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Running head: LANGUAGE ACQUISITION 1
Language Acquisition: An Innate Process
Psychology 480 – Senior Project
Since the time of early theorists such as Charles Darwin, Noam Chomsky, and Burrhus Skinner, the concept of language acquisition has remained controversial. While studying the human brain has proven difficult due to its complexity and central importance in overall functioning, recent advancements in neuroimaging techniques and increased levels of understanding of the properties of language have allowed for recent studies to begin uncovering new knowledge of the brain structures and mental processes involved in language acquisition. The current study presents literature on the topic of language in support of language acquisition as an innate process. Although more research is still needed, scientists continue to look for answers to resolve the ongoing nature versus nurture debate.
Table of Contents
Background of the Study 5
Statement of the Problem 8
Definition of Terms 10
Limitations of the Study 11
Theoretical Framework 13
Review of Literature 15
Language Acquisition from a Biological Standpoint 15
Brain Studies 16
Electronic Imaging Techniques 16
Language Acquisition Device 18
Varying Rates of Acquisition 19
Differences in Linguistic Abilities 20
Deaf and Hard of Hearing Individuals 21
Language Acquisition from a Behavioral Standpoint 22
Social Interaction 23
Operant Conditioning 28
Shaping Linguistic Abilities 29
Discussion, Conclusions, and Recommendations 31
Language Acquisition: An Innate Process
Background of the Study
Theorists studying the process of language acquisition have overtime provided the framework for typical patterns of language development and a general understanding of how language is acquired. Research continues to expand our understanding of language development, but has still not provided a definitive answer to explain whether acquiring language is an innate or a learned process. Due to the complexity in studying language development in children, researchers continue to explore language acquisition in relation to other areas of development including cognitive and motor functions.
Language is a form of communication that can be expressed verbally or non-verbally. Primates and other ancestors living before modern humans did not communicate through means of a spoken language (Holden, 1998). Fossils suggest that some species predating modern Homo sapiens had the correct anatomy and brain functioning that could have allowed for some type of spoken language. By looking at a multitude of fossil specimens collected over millions of years, researchers noticed the gradual increase in cranial capacity and the decrease in mouth size; these anatomical features are a prerequisite for spoken language. This data suggests that some sort of speech may have been present as early as one million years ago, but the speech would have been limited in capacity and unrecognizable in comparison to modern human language. In addition, these communications would have lacked the ability to express open-ended thoughts in a rich and meaningful way (Hauser, Chomsky, & Fitch, 2002).
Many researchers have found that the brain structures utilized for language appear to have evolved from pre-existing structures designed for navigation (Bartlett & Kazakov, 2005). “The neural mechanisms used to generate and conceptualize route planning may have been reused in the brain to allow the rise of syntax, a necessary precondition for compositionality of language being able to emerge” (Bartlett & Kazakov, p. 275). Through time, these brain structures began to be repurposed by natural selection to allow for interpretation and creation of auditory sounds and eventually, language. Researchers believe that as cranial capacity and cerebral complexity increased, humans were equipped with the tools and structures that allowed them to form language over 100,000 years ago (Bartlett & Kazakov). One of the brain areas long believed to be associated with the majority of speech and language tasks is known as Broca’s area, located in the frontal lobe (Marcus, Vouloumanos, & Sag, 2003). With the proper tools and structures in place to allow humans the ability to speak and understand language, researchers began looking into the process of how language is actually acquired (Bartlett & Kazakov).
The nature versus nurture debate is an ongoing argument between theorists, which holds that language acquisition is either innate or learned. Scientists continue to search for answers to better understand whether acquiring language is influenced more by biological or environmental factors. Theorists such as Skinner argue that language is acquired through environmental influences and consequences, while theorists such as Chomsky and Piaget argue that language is acquired through biological influences (Harris, 1982).
Research has shown that the majority of people acquire a language before the age of five (Chomsky, 2009). Theorists Noam Chomsky and Jean Piaget believe that in order for children to acquire language in such a short time and at such a young age, they must have an inborn understanding of the rules of language that build on other cognitive processes throughout childhood development (Behme & Deacon, 2008; Harris, 1982). All languages share these inborn rules Chomsky referred to as universal grammar (Marcus et al., 2003). According to Chomsky, universal grammar “constrains the mind to be able to acquire certain types of grammatical rules, and not others” (Marcus et al., p. 651).
