Move back one step  Move forward one step  Display the start-up screen

Language acquisition

What is psycholinguistics?

Psycholinguistics is the study of language with reference to human psychology. It has a very broad scope but is frequently used with specific reference to processes of language acquisition, especially of one's first language. In the more general psycholinguistics covers the following areas

1) Neurolinguistics (the study of language and the brain). This has a physical dimension to it and is the domain of neurologists concerned with impairments of language due to brain lesions, tumors, injuries or strokes. It also has an observational domain which is the concern of linguists. Here certain phenomena like slips of the tongue, various performance errors (due to nervousness, tiredness for instance) are examined for the insights which they might offer about the structure of the language faculty in the human brain.

2) Language pathology The breakdown of language has been studied intensively from at least two main angles. The first is that of medicine where attempts are made to help patients regain at least partially the ability to use language normally. Such patients are typically older people who have had a stroke (a burst blood vessel in the brain, in this case affecting the Broca or Wernicke areas) or younger people who have been involved in an accident (typically in a car or on a motorcycle) and have thus an impairment of the brain due to external injury. A third group is formed by patients who have had a tumor (cancerous growth) in the brain which impairs their speech pressing on either of the speech areas (fairly rare as a medical phenomenon though). Language disorders are known in linguistics and medicine as aphasia. There are many different types depending on the impairment which a patient shows.

3) Language acquisition (see next section)

Broca's area A part of the brain — approximately above the left temple — called after its discoverer the French doctor Paul Broca and which is responsible for speech production.

Wernicke's area A part of the brain which is taken to be responsible for the comprehension of language. It is located just above the left ear. Named after Karl Wernicke, the German scientist who discovered the area in the second half of the 19th century.

What is language acquisition?

Language acquisition is a process which can take place at any period of one's life. In the sense of first language acquisition, however, it refers to the acquisition (unconscious learning) of one's native language (or languages in the case of bilinguals) during the first 6 or 7 years of one's life (roughly from birth to the time one starts school).

Characteristics of first language acquisition

1) It is an instinct. This is true in the technical sense, i.e. it is triggered by birth and takes its own course, though of course linguistic input from the environment is needed for the child to acquire a specific language. As an instinct, language acquisition can be compared to the acquisition of binocular vision or binaural hearing.

2) It is very rapid. The amount of time required to acquire one's native language is quite short, very short compared to that needed to learn a second language successfully later on in life.

3) It is very complete. The quality of first language acquisition is far better than that of a second language (learned later on in life). One does not forget one's native language (though one might have slight difficulties remembering words if you do not use it for a long time).

4) It does not require instruction. Despite the fact that many non-linguists think that mothers are important for children to learn their native language, instructions by parents or care-takers are unnecessary, despite the psychological benefits of attention to the child.

What is the watershed separating first and second language acquisition?

Generally, the ability to acquire a language with native speaker competence diminishes severly around puberty. There are two suggestions as to why this is the case. 1) Shortly before puberty the lateralisation of the brain (fixing of various functions to parts of the brain) takes place and this may lead to general inflexibility. 2) With puberty various hormonal changes take place in the body (and we technically become adults). This may also lead to a inflexibility which means that language acquisition cannot proceed to the conclusion it reaches in early childhood.

Definitions and distinctions

Acquisition is carried out in the first years of childhood and leads to unconscious knowledge of one's native language which is practically indelible. Note that acquisition has nothing to do with intelligence, i.e. children of different degrees of intelligence all go through the same process of acquiring their native language.
Learning (of a second language) is done later (after puberty) and is characterised by imperfection and the likelihood of being forgotten. Learning leads to conscious knowledge.

FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION This is the acquisition of the mother tongue. Chronology is important here (see below). The degree of competence acquired may vary from individual to individual and may be checked by later switching to another language. Note that language acquisition is largely independent of intelligence, although individuals can and do differ in their mastery of open classes such as vocabulary.

BI- AND MULTILINGUALISM This is the acquisition of two or more languages from birth or at least together in early childhood. The ideal situation where all languages are equally represented in the child's surroundings and where the child has an impartial relationship to each is hardly to be found in reality so that of two or more languages one is bound to be dominant.

SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITION This is the acquisition of a second language after the mother tongue has been (largely) acquired. Usually refers to acquisition which begins after puberty, i.e. typically adult language acquisition. Sometimes replaced by the term further language acquisition.

ERROR This is an incorrect feature in language acquisition which occurs because of the stage at which the child is at a given time (acquisition in as yet incomplete). Errors are regular and easily explainable. For instance the use of weak verb forms for strong ones or the overapplication of the s-plural to all nouns in English would be examples of errors. Such features tend to right themselves with time when the child appreciates that many word classes contain a degree of irregularity.

MISTAKE Here one is dealing with a random, non-systematic and usually unpredictable phenomenon in second language learning. Mistakes are sometimes termed 'performance errors' to emphasise that they arise on the spur of the moment when speaking and are not indicative of any acquisitional stage.

