First Language Acquisition

First Language
Behaviorist view of language
First half of the 20th century
 Stimulus-response
– Positive reinforcement  repetition
 Skinner (1957) Verbal Behavior
challenged by Chomsky (1959).
Flaws of behaviorist view as an
account of language learning
Ignores contribution of innate cognitive
abilities (e.g. LAD) in favor of the influence of
the environment on the learner.
 Variation in learning environments doesn’t
result in varied language development.
 Why not animals?
– Human language is creative!
Children’s errors
– Not based on repetition but rules: *I goed home
– Grammatical forms acquired without overt
Insights from psychology on
language acquisition
Developmental stages
– Physical capacity – babbling to words (1 year)
– One word (familiar object) to one word (complex
– One word (idea) to two word expressions (18
• Order of importance: nouns (object), then verbs (action),
then adjectives & adverbs (description), finally
prepositions (“function words”)
– Two-word to fluent expressions (late twos to mid
threes) is extremely rapid and researchers have
been unable to document stages
Evidence of separate “LAD”
Linguistic and non-linguistic competencies
emerge simultaneously (not cognitive first,
then language).
 Language development is universal across
children, languages, environments.
 Stages of language development are the
same for oral or gestural language.
 Language development beyond two years is
too rapid to measure.
The Innateness Hypothesis
Characteristics of biologically controlled
behaviors (walking vs. riding a bike):
– The behavior emerges before it is necessary.
– Its appearance is not the result of a conscious decision.
– Its emergence is not triggered by external events (though the
environment must be conducive to development).
– Direct teaching and intensive practice have relatively little
– There is a regular sequence of “milestones” as the behavior
– There is likely to be a “critical period” for the acquisition of
the behavior.
The Critical Age Hypothesis
Two critical periods associated with language
– Birth to 2 – child needs exposure to language in order to
develop the brain structures necessary for language
– 10 to 16 – ability to acquire a language with native
competence tapers off.
Case studies:
– Genie (1970) age 14
• Learned to memorize vocabulary
• Never developed creative language (What is X; Give me
Y). Formulaic language.
– Isabelle (1937) age 6.5.
• In 2 years developed normal, age-appropriate use of
The social nature of language
Communicative competence (Hymes 1970) is the
foundation of the ACTFL National Standards in
Foreign Language Education:
– all the linguistic and social knowledge required for effective
human-to-human interaction is encompassed in (the phrase)
‘knowing how, when, and why to say what to whom’.
Formerly, most teaching in foreign language classrooms
concentrated on the how (grammar) to say what
(vocabulary)…The current organizing principle for foreign
language study is communication, which also highlights the
why, the whom and the when.
Wells (1986): control and correction inhibits language
Linguistic insights into language
From behaviorism (structural linguistics) to
cognitive psychology (generative grammar).
– Patterns, S-R  rules, creative language
– Finite set of rules generate infinite number of
– deep-structure vs. surface structure
– Children use linguistic input in their environment to
develop a set of rules that allows them to produce
and understand an infinite number of expressions
Theory: Universal Grammar (UG) contains
the structures common to all human
languages. Child learns how particular
languages function in relation to universals.
 Evidence:
– Learn to use language, not explain how it works
– Intuition
• “I wonder when he is/ he’s at home.”
• “I wonder where he is/ *he’s at noon.”
– Limited number of kinds of errors children make
– Lenneberg – developmental stages (overhead)
Vocabulary is not part of UG. Soundmeaning relationship is arbitrary.