Other early theories arguing for language acquisition as an innate process were built on the understanding that the human ability to acquire language was inborn due to brain structures reaching a certain level of complexity (Bartlett & Kazakov, 2005). Unlike Chomsky’s theory that argued for language acquisition as an innate process due to predetermined language rules and devices that are present at birth, these other theories argued for language acquisition as a product of complex interactions between areas of the brain thought to be utilized for language (Gervain, Berent, & Werker, 2012). Various brain structures within the frontal and parietal lobes required for language did not reach the level of complexity needed to produce spoken language in other animals. Specifically, many believe that animals lacked the short-term and long-term memory capacity that would have enabled them to produce and comprehend spoken language to the same level of sophistication as humans (Bartlett & Kazakov).
On the other side of the debate, Burrhus Skinner argues that children are born with brain mechanisms that allow them the ability to learn, but that children acquire language through their interactions with the environment (Cruvinel & Hubner, 2013). Skinner’s argument holds that language is shaped and controlled by consequences and reinforcement so that children acquire language gradually in the first five years of life through the same learning processes used when children are taught motor skills such as how to walk or ride a bike. Skinner and other behaviorists argue for language acquisition as a learned process pointing out that children proceed through stages of language development whereby language progresses from babbling, to single words, to short phrases, and finally to full sentences (Behme & Deacon, 2008).
Due to the continued complexity in studying the human mind and the learning abilities of infants, the nature versus nurture debate remains as a commonly studied topic for current research. Although new advancements in technology and more sophisticated levels of understanding of the brain and mental processes exist today, recent research on language acquisition has not yet led to a resolution to the nature versus nurture debate. The views of Chomsky, Skinner, and Piaget remain relevant as today’s researchers continue to study the reasons why language acquisition is either an innate or a learned process.
Statement of the Problem
Language acquisition is a topic that remains controversial as scientists continue to search for answers to determine whether this complex process is innate or learned. Recent studies have found that language and literacy skills are fostered during childhood through interactions and exposure to speech, books, and songs (Van Kleeck & Schuele, 2010). Those arguing that language is a learned process emphasize the importance of surroundings, indicating that the home environment and early life experiences shape language development before the child is able to comprehend verbal communication. Those in opposition argue that language acquisition is not learned, but is instead the result of several innate mental processes that together allow for the creation and understanding of language as a child develops (Eisenbei, 2009).
In recent years, society has placed greater emphasis on the importance of education (Van Kleeck & Schuele, 2010). Today the typical person has more access to educational resources such as books and online media, and he or she is expected to utilize these resources to gain the necessary skills to be self-sufficient. These increased pressures have resulted in parents placing higher learning expectations on their children and pushing them to develop faster and at an earlier age. Recent trends reveal an increase in parents enrolling children in preschool and head start programs over the last forty years (Van Kleeck & Schuele). Providing children with more exposure to positive learning environments and social interactions may help with perfecting language overtime, but the consensus among researchers holds that the initial process of acquiring language is inborn (Van Kleeck & Schuele).
Advancements in technology have allowed for researchers to gain more knowledge into the process of language acquisition in relation to different areas of the brain (Wasserman, 2007). Functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) are two types of imaging techniques that allow scientists to study the structures and functions of the brain (Wasserman). These new forms of technology have allowed cognitive neuroscientists to gain a deeper understanding of developmental disorders such as dysphasia and aphasia (Grigorenko, 2009; Vargha-Khadem, Gadian, Copp, & Mishkin, 2005) “Speech and language disorders have long been known to run in families, and the mutation of one or more genes has therefore been thought to be a likely cause in some of these cases” (Vargha-Khadem et al., p. 131). Recent findings have linked language disorders with genetic abnormalities, specifically with mutations of the FOXP2 gene (Grigorenko).