COMPETENCE is the abstract ability to speak a language, i.e. knowledge of a language independent of its use.

PERFORMANCE is actual use of language. Its features do not necessarily reflect characteristics of performance, for example, when one is nervous, tired, drunk one may have difficulties speaking coherently. This, however, does not mean that one cannot speak one's native language.

Conditions of acquisition

NATURAL This is characterised by continuous exposure to language data. This data is not ordered, i.e. the (child) learner is exposed to the performance of adult speakers of the language he/she is acquiring. There is little if any feedback to the acquirer with regard to this intake.

CONTROLLED This is intervallic if not to say sporadic. Furthermore it takes place against the background of another language, usually the first language (L1) of the learners. In exceptional cases acquisition can be both natural and controlled, i.e. where one obtains formal instruction (or gives it one to oneself) and lives in an environment where the target language is spoken. Controlled acquisition is further characterised by an ordered exposure to the data of the language.

GUIDED LANGUAGE ACQUISITION This is an intermediary type between the two just discussed and is characterised by prescriptive corrections on the part of the child's contact persons, i.e. mother, father, etc. Corrections show the transfer of adult grammars to children whereas natural language acquisition shows the gradual approximation of the child’s grammar to the adult’s.

Note that a child is not corrected as often by his/her mother as one might imagine. Self-correction is most common (but not immediate) due to two factors. Most broadly speaking, because of lack of communication (here immediate correction may take place) and secondly by consistently hearing correct usage on the part of the mother, the child eventually drops his/her incorrect forms, which while perhaps communicatively effective, are grammatically wrong. It is also true that children do not learn language just from the mother. If siblings are present, then they too form a source of input for the child. And siblings do not correct others or simplify their language for the younger ones among them.

The logical problem of acquisition

The logical problem of language acquisition is that it would seem impossible to learn anything about a certain language without first already knowing something about language in general. That is the child must know what to expect in language before he/she can actually order the data he/she is presented with in his/her surroundings and ascribe meanings to words he/she encounters.

THE EVIDENCE OF DEAF CHILDREN Deaf children start by babbling and cooing but this soon peters out because they have no linguistic input. However, they would seem to seize on other communication systems and if people in their surroundings use sign language then they pick this up. The interesting point here is that the children usually learn the sign language more perfectly than the people from which they learn it (note: sign language has grammar with inflections just as does spoken language). They are creative in this language and create sentence structures if these are not present in their input. This would seem to suggest that deaf children use sign language as a medium for activating their knowledge about language which is innate.

THE EVIDENCE OF PIDGINS Children who have very poor input in their surroundings tend to be creative in their use of language. Any categories which they deem essential but which are not present in the input from their environment are then invented by the children. This has happened historically in those colonies of European powers where a generation was cut off from its natural linguistic background and only supplied with very poor unstructured English, Spanish, Dutch, etc. as input in childhood. Such input, known technically as a pidgin, was then expanded and refined grammatically by the children of the next generation and is known in linguistics as a creole. Here one can see that if the linguistic medium of their environment is deficient children create the structures which they feel are lacking, going on their own abstract innate knowledge of language.
The implication of both the above cases is that children look for language and if they do not find it they create it somehow, so that they have a system of communication. In this sense language is a true instinct because it starts to develop of its own accord and does not need to be consciously triggered.

IS THERE A LANGUAGE GENE? There is a pathological medical condition called Specific Language Impairment (abbreviated SLI) which covers a range of defects, all of which have in common that children continually make grammatical mistakes in their mother tongue, i.e. they would seem to be unaware of the existence of grammatical rules. Now as the Canadian linguist Myrna Gopnik has shown in her study of a family in Britain, some 16 of 30 members over three generations suffered from the defect. This would seem to imply that it is genetically transferred (it looks like a defective gene which is dominant in the family) which would also imply that the ability to grasp the rules of grammar in first language acquisition is genetically encoded.

IS THE LANGUAGE FACULTY SEPARATE FROM OTHER COGNITIVE ABILITIES? There is one major piece of evidence that this is the case. Williams syndrome is a medical condition in which the patients are quite severly retarded, as both children and adults, and have difficulties counting properly or carrying out simple tasks like tieing their shoelaces. However, such people are good speakers of their native language and just show a slight tendency to overgeneralise (they might say speaked for spoke). They have a good command of grammatical rules which shows that their language faculty is intact. The implication of this is that our ability to speak language is separate from other cognitive abilities.

How is language transmitted?

Language is obviously passed on from parents to their children. But on closer inspection one notices that it is the performance (in the technical sense) of the previous generation which is used as the basis for the competence of the next. To put it simply, children do not have access to the competence of their parents.

