they’ve never heard before
  • 10. Evaluation of Universal Grammar 3
    • UG is a powerful explanation of how children learn grammar
    • UG doesn’t explain how children learn words or how to use language socially
  • 11. Cognitive Development
    • The way the we see and understand the world develops in stages.
  • 12. Cognitive Development & Language learning
    • Children learn language by making connections between what they hear and objects, events and situations
    • Children put the connections that they make in categories and make generalizations
  • 13. Cognitive Theory
    • Language ability and cognitive development are not separate
    • Language learning is part of a child’s cognitive development
    • How much language children can understand depends on their cognitive development.
  • 14. Evaluation of the Cognitive Theory 1
    • Cognitive abilities develop quickly, and so do language abilities
    • Cognitive abilities develop in stages, and so do language abilities
    • Making categories and generalizations lets children overcome variability
    • Making generalizations leads to new language
  • 15. Evaluation of the Cognitive Theory 2
    • The cognitive theory is a good explanation of how children learn vocabulary
    • The cognitive theory is less satisfactory in explaining how children learn grammar
      • Grammatical features with several meanings
        • I’m writing now.
        • I’m living in Paris, but I usually live in London.
        • I’m playing tennis tomorrow.
  • 16. Functional Theory 1
    • Learning occurs by listening to people and speaking with people
  • 17. Functional Theory 2
    • Listening is a chance to understand what is heard
    • Speaking is a chance to
      • Send a message
      • Check one’s understanding
      • Learn how to express messages grammatically
  • 18. Evaluation of the Functional Theory 1
    • Not all parents talk a lot; some more than others
      • All children learn to speak in about the same time
    • Conversations with children are all unique
      • Because they are unique, it is difficult to explain sequences and stages
  • 19. Evaluation of the Functional Theory 2
    • Language is variable
      • Checks for comprehension by both parents and children help make rules clear
    • The functional theory provides no explanation for why children produce words they’ve never heard
  • 20. Conclusion 1
    • Language is complicated
    • Difficult for one theory to explain how we learn all aspects of language
    • Each of the theories explains some aspects of language
  • 21. Conclusion 2
    • Behaviorism – sociolinguistic knowledge
      • Many aspects of being polite are learned habits.
      • When to say please and thank you.
    • Universal Grammar – grammatical knowledge
      • An innate computer program perhaps best explains how we master grammar
  • 22. Conclusion 3
    • Cognitive – Vocabulary
      • When we look at the world, we tend to categorize and generalize about what we see and this is the same thing that we do with new words.
    • Functional – How to talk
      • Babies talking with their parents learn conversation rules.
      • They learn to talk by talking