Additionally, linguists continue to study language acquisition to gain further knowledge regarding how children are able to attain such a large vocabulary in such a short timeframe (Grigorenko, 2009). Upon entering school, a child will have a vocabulary of approximately 13,000 words, which expands to nearly 120,000 words by adulthood (Grigorenko). The ability for children to acquire such a large vocabulary and in such a short period of time continues to be a central topic for debate among psychologists (Grigorenko). Also, current studies continue to search for explanations for the varying rates of language acquisition and the vast array of differences in children’s linguistic abilities. Psychologists arguing that language is learned believe that this is made possible due to the critical periods of learning that occur during a preconceived set of child development stages (Bardin, 2012; Wasserman, 2007). Psychologists claiming that language acquisition is an innate process argue that the process of acquiring language must be innate due to the ability for children to produce and understand words, phrases, and sentences that they have never heard (Eisenbei, 2009).
The nature versus nurture debate continues to be studied today as new forms of technology allow for more detailed analysis of brain structures and functions. The expansion of brain development has allowed researchers to more closely study language development from a biological standpoint to compare with those arguing for language acquisition in terms of a behavioral standpoint (Eisenbei, 2009). These advancements have provided new information that allows parents, teachers, physicians, and psychologists to better understand the process of language acquisition (Wasserman, 2007). Medically this new knowledge has helped in diagnosing language disorders earlier and more effectively. Academically this new information has helped with tailoring school curriculum to fit the average child’s level of cognitive development at a given age (Wasserman). Advancements in this field have also helped families by paving the way to a brighter future for children because of increased reading and communication skills (Hayiou-Thomas, Harlaar, Dale, & Plomin, 2010).
Definition of Terms
Aphasia: disorder of language affecting the generation and content of speech and its understanding. It is caused by damage to the language-dominant half of the brain, which is usually the left hemisphere in a right-handed person (Oxford University Press, 2010a).
Developmental dysphasia: the development of language in a child is delayed or otherwise abnormal, for no independent physical or psychological reason (Matthews, 2007).
Electroencephalography: the technique for recording the electrical activity from different parts of the brain and converting it into a tracing called electroencephalogram (EEG) (Oxford University Press, 2010b).
Functional MRI: a noninvasive imaging technique that detects neural activity through monitoring changes in blood flow and thus energy demand, in different regions of the brain while specific tasks are carried out by the experimental subject (Lackie, 2010).
Innate: being an essential characteristic of an organism or thing; inborn (Cammack et al., 2006).
Language acquisition device (LAD): a hypothetical mechanism, based on generative grammar, introduced in 1964 by the US linguist and philosopher (Avram) Noam Chomsky (born 1928) to explain how children acquire internalized knowledge of grammar with remarkable speed on the basis of fragmentary and degenerate input data. The language acquisition device is assumed to be a biologically based innate capacity for language, independent of any specific natural language that enables a child exposed to adult speech to implement certain general principles for discovering the grammatical rules of the specific language in question (Colman, 2008).
Operant conditioning: conditioning in which an animal forms an association between a particular behavior and a result that reinforces the behavior (Allaby, 2009).
Limitations of the Study
Language acquisition has been a highly studied topic for many decades as psychologists continue to search for information to resolve the ongoing nature versus nurture debate. One of the difficulties researchers face in studying language acquisition is gaining a firm understanding of the numerous functions of the brain and the different brain areas involved in acquiring language (Wasserman, 2007). The brain is highly complex and a central part to overall functioning, which makes studying the brain extremely difficult. With the recent upgrades in technology and neuroimaging techniques, researchers are able to more clearly study language acquisition and mental processes, but more research is still needed in this area (Wasserman).
Although many studies strive to gain a deeper understanding of the mental processes involved in language acquisition, little is known about how cognitive processes contribute to significant differences in linguistic abilities among children in the same age group (Adams & Gathercole, 2000). While it is evident that some children acquire advanced language skills at an early age and others struggle to keep up with the typical linguistic abilities of children their same age, research has yet to determine how mental processes impact these individual differences in language development (Adams & Gathercole). Furthermore, researchers continue to look at the varying rates and patterns of language development in individuals categorized as deaf or hard of hearing (Lederberg, Schick, & Spencer, 2013). Hearing loss greatly impacts language acquisition more than any other area of development, but there is currently no consensus among researchers indicating how varying degrees of hearing loss impact the ability for individuals to acquire language at differing rates (Lederberg et al.).