1) Linguistic input from parents (performance) ->
2) Abstraction of structures by children ->
3) Internalisation (competence of next generation)

The above model is the only one which can account for why children can later produce sentences which they have never heard before: the child stores the sentence structures of his/her native language and has a lexicon of words as well. When producing new sentences, he/she takes a structure and fills it with words. This process allows the child to produce a theoretically unlimited number of sentences in his/her later life.
Note that certain shifts may occur if children make incorrect conclusions about the structure of the language they are acquiring on the basis of what they hear. Then there is a discrepancy between the competence of their parents and that which they construct; this is an important source of language change.
Language acquisition for any generation of children consists of achieving mastery in four main areas, i.e. acquiring:

1) A set of syntactic rules which specify how sentences are built up out of phrases and phrases out of words.

2) A set of morphological rules which specify how words are built up out of morphemes, i.e. grammatical units smaller than the word.

3) A set of phonological rules which specify how words, phrases and sentences are pronounced.

4) A set of semantic rules which specify how words, phrases and sentences are interpreted, i.e. what their meaning is.

competence According to Chomsky in his Aspects of the theory of syntax (1965) this is the abstract ability of an individual to speak the language which he/she has learned as native language in his/her childhood. The competence of a speaker is unaffected by such factors as nervousness, temporary loss of memory, speech errors, etc. These latter phenomena are entirely within the domain of performance which refers to the process of applying one's competence in the act of speaking. Bear in mind that competence also refers to the ability to judge if a sentence is grammatically well-formed; it is an unconscious ability.

performance The actual production of language as opposed to the knowledge about the structure of one's native language which a speaker has internalised during childhood.

Stages of language acquisition

One of the firmest pieces of evidence that language acquisition is genetically predetermined is the clear sequence of stages which children pass through in the first five years of their lives. Furthermore there are characteristics of each stage which always hold. For instance up to the two-word stage only nouns and/or verbs occur. No child begins by using conjunctions or prepositions, although he/she will have heard these word classes in his/her environment. Another characteristic is overextension. Children always begin acquiring semantics by overextending meaning, for instance by using the word dog for all animals if the first animal they are confronted with is a dog. Or by calling all males papa or by using spoon for all items of cutlery. The generalisation here is that children move from the general to the particular. To begin with their language is undifferentiated on all linguistic levels. With time they introduce more and more distinctions as they are repeatedly confronted with these from their surroundings. Increasing distinctions in language may well be linked to increasing cognitive development: the more discriminating the child's perception and understanding of the world, the more he/she will strive to reflect this in language.

0) 0.0 - 0.3 Organic sounds, crying, cooing
1) 0.4 - 0.5 Beginning of the babbling phase
2) 0.10 - 1 The first comprehensible words. After this follow one-word, two-word and many-word sentences. The only word stages is known as the holophrastic stage; Telegraphic speech refers to speech with only nouns and verbs.
3) 2.6 Inflection occurs, negation, interrogative and imperative sentences
4) 3.0 A vocabulary of about 1000 words
5) 5.0 The main syntactic rules have been acquired

These divisions of the early period of first language acquisition are approximate and vary from individual to individual.

Brief summary

•   Language acquisition is the process whereby children learn their native language. It consists of abstracting structural information from the language they hear around them and internalising this information for later use. This conception of language acquisition can explain why one can produce a theoretically unlimited set of sentences in one's native language. This stance is known as the nativist view and contrasts with an earlier empiricist view.

•   Linguists nowadays assume that a large body of general knowledge concerning the structure of language in general is genetically encoded (in what is sometimes called the Language Acquisition Device) so that when exposed to a particular language children can grasp very quickly what values this language has for certain features — so-called parameter setting.

•   There are fairly definite stages which a child goes through during early language acquisition. These form a progression from the babbling stage to that of the multi-word sentence. The first comprehensible word is usually uttered between nine months and one year. By the age of 6 or 7 a child has acquired all the structural features of his/her native language.

•   In the early stages children exhibit a phenomenon known as overextension in which they use words with too great a scope. This illustrates a principle of early language acquisition: children move from the general to the particular, refining their knowledge of their language as they proceed. Furthermore one can claim that those elements and features which appear earliest are natural and unmarked in a statistical sense across the world's languages. This applies for instance to syntax where major lexical categories appear first or to phonetics where vowels and sonorants appear before obstruents.

•   A strict distinction exists between first and second language acquisition inasmuch as the latter is acquired after puberty (the watershed for acquiring a language with native-like competence). Second language acquisition is usually guided (also called controlled) as opposed to that of the first language which is natural.

•   The knowledge which children build up is very largely unconscious. For instance it is not possible for a child to verbalise his/her knowledge about syntactic structures although he/she is perfectly well able to apply this when producing sentences.

•   Language acquisition is paralleled by other linguistic situations, notably by that of creolisation where speakers with little or no linguistic input manage to create a new language is a very short period. Furthermore, it may be that features of early language acquisition — such as metanalysis in the history of English — are carried over into adulthood and become permanent in a given language.

•   There are different models of second language acquisition which reflect the manner in which learners gain knowledge of the new language, either in a similar manner to their native language — the identity hypothesis — or against the background of this — the interference hypothesis. There are also models which emphasise how a second language is produced (monitor model) or which stress the role of external factors (discourse and acculturation models).