Why study first language acquisition?
Activity 1: Communicating without Language; Communicating Concepts
Types of Language Acquisition Research
Early research based on diaries – recording of speech as it emerged. Since
about 1950 more systematic studies investigating the process of
language acquisition (instead of merely the product). Importance
for foreign language teachers: similarities between first and second
language acquisition have implications for teaching methods.
Theories of L1 Acquisition
General process: From birth (or before), babies react to language
and communicate vocally through crying, gurgling, cooing. First
words by end of first year; 2-word utterances at about 18 months;
by age 3 con communicate outside of family; communicatively competent
by school age, in school refine social functions of language and
learn academic language functions. Three theories of first
language acquisition: behaviorist; nativist; functional.
Children are born without any linguistic knowledge, so all language
learning is a result of the environment. Children react to language
stimuli with responses; if their responses are correct, they are
reinforced and then become habitual. Skinner: verbal behavior
controlled by its consequences – rewarded consequences result in
maintenance and increase/frequency of the behavior.
Behavior is weakened and eventually extinguished when it evokes
either a punishment or is completely ignored.
Behaviorist theory fails to account for the fact that children
construct completely new sentences that are not the result of imitating
Belief that language acquisition is innate – humans are born with
a Language Acquisition Device (Chomsky), consisting of (McNeill):
- Ability to distinguish speech sounds from others
- Ability to organize language into various classes
- Knowledge that only one kind of linguistic system is possible
- Ability to evaluate linguistic input and make it into the simplest
possible system (children hear surface structures but are able
to learn deep structure).
- Argued that as children were exposed (input) to fragmented,
incomplete bits of language (degenerated), the fact that at such
a young and cognitively limited age children nevertheless were
able to acquire language fairly quickly indicates that they were
born with this ability (the opposite view of the behaviorists
who claimed that the environment was the sole cause of language
Research showed that young children’s developing language is very
Children apply rules to language.
Examples: Berko’s study of grammatical forms – children given
nonsense words (wug, gling) could apply correct rules for plural,
progressive, past, etc. Pivot grammar used to describe
children’s 2-word utterances, in which the first word acted as
a pivot to the second word.
Research of Roger Brown in the 1960′s. Longitudinal studies
of Adam, Eve, & Sarah from about 18 months to about 3 yrs.
Found that all 3 had similar five developmental stages in their
acquisition of grammatical structures. Examples: plurals
acquired before 3rd person singular; regular past acquired before
irregular and over-generalized; yes/no questions acquired before
Universal Grammar (UG) has its roots in Chomsky’s idea of the LAD: What aspects of syntax are universal across languages? Are these universals the
same as the LAD?
Current cognitive models consider parallel distributed processing (PDP) which looks at linguistic performance as an interrelated system that has many
different elements being processed simultaneously (instead of serially).
Criticism of pivot grammar by Lois Bloom- same 2-word utterance of child could have several meanings. Therefore, function or how language is used needs to be considered, not just the form. Research began to focus on relationship of cognitive development to language acquisition. Children need to understand a concept before they can express it linguistically. Slobin has studied first language acquisition in a number of different languages, and in all cases, semantic development depends on the development of cognition.
The role of socialization is also being investigated – that is, the development of communication between the child and its parents or other caregivers. This requires studying what children say, how they say it, and what they do while engaged in conversation.
Activity 2: Explore grammatical structures and functions in different languages.
Sit in groups with at least one language besides English represented.
Complete the 2 exercises on handout (Comparing Structures and Functions
across Languages). Discuss.
Chronological Sequence of Language Development
Birth to age 1: At a few days, babies respond to the human voice (eyes turning towards the voice. At 2-4 months, respond to different tones of voice. Can discriminate between speech and non-speech sounds. Between about 6 wks. And 3 mos., babies coo, gurgle, shriek with delight (as well as cry when uncomfortable). At about 5 months, babies babble. Many different speech sounds – seem to be from every possible language! Gradually sounds and intonation become more like the language baby hears from parents. Often they sound like they’re talking -–only you can’t figure out what they are saying! This is conversational babble, accompanied by eye contact and gestures. There is also sound play, which is babbling with no apparent intent to communicate. Towards the
end of the first year of life, children make the transition to first words.
Age 1-2: One-word utterances, often with multiple meanings. Acquires about 50 words, generally naming salient things in environment – plus useful words like no, more, dirty, stop, go. Reduplication for many 2-syllable words – say the first syllable twice (baba for bottle, mama, kuku for cookie. At about 1 ½, child begins to put 2 words together to make rudimentary sentences – like no nap, all gone.