Another limitation researchers have encountered while studying language acquisition is not fully being able to identify the reasons for the time gap between children acquiring language and producing language (Normand, Moreno-Torres, Parisse, & Dellatolas, 2013). Children begin acquiring language at birth, but they cannot begin producing spoken language fluently until around five years of age. Researchers continue to study language acquisition to determine why children take so long to produce fluent language, since the mental processes required for language are said to be innate (Normand et al.).
The present study on language acquisition is limited in that researchers still do not have enough information to resolve the ongoing nature versus nurture debate. Brain studies are more detailed than ever before with new technology and findings allowing us to dig deeper into understanding mental processes and brain functioning, but there is still so much that is unknown. Researchers continue to look at the root cause of language disorders and varying rates and abilities of language acquisition in children, but for now the results remain inconclusive.
Charles Darwin was a scientist most well known for his contributions to the theory of evolution (Trachsel, 2010). “Among the rational functions of human mind, the development of verbal language marked for Darwin the turning point in human evolution” (Trachsel, p. 399). Darwin argued that human language was essential to allow for human reasoning; words are necessary for humans to carry out complex thoughts (Trachsel). As research on language development expanded, Darwin’s ideas led to a large body of research on brain functioning and advancements in neuroscience.
Darwin’s theory of evolution and brief introduction to language as the unique factor separating humans from other animals, led to the development of theories of language (Trachsel, 2010). Linguist Noam Chomsky’s theory of language states that children are born with a natural ability to learn language through information that is hardwired in the brain (Bartlett & Kazakov, 2005; Behme & Deacon, 2008; Trachsel). Chomsky argued that children have linguistic information and syntax principles programmed in their brains at birth through means of a language acquisition device (Bartlett & Kazakov; Behme & Deacon; Trachsel). Chomsky’s theory of language claims that language is innate and not something that can be obtained through means of nurture or environmental reinforcement of desired behavior.In contrast, another theorist known for his contributions to the study of language is Burrhus Frederic Skinner. Skinner was a behaviorist who argued that language acquisition was a learned process controlled mainly by environmental factors (Delprato & Midgley, 1992). Skinner’s theory claims that children learn language through imitation of parents and caretakers (Delprato & Midgley). He believed that a child’s exposure to language leads to imitation, which is then reinforced by the parents or caretakers. With repetition and reinforcement, those caring for the child help to shape the child’s vocabulary and linguistic abilities overtime (Delprato & Midgley). Skinner’s theory of language clearly claims that language is the product of nurture and is not inborn.
Together, Chomsky and Skinner’s theories of language development make up what we know today as the nature versus nurture debate. Chomsky’s theory argues for language acquisition as an innate process, while Skinner’s theory argues for language acquisition as a learned process (Delprato & Midgley, 1992; Trachsel, 2010). This study seeks to explore the controversial topic of language acquisition as an innate or a learned process. The study will look at language acquisition from both a behavioral and a biological standpoint, with emphasis placed on discussing the process of acquiring language from a biological standpoint through theorists such as Chomsky.
Review of Literature
Language Acquisition from a Biological Standpoint
Language acquisition has long been debated and several attempts have been made to resolve the controversy as to whether the process of acquiring language is ultimately a product of nature or nurture. Although the nature versus nurture debate continues today, studies on language acquisition provide support for the development of language as an innate rather than a learned process. Recent studies have focused on gaining a better understanding of language acquisition by studying the structures and functions of the brain in more detail and with new forms of technology. In opposition to language acquisition as an innate process are the behaviorists whose recent studies include examining the impacts of environmental stimuli, imitation, and repetition in order to understand how learning impacts language acquisition (Behrens, 2009).
Those arguing for language acquisition as an innate process support this position with research conducted on the brain and mental processes in typically developing children and in children with disorders that impact linguistic abilities. Furthermore, those arguing for language acquisition from a biological perspective point out that the language acquisition is made possible due to inborn brain mechanisms; however, they acknowledge that through nurture, language is further perfected overtime (Van Kleeck & Schuele, 2010).
