9.2.1 Child Language Acquisition Theories, from Sarah Harmon
When it comes to theories of how children learn their first language or languages, there has been an evolution in this area. We're going to start off with some very common and old theories of how languages are acquired by children, but we're also going to point out what's wrong with them and how we have evolved in our thinking. It's important to understand that this is an area we are still trying to figure out; we don't have all the answers yet. We definitely are working with hypotheses and theories, but we don't know for sure. For reasons that are obvious, we don't fully understand how the brain works yet; we're still learning that too. Therefore, what we learn now could change—in fact, probably will change—over the course of your lifetime. It certainly has changed over the course of my lifetime.
To start off, let's talk about some theories that used to be very popular, and that used to be considered ‘absolute truth’—as it turns out, it's not the case. These are all old and erroneous, in part, if not in whole.
The big discussion has always been on imitation versus reinforcement versus analogy. Imitation refers to the idea that children imitate language that they hear and just spit it back out. Well, yes and no; clearly, we have seen in data over the last 50 years that definitely there is something to the concept: children do hear things and they try to emulate it to the best of their ability. Think of the [fɪs, fɪʃ] scenario, think of [knopf, nop]; they were trying. But that is not the only way that they learn language, because otherwise they wouldn't make mistakes. Reinforcement is the theory that when you positively reinforce good behavior, the child will continue doing it, and that negative behavior is chastised or punished somehow. The problem with this theory is that children make all sorts of combinations with respect to their languages, and doubly so if they're in a multilingual environment. It doesn't matter how many times you tell a child that the plural of foot is not foots and that it’s feet, because the child is not going to produce until some point in the future. Suffice it to say that it's not just the reinforcement; you can't just reward good language behavior and castigate bad language behavior; it doesn't have an effect. The same is true with analogy. Most people used to say that children acquired language and they built everything via analogy; they just made the same mistakes, and then learn to correct them at some point. Again, some of this is true; certainly, some of the errors that are frequently done by children with so called irregular forms in morphology and syntax could be examples of analogy. But there are plenty of examples where that doesn't happen. We come back to what seems to be the issue: analogy doesn't exactly describe most of what happens with respect to child language acquisition. Conditioned response is a little bit like reinforcement; it's the BF Skinner version of it. If you've taken psychology, you probably know what this concept is: a reaction to stimulus, reinforcing the positive while chastising or castigating the negative. Again, we know that doesn't work, let alone the ethical issues that come with conditioned responses examples.
We know that none of these explain what happens with respect to children as they learn their first language or languages. The question becomes: What do we know?
These are four theories and hypotheses that we have currently. While they may not cover everything with respect to child language acquisition, it does seem to be the case that they have a lot more in common than not.
The Innateness Hypothesis is the first one to talk about, both in general and chronologically. It's also the first one that tapped into Chomsky’s Universal Grammar concept, the fact that we have this innate ability to speak a language, and that, so far, we have yet to observe the exact same thing in any other animal on the planet. I'm hedging that hugely for a reason; when we get to the next chapter and talk about animal communication, I’ll explain a little bit more, but think about those hallmarks of language, because that's what the Innateness Hypothesis comes back to. It also refers to what we talked about with respect to topology, the fact that there are universals that we see, as well as strong tendencies and non-absolute universals. We see so many trends with respect to languages that are very common, if not ubiquitous, so clearly there's something there.
From the Innateness Hypothesis, we get these other three theories, and they are additions or specifications of this innateness concept, tapping into Universal Grammar and this facility that we have with respect to language.
Active Construction of Grammar Theory is a theory that children actively invent rules as they go along. In other words, they observe and absorb language; they actively and subconsciously create patterns. They think they see and/or hear a pattern, and then they build upon it. It's mostly based off the observation of how children imitate the other children that they’re around—not imitating the adults. By the way, this is connected to creolization because, again, we get this concept of peers helping each other out. There have been numerous studies with respect to how children pick up new terms, and most of the time it's not from their adult caregivers. Most of the time is from other children—sometimes siblings or cousins, maybe in the school or daycare situation. It's as if they're taking an input subconsciously, analyzing it subconsciously, hypothesizing what the rule will be, and then apply that to the mental lexicon. We do not have clear evidence of this, like we can't analyze the brain to see that happening. But we definitely do notice that this is part of how children acquire new terminology and new phrasing; they get it mostly from peers. It certainly explains overgeneralization patterns, but frequently people chalked that up to analogy. If you have a child learning a given language—I'll just say English—and they are not around other children, there is a tendency for there to be a slowing of that acquisition. But the more children they're around, the more they acquire and the quicker they acquire it. That being said, it's really hard to observe this actually happening in the brain; this is just based on observation of children in a lab setting and in social settings.
Connectionist Theory is the fact that children learn by creating neural connections and that this is based off of exposure to a variety of stimuli. In this case, that stimulates the new language, and so they basically learn these associations and they build from there—they're making connections. We see this in how they acquire other skills, whether it's walking and moving and motor skills to building with blocks to building a sand castle or anything like that we see them do this with other skills and the thought is okay, maybe they do this with language. There seems to be again some evidence of this; it taps into this overgeneralization aspect, the fact that children are making connections based off of prior knowledge or input or stimulus. That being said, again we have the same problem with active construction, which is we can't observe what's going on between the ears, as it were. It's hard to do that, so we don't really know that that's the case. But we suspect there's something to that.
The last one is Social Interaction Theory, which is in some ways a combination of both of the previous two. It's the concept that children acquire language through social interaction; the more they're around peers, in particular—but in this case, you also include the adults—they have more input and they're making more connections. That social interaction also feeds their desire to want to speak more and to communicate in ways that are clear. There's something to be said for this as well, and in a number of cultures, especially European and American cultures, but even in parts of Asia and parts of Africa, we do see that adults will slow down or simplify their language so that it is more comprehensible. The child can interact more because they're not overly intimidated by all these people going a mile a minute with complex phraseology and lexicon. There's something to that, because when you are including people in a dialogue, you want there to be a communication, not just of ideas, but the feeling that you can communicate with me, because I understand you (or want to understand you) and you want to understand me. We slow things down for children, and that’s why children can learn from other children a little bit better. Again, we have that same problem of how do you measure that.
There's also the other interesting piece, and I’ll use one of my nephews as an example, my older nephew who's now eight. He is fascinated by big words, and has been his entire linguistic life, even as a four-year-old. He did not want to hear so called ‘child language’ or ‘baby language’; he wanted big words. He loved it when Auntie Sarah would start talking; several times, unbeknownst to some of my students, would be sitting here in my room, as I did my online lectures for linguistics, because he wanted to hear the big words. He tried to use the big words—he still tries to use the big words—but it doesn't always work. Now, as an eight-year-old, he's getting stronger with his reading, and he wants the books with big words in them; he wants to try and read them. There seems to be something with respect to this Social Interaction Theory; if you have a child around adults and children, they're going to want to interact with both at as close to level as possible. All three of those theories are built upon the Innateness Hypothesis.
We don't know for sure, and it will probably be some time before we really can understand, how the brain works, especially with children. But there are certain things that we can observe, and that'll be in the next section, when we talk about the different stages of language acquisition. There is plenty that we can observe just by watching, but hopefully someday we can crack this thing and really get to it.