Age 2-3: Children produce 3 and 4-word sentences. Telegraphic speech – allgone milk; gimme ball. Most function words usually absent. With development of these rudimentary sentences, researchers count Mean Length of Utterance (MLU) as a measure of language complexity and hence development. Use of it, this, that prior to development of personal pronouns. Grammatical morphemes begin to be used, usually in roughly the same sequence, as Roger Brown found: present progressive, plural and/or possessive,
prepositions in, on. Pronunciation improves, but consonant clusters are still a problem (foon story).
Age 3-4: Tremendous progress. Sentences with more than one clause, both conunctive and subordinate. Questions and negatives. At age 3 children have vocabulary of 800-1200 words; by age 4 it is 1500 to 1900 words. Past tense frequently overgeneralized from regular ending (ed) to irregular verbs (eated, goed).
Age 4-6: Continue to develop more vocabulary, complex sentences. Still have difficulty pronouncing some long words – so make substitutions (My daddy is a searching fizzlist).
School age: Children extend their language and begin to learn academic language.
Competence and Performance
Competence = Underlying knowledge (includes both declarative and procedural knowledge).
Performance = Observable behavior: speaking, writing, singing, listening, reading.
Performance is obvious in a child’s speech – but how to infer competence?
Comprehension and Production
Refers specifically to language skills, not to distinction between competence and performance. That is, all four language skills are part of our language performance.
Brown proposes that linguistic competence may have several modes or levels – perhaps one for each language skill. Another way of distinguishing different aspect of linguistic competence (or any other type of competence) is to consider declarative knowledge competence and procedural knowledge competence. In other words: (1) our underlying knowledge of information, facts, ideas, sounds, and images; and (2) our underlying knowledge of procedures, processes, complex skills, how to do things.
The story of Litha.
Question: What examples can you give of children understanding more than what they can say?
Innateness and Universals
Chomsky proposed theoretical LAD. How to prove that an innate mechanism for acquiring language exists in every human? One approach is to look for linguistic
universals, or elements common to all human languages. For example, all languages have ways to ask questions and ways to make a statement negative.
It may be that humans are biologically programmed to go through certain stages of language development, just as they go through stages of physical development, and of
cognitive development. Examples: Brown’s 5 stages; sequence in English of memorized past tense forms, including irregular forms, then comprehension of rule for past tense formation (v + ed) and overgeneralization, finally learning of regular and irregular
Question: Brown states that language universals do not imply innateness. Do you agree or disagree? Discuss.
Language and Thought
Language is dependent upon cognitive development – thought determines language.
Language determines thought.
Question: Which (if any) position do you take? Why?
Role of Imitation and Practice
Children attend more to the meaning than the surface form of what they hear, so when they repeat a phrase or sentence, they may not repeat it exactly. Some researchers have used sentence repetition tasks as a way of eliciting children’s level of grammatical development.
While children may not imitate exactly, they do tend to practice language, often to themselves. Frequency of meaningful linguistic input may also play a role in comprehension practice – very frequent meaningful forms are acquired before less
frequent or less meaningful forms.
Input and Discourse
Parent talk to children tends to be simplified. In general, parents do not correct children for mistakes in grammar, but limit their corrections to mistakes in accuracy or truth.
Also important is child’s interaction with others, including other children.
This is how children learn the rules of conversation.
has shown that the child’s linguistic environment is simpler than the adult’s. Input from the mother consists of shorter sentences, simpler structures, fewer subordinate clauses,
fewer adjectives and adverbs than adult speech. It has a higher ratio of content words (vocabulary) to functions (grammatical words such as articles, prepositions, AUX). Also, adults speech to children is slower (about half the speed), pitched higher, exaggerated intonation, pauses between phrases. All of this makes it easier to understand, just as it does for second language learners.
Work on Case Study Assignments
Go over sample assessment instruments: Needs Assessment (CH), Think-Aloud (Immersion), Interview Questionnaire (PAL), Questionnaires and other suggestions
from LSH, Informal Reading Test (PAL). Suggest Observation Field
Notes; Berko Gleason’s WUG instrument. Others?
Activity 3: Work in case study teams to decide which instruments you will use/adapt and which types of additional instruments you will need for your case study.
One example frequently quoted is in Miller (1963).
He reports: Recently a three year old child told me her name was Litha. I answered: ‘Litha?’
She was not able to articulate the difference between th and s, but was able to recognize the auditory difference. This shows that children’s acquisition of phonological rules and production of the speech sound do not develop at the same time.
Miller , G. A. 1963. ‘Some effects of grammatical transformations on the recall of English sentences.’ Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior. 2. 346-351.