Noam Chomsky was a generative linguist known for his contributions to the study of language acquisition as an innate process. Chomsky argued that children are able to produce and comprehend language from a young age due to the linguistic rules that are ingrained in their minds during fetal development (Eisenbei, 2009). He further emphasized his argument for language as an innate process by pointing out that children are able to produce several words and phrases that they have never heard before (Eisenbei). In addition, Chomsky argued that children are able to produce sentences with complex structures that they too have never encountered, essentially error-free due to the inborn rules of language (Ambridge, Rowland, & Pine, 2008).
Brain studies. Studies of the brain and mental processes have allowed many researchers to conclude that the human ability to acquire language is inborn. A study on the neural responses of infants found that newborns have the ability to perceive speech and they can differentiate between types of words such as action words and content words (Gervain et al., 2012). The researchers examined brain responses in newborns to determine which cranial areas are utilized for the perception and processing of language (Gervain et al.). Outcomes of this study indicate that a newborn baby’s brain is able to successfully encode language into structural patterns through interaction between the frontal and temporal lobes. “These results imply that human infants already possess some of the perceptual and combinatorial abilities that are required for efficient language acquisition at birth” (Gervain et al., p. 573).
In addition to studying the brain to identify structures and areas involved in language acquisition, brain studies have also been conducted as a way to find out more about how speech and language disorders impact many pieces of the language acquisition process including rates and abilities (Grigorenko, 2009). One theory holds that speech and language disorders are the direct result of one or several mutations within one of the genes responsible for language (Grigorenko). An example is a gene known as FOXP2, which contributes to the transcription of other genes and is critical for brain development (Grigorenko). More research is needed, but recent studies have indicated that some individuals with mutations of the FOXP2 gene were also found to have speech and language disorders such as dyslexia (Grigorenko).
Electronic imaging techniques. “Language is an intrinsic property of the nervous system which is dependent on a sensory input, but not on any particular sensory input” (Ruben, 2005, p. 467). New advances in technology have allowed for scientists to utilize electronic imaging tools such as functional MRI and EEG to explore the biological bases of language (Ruben). Over the last decade, electronic imaging techniques have allowed researchers to study the neural processing involved in language (Sabourin, 2009).
In order to study language acquisition, researchers have used EEG and functional MRI to first look at the neural components of adults learning a second language (Sabourin, 2009). Using neuroimaging techniques to study adults learning a second language has provided insight as to which specific structures within the temporal and parietal lobes of the brain are utilized for speaking, writing, and interpreting language (Sabourin). Several studies have compared electrophysiological responses to speech stimuli in adults and infants (Musso et al., 2003; Redcay, Haist, & Courchesne, 2008). These studies showed that the cranial structures utilized for language in adults are different than those used by infants. For instance, one main area of the brain that is believed to be the central location for language processing solely in infants is Broca’s area, which is utilized for the processing of syntactic information (Marcus et al., 2003; Musso et al.). Results of these studies indicate that the innate rules of syntax only apply to children learning language for the first time and do not apply to teenagers or adults learning a second language. At this time, results remain inconclusive as researchers continue utilizing neuroimaging techniques to further pinpoint brain structures and their role in language acquisition of children (Musso et al.; Redcay et al.; Sabourin).
Although the neural mechanisms involved in language acquisition are still being examined for further information, one study found that “the neural processes underlying the learning of a new language change during development, but also that they differ from the processes underlying the fluent use and maintenance of an already-acquired language” (McNealy, Mazziotta, & Dapretto, 2011, p. 1276). Moreover, researchers found that the brain’s ability to acquire language is multi-faceted and varies as the connections of the brain mature with age and experience (McNealy et al.). To better understand the functions of the brain and their involvement in language acquisition, more research is needed on the connections of the brain and the interactions between structures in the parietal and frontal lobes (McNealy et al.).
