Approaches to Language Acquisition
Language acquisition is the process by which the language capability
develops in a human especially in a child. First language acquisition concerns the
development of language in children, while Second Language Learning focuses on
language development in adults. Historically, theorists are often divided between
emphasizing either nature or nurture as the most important explanatory factor for
In this regard two different approaches were presented to account for the
mysterious nature of language acquisition which are being discussed in following lines.
1. Content Approach.
2. Process Approach.
1. Content Approach by Noam Chomsky
According to Chomsky, children learn language so efficiently and so fast
because they know in advance what languages look like and they have a substantial amount
of innate knowledge. Children seem to know that language is rule-governed, that a finite
number of principles govern the enormous number of utterances they hear going on around
They also have knowledge that languages are hierarchically structured, the
knowledge that several words can go in the same structural slot as one. Children realize
that language makes use of operations which are structure dependent. So that each slot in a
sentence functions as a unit which can be moved around.
Briefly a content approach postulates that a child’s Brain naturally contains
a considerable amount of specific information about language. Chomsky Claims that
children come to language learning with certain expectations. They are pre-wired with
some quite specific information about language. And so approach the data they hear with
advance knowledge. Of course Chomsky does not assume that this knowledge is ready
waiting the moment the child is born. It takes time to mature. But when the time is right it
requires relatively little exposure to language for the knowledge to emerge. It may be like
the growth of teeth or breasts. Given normal surroundings, these appear without any great
effort on the part of the acquirer.
2. Process Approach.
The process approach postulates that children have inbuilt puzzle solving
equipment which enables themto process the linguistic data they come across.
Chomsky’s theory that children innately contain large chunks of specific
information about language is disputed by a number of people. These researchers claim that
, instead of possessing advanced information, children are born with some sort of process
mechanism which enables them to analyze linguistic dada.
It is also said that children have no innate knowledge but processing
information and forming internal structures when these capacities are applied to the speech
the child hears he succeeds in containing a grammar of this native language. Chidren Wired
with Knowledge of UG or with Puzzle Solving equipment?
Linguistic Knowledge Puzzle Solving Equipment
Differences between Content Approach and Process Approach.
It seems some time that these two approaches can not be distinguished but
keen observation makes those distinguishable.
1. In both approaches the child may be end up with same set of language universals
and they are the result of inbuilt analytic procedures but not there are at the
2. Process Approach comes in two versions.
(i) The intelligent version-the child makes use of the cognitive abilities as he
would to cope with everything else he comes across in the world.
(ii) The linguistic version- child’s processing mechanisms are geared specifically
Content intelligence process or linguistic process
It is said that Children are aware of universal constraints; they never utter a
sentence impossible one for human languages. It can be said a best evidence for content
approach. But the question rises that “Do children always obey universal constraints? The
answer may be yes or not, both. It means we are quite unlikely to find similar sentences in
children language which may contain universal constraints.
Various studies suggest that children are not pre-wired with absolute
information about language universals from the beginning and the universal constraints are
acquired gradually. Young children often do not pay attention to the syntax, and either
answer at random, or utilize a ‘probable world strategy’ that is interpret sentences by
arranging the words to give the most plausble meaning
Whereas Chomsky insisted on one structurally possible interpretation of the
utterances and that any other interpretation would go against universal constraints but the
most plausible conclusion is that children do not have any firm, fixed beliefs about
language as they acquire it; they do not seem to know what they look for, or what to avoid-
though some of this knowledge clearly develops over the course of time.
Chomsky’s Switch Setting Theory.
According to Chomsky Universal Grammar is partly like a switchboard
with its switches in neutral position; children know in advance about the possible routes
but they have to find out which particular option has been selected by the language they
are learning. Once children discover this, they flick each switch and the system
functions. Chomsky focuses on
1. children’s omissions for evidence
2. their Use of incomplete utterances
3. The brief type of utterance often alternates with longer ones
4. Leaving out the subject pronouns (I, he etc.) and auxiliary verbs (am, is etc.)
Because: they have temporarily set a switch wrong, they have wrongly
assume that English is a pro-drop language
So it is concluded that gradually children reach a point in maturation when
they notice the presence of such items
Chomsky’s theory raised following Problems.
It is evident that children leave out numerous other things other than
pronouns and auxiliaries- a good theory would link all the omissions together. Setting or
re-setting a switch should have ‘proliferating consequences’ according to Chomsky such as
in the case of re-switching of the pronouns and auxiliaries- but, in fact, the auxiliaries creep
in one by one over several months.
