So how does first language acquisition occur and develop? Developing language acquisition occurs before the linguistic input of the education system. Infants pay a lot of attention to speech, intonation and the basic rhythm of speech long before they learn to speak and tend to respond more to the sound of speech in comparison to other sounds. They also learn to understand the sounds, the phonemes of the language they hear from before long before they can even speak it. At a few months of age, infants begin to babble and this is the early stage of developing language acquisition, although many native sounds may be absent and there may be very few consonant sounds and a large amount of repeated syllables. From this comes the holophrastic stage where infants begin to utter first words such as mama and dada, which derive from babbling. This continues and results in an infant developing a vocabulary. By two years and half years of age, most children can speak in a sentence of several words but the grammar is not complete, however by six years of age, the grammar should be near to one of an adult.
Many language acquisition theories have been introduced as ideas of how a child achieves their first language. Four main thought processes have been introduced, which provide paradigms in guiding a course in language acquisition. These are imitation, where a child learns from imitating and repeating what they hear, innateness, where a child is born with an innate capacity for learning the human language, cognition, where a child first becomes aware of a concept and only afterwards acquire the correct words and patterns to convey the concept, and lastly and more recently connectionism. However there is also the view that maternal/parental input has a degree of responsibility for language acquisition.
The theory behind imitation was highly influential in the 1940’s and 1950’s. It was thought during this time that language was a process of imitation and reinforcement. The view was that children were empty vessels that could be filled with linguistic habits and therefore entered the language learning process. In this process, learning was step by step, imitation, repetition, memorisation, controlled drilling and lastly, reinforcement, where reinforcement could be either positive or negative. The popular belief is that children learn by imitating the utterances heard around them and that imitation has an important role in phonological development. A child’s response is only strengthened by responses, reactions, repetitions and corrections that adults give and thus allows language practice.
Limitations that came from the imitation theory resulted, in the 1960’s, in an alternative theory of innateness allowing an alternative account of language acquisition. The main argument was that children were born with an innate capacity to learn and develop their first language. Therefore, innateness makes the process of learning a language much easier than it otherwise would be. Naturally, the human brain is ready for language in the sense that children are regularly exposed to speech and therefore discover and begin to structure principles for language.
Cognitive theory emerged when it was decided that language acquisition had to be viewed within context of a child’s intellectual development and that linguistic structures would only emerge if there was already an established cognitive foundation. Therefore, children must already have developed a cognitive ability to make relative judgements before the can use linguistic structures. A Genevan Psychologist Jean Piaget proposed the model of cognitive development and focused on exploring the links between the stages of cognitive development and language skills. Links have been shown form the earliest stages of language learning relating to the development of what Piaget called ‘sensory motor’
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