The Innatist Perspective:

Florian Gausmann; Barbara Sohn-Travaglia; Mandy Wellhausen ■ Language Learning in
Early Childhood: Theory ■ Second Language Acquisition ■ WS 2008/2009 ■ Nathan Devos
Say what I say
Representatives: Pawlow and Skinner
Encouraged by their environment, children imitate and practice sounds and patterns until
they have formed ‘habits’ of correct language use.
 ‘positive reinforcement’
o praise
o successful communication
 imitation and practice as primary processes in language development
The Innatist Perspective:
It‘s all in your mind
Norman Chomsky, one of the most famous influential figures in linguistics, and his ideas
about language:
All human languages are fundamentally innate
• The same universal principles underlie all of them
• To acquire language a child only needs the availability of people who speak to the
child: the child‘s biological endowment will do the rest
• Chomsky’s conclusion: Children’s minds are not blank slates to be filled by imitating
language they hear in the environment
• Hypothesis: Children are born with a specific innate ability to discover for themselves
the underlying rules of a language system on the basis of the samples of a natural
language they are exposed to
Universal Grammar
Children must have some innate mechanism or knowledge that allows them to discover
such complex syntax in spite of limitations of the input.
If children are equipped with Universal Grammar, then what they have to learn is the
ways in which the language they are acquiring makes use of these principles.
The Critical Period Hypothesis
• Animals and humans are genetically programmed to acquire certain kinds of
knowledge and skill at specific times in life
• Difficult to apply this hypothesis for language acquisition because nearly all children
are exposed to language (oral or gestural) at an early age
Is there a Critical Period for Language Acquisition?
• There is little prospect of obtaining unambiguous evidence on the question of the
possibility of beginning to acquire a L1 after any age posited as critical it would
appear sensible to look at evidence concerning the continuation of language
acquisition beyond the childhood years
• “It is difficult to identify any point in the lifespan when the process of language
development is truly complete.” Nippold (1998:1)
Interactionist/Developmental Perspectives:
”Learning from inside and out”
Language acquisition seen as the ability to learn from experience
Florian Gausmann; Barbara Sohn-Travaglia; Mandy Wellhausen ■ Language Learning in
Early Childhood: Theory ■ Second Language Acquisition ■ WS 2008/2009 ■ Nathan Devos
Interactions are of high importance
Focus on interplay between innate learning ability & environment
Jean Piaget
• Swiss psychologist/epistemologist who observed children’s interactions with
objects & people. By doing so he traced their development of cognitive
Lev Vygotsky
• Russian psychologist who observed children’s interactions with other children
and adults.
Cross cultural research
• children‘s learning environments in different cultural communities
• child-directed speech
• not universal
The importance of interaction
• Example of Jim whose deaf parents used no sign language with him. His only
contact with language was TV.
• Language acquisition does not require “module of the mind“
• Connections between words and phrases + the situation in which they occur
1. Name two proponents of the behaviourist theory and at least one mean of ‘positive
reinforcement’ in language learning.
2. What is (according to N. Chomsky) “the logical problem of language acquisition“ and which
theory is seen as an explanation for it?
3. Why did E. Newport and her colleagues conclude that their study of deaf children learning
ASL supports the hypothesis of a critical period?
4. What characterizes child-directed speech?
– slower rate of delivery
– higher pitch
– more varied intonation
– shorter, simpler sentence patterns
– stress on key words
– frequent repetition
– paraphrase
5. Explain the difference between Piaget‘s and Vygotskys point of view.
Lightbown and Spada, How Languages are Learned. 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press.
2006: chapter 1; pp10-24
Singleton and Ryan.Language Acquisition: The Age Factor.2nd Edition. Cromwell
Press Ltd.2004