Moreover, there are several possible explanations for children’s early
omissions: leaving out unstressed items, at early stage they cope with only full ‘lexical’
items not with little grammatical items
Chomsky’s Head position-Switch
Children might know in advance that language structures have a head (key
word), and that languages tend to put the modifiers (words relating to the head) constantly
either before or after it.
Children are consistent in their treatment of heads and modifiers may be
because they are sensitive to the order of the words they hear so there is no need to assume
that a child has a ‘set parameter’.
Furthermore, if a switch had been set, we would expect children to iron out
various inconsistencies. They should say:
‘Ago two weeks’ instead of ‘Two weeks age’
Where the modifier occurs (exceptionally) after the words it modifies. But
children show no real signs of behaving like this and this is the biggest weakness of
Again a Question.
No one can agree how many switches there are or how exactly they are set
for language acquisition. It is just too messy a process to be explained by the flick of a
switch. It does not appeal.
It can be concluded that Children do not appear to have firm advance
expectations about language and do not necessarily steer clear of sentences which are
prohibited by language universals. They also do not acquire chunks of language by
flicking a switch.
Chomskyean ‘universals’ may still exist but triggered by simple data,
requiring very little effort on child’s part and develop gradually.
Comparison of Two Approaches.
Process Approach offers various non-linguistic factors critical for
guiding the child forward through the thickets of language. The most important are:
1. Children’s needs; at two-word stage children all over the world seem to talk about
similar things, concerned primarily with the external world- both with finding out
about it and with getting what they want
2. General mental development
3. Parental speech
But these factors address only ‘what propels children onwards’ and not
‘why there are certain broad outline similarities in the way children acquire language’.
Undoubtedly, children talk about everyday needs but it cannot account for similarities
in the development of language structure. No explanation why we find parallel
structural developments in different children. There is no justification why children
proceed to further stages of language development when their own primitive structures
have the desired effect.
Secondly, if a child uses language creatively and have a firm grip of
linguistic structure but dislikes interacting with others so much that never speaks to his
parents directly, he provides evidence against the view that children are social beings who
cater for their needs through communication.
Another point, Cognitive development: commonly held notion that
language acquisition is both dependent on it and caused by it. The development of
comparative constructions occurs at a time when a child start recognizing the things.”
But, the simultaneous development of different abilities does not prove that
one is dependent on the other for in a normal child many aspects of growth take place at
around the same time. In many children general cognitive development is unrelated to their
grasp of language structure. Main studies suggest that cognitive development can not
provide the definite key to acquisition of language structure- even though it is clearly
important for meaningful communication.
Here is an example.
Kate is over 40, but her case is strange. Her mantle age has been assed at around that of a
07 seven years old. She is a great poet. She can not solve even the simplest verbal
intelligence test problems, and has huge difficulties using language in every days,
situations. Here are few lines of her poetry, declaring her disability.
I got it
Not never to walk from it
It shares my space, breathes the same air
I can not have the day off
I lost the Me
I got under everything
That was not poems
( by Kate)
It indicates that Language can not only be spared, but even enriched,
when other cognitive abilities are impaired. Statistically there is a link between items
produced frequently by parents, and those acquired early by the child, Fine-tuning
hypothesis (Cross 1977): parents gradually increase the complexity of their speech as
the child becomes ready for each new stage. Parents subconsciously attune their output
to their child’s needs. Other than children’s innate ability, mothers posses an inner
language teaching device. But no doubt, parents attune to their child’s interests but not
language structure. There is no step by step programming. Motherless is not a syntax-
teaching language children are selective due to their inbuilt filter. It has been observed
that Parental speech is more coherent & “language can not really be taught. One can
only offer the thread along which language develops on its own (Humboldt, cited in
There is another idea is being shared in following lines.
What is A Linguistics Process?
For knowing linguistic Process it is very necessary to know
Bootstrapping approach. It is like a computer giving some preliminary commands
which then allow to cope with more detailed programmes
Linguistic bootstrapping might work as follows:-
Children learn words which correlate well with actors, actions and objects building
these up in various semantic relatio
Then they switch over to syntax.
They start discovering that there is not necessarily a direct correlation
between types of word and the world
Some have a naming-insight which triggers a surge forward in
vocabulary and some may acquire a syntactic-insight which triggers an innate
But Language does not correlate sufficiently with the world around so children can not
persist in using meaning to guide them By classifying verbs as actions children can
make strange over-generalizations
She is noising
She is busying
It can be concluded that Children can fail to recognize words such as
love, hate, got as verbs for they do not involve an action, but they do not seem to have