Language acquisition device. Chomsky argued that humans have an inborn brain mechanism known as a language acquisition device that he believed was the reason children are able to acquire language and complex linguistic abilities in such a short timeframe (Bartlett & Kazakov, 2005; Behme & Deacon, 2008). “He interprets empirical research, which shows that language acquisition is quite fast and has characteristic stages whose order and duration seem largely independent from environmental factors, as further evidence supporting the innateness of language” (Behme & Deacon, p. 642). Chomsky believed that this mechanism provided linguistic concepts at birth that allowed infants the mental capacity to construct these linguistic concepts into language through learning and environmental factors (Ambridge et al., 2008; Behme & Deacon; Shanker, 2001). He pointed out how children are able to acquire language with such ease that makes the process seem automatic in comparison to adults struggling to learn a second language (Shanker). Additionally, Chomsky presented the language acquisition device as the only logical explanation as to how children with such limited cognitive capabilities could acquire such a large vocabulary and demonstrate understanding of complex rules of grammar and syntax at such a young age (Behme & Deacon). Generativists and followers of Chomsky agree that language acquisition is an innate process based on the findings indicating that children have a vocabulary of approximately 13,000 words by the age of five, which expands to nearly 60,000 words by the time the child has completed school (Behme & Deacon; Grigorenko, 2009).
In addition, generativists following Chomsky’s initial theories of language have claimed that all languages have their own unique universal properties, but the same does not apply to interaction in that the type and amount of interaction varies on an individual basis (Shanker, 2001). Since typical children without developmental disorders learn language and are able to comprehend and produce language essentially the same way, then it follows that these universal properties of language must be innate (Ambridge et al, 2008; Shanker). Generativists have also pointed out that while the properties of language may be innate, other areas of development and external factors may play a part in either impeding or enhancing a child’s ability to acquire language to its full potential (Shanker). For instance, one study found that emotional development could appear to impact a child’s language on the surface (Shanker). If a child is emotionally unstable, than these emotions may impact what the child will say in terms of word choice and frequency. Although external factors may impact the expression or use of language, generativists argue that without a disorder that impairs or limits language, children are born with the innate knowledge that allows them to produce and understand language (Shanker).
Varying rates of acquisition. Children learn language at varying rates and have different levels of linguistic abilities that are dependent upon genetic, environmental, and behavioral factors (Adams & Gathercole, 2000). Some children learn language at a faster rate than is typical for their particular age range, other children struggle to keep up with children in their same age group, and the majority of children fall into the middle and acquire language at a rate that is typical for their age (Adams & Gathercole). “Most children acquire proficient language skills without formal instruction. Some children, however, struggle to attain language skills” (Massa, Gomes, Tartter, Wolfson, & Halperin, 2008). For some children, differences in rate of language acquisition can be attributed to limited working memory capacity, but the evidence as to why some children have these limitations and others do not remains unresolved (Adams & Gathercole). Other findings suggest that children who struggle to acquire language may suffer from language delay or a language disorder (Massa et al.). As a way to screen for language disorders, several new studies have developed checklists and screening criteria for parents and physicians to help diagnose language disorders in children as soon as possible. Since children are born with the ability to acquire language naturally, many physicians check for possible language disorder symptoms as early as three months of age, when the child should begin cooing and babbling (Massa et al.).
Differences in linguistic abilities. The development of language is influenced by and in turn influences other areas of development including cognitive, social and emotional processes (Fasolo, D’Odorico, Costantini, & Cassibba, 2010). For this reason, researchers believe that differences in linguistic abilities may stem from fetal development, whereby typically developing infants have higher linguistic abilities than those who have any type of developmental issue. “In this view, pre-term birth can determine the loss of efficiency in some basic abilities or processes which influence the final outcome of language development” (Fasolo et al., p. 462). A study on linguistic abilities of children between the ages of one and three years found that pre-term babies were more likely to have difficulty stringing words together to make full sentences (Fasolo et al.). Furthermore, the study showed that the majority of pre-term babies had a smaller vocabulary than full-term babies. The results of the study indicate that fetal development occurring in utero is crucial for the development of language, as disturbance of full-term fetal development can result in language delay and decreased linguistic abilities (Fasolo et al.).
Another study focusing on different linguistic abilities of children found that children of parents with language disorders have a higher risk of developing a language disorder themselves (Miller & McCardle, 2011). Language disorders including dyslexia continue to be actively researched utilizing both genetic and neurobiological approaches to determine the heritability of these disorders. In addition, researchers are currently looking into various developmental disorders including those specifically impacting linguistic abilities to identify key things to look for in order to help intervene and control these language disorders as early as possible (Miller & McCardle). Outcomes of this study are indicative of language as an innate process as we see children with language disorders that have linguistic challenges from the time they are born, even though the disorder is not always identified until months or even years later (Miller & McCardle).
Lastly, differences in linguistic abilities may also be attributed to the rhythm of speech the child was exposed to while in utero (Payne, Post, Astruc, Prieto, & Vanrell, 2012). One study found that the amount of syllables and the rate of the language the child is exposed to during utero may impact the linguistic rates and abilities the child will have after birth (Payne et al.). With this, children who acquire language at a faster than average rate can most likely attribute this to the word choice and rate that the parents utilized during fetal development. Further research in this area of study is needed in order to determine how much of an impact exposure to language during utero can have on a child’s future linguistic abilities (Payne et al.).
Deaf and hard of hearing individuals. One study found “that language is not dependent on any particular sensory input but can and does develop when there is appropriate linguistic flux from any sensory modality” (Ruben, 2005, p. 464). Typically developing children are born with the ability to produce and interpret language, which is stimulated through sound and their exposure to language while in utero. Individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing are still able to produce language by relying on visual rather than auditory sensory inputs (Ruben). Through the use of sign language, many deaf and hard of hearing individuals are able to communicate, and some even use sign language in conjunction with speech. Studies on deaf and hard of hearing individuals provide support for language acquisition as an innate process because children who are unable to hear are still able to produce spoken language (Ruben). If vision alone is enough for an individual to produce language, then language acquisition cannot be a product of learning, as the individual would have never been exposed to the information being learned. Without exposure to language, this means that the individual has an inborn ability to acquire language (Ruben).
Language Acquisition from a Behavioral Standpoint
Those in opposition to language acquisition as an innate process believe that language is acquired through external factors including the environment and social interaction. Behaviorists arguing for language acquisition as a learned process believe that through interaction and exposure to certain stimuli, children can effectively learn the rules of language and begin building a vocabulary from a young age. Those arguing for language acquisition from a behavioral standpoint acknowledge that several structures of the brain allow for children to learn, but claim that the mental processes and brain connections required for language acquisition are attained overtime through input, imitation, and repetition rather than through inborn brain mechanisms (Behrens, 2009).
Learning. Children learn at different rates, which has created difficulty in determining the amount of impact learning can have on language acquisition in comparison to other biological and behavioral factors (Behrens, 2009). “One of the puzzles in language acquisition research is why small children with their limited cognitive resources are so good at language learning, a rather complex task, but they fail at other seemingly simpler tasks” (Behrens, p. 396). Researchers believe that the process of acquiring language begins before birth when the infant is still in utero due to their ability to respond to sound that begins during the second trimester of pregnancy (Behme & Deacon, 2008; Payne et al., 2012). At birth, children are already familiar with the rhythmic structures of their native language because of their exposure to spoken language while in utero (Behme & Deacon; Behrens; Payne et al.). With this familiarity, infants are able to begin babbling by three months of age, but their sounds do not form individual words until around one year of age. This step-by-step process in which children acquire cognitive abilities overtime is what behaviorists use to argue for language acquisition as a product of learning rather than a product of inborn knowledge and brain structures (Behme & Deacon).
Social interaction. Children begin interacting with other children and adults immediately after birth, and for this reason, many researchers believe that social interaction is one of the main influences on a child’s ability to learn language (Kuhl, 2007; Piker & Rex, 2008). Social learning theories emphasize the importance of social interaction on learning, especially relative to language development, but these theories indicate that this learning can take place without the use of reinforcement. Additionally, recent studies indicate that without social interaction, spoken language is extremely limited (Kuhl). One study suggests that exposure to language is extremely beneficial to a developing infant because it “commits the brain’s neural circuitry to the properties of native-language speech, and that neural commitment has bi-directional effects” (Kuhl, p. 111). In this way, language acquisition is a process that depends on the infant’s growth and discovery of native-language speech that can expand predetermined knowledge of linguistic categories into words (Kuhl).
In addition, social interaction can be seen in several settings such as school in which children are able to argue, talk, and share information with peers, teachers, and parents. School age children often engage in storytelling and show-and-tell situations that act as an exciting way for a child to interact with peers, while also providing a scenario that forces children to use language in a type of question and answer format (Speaker, Taylor, & Kamen, 2004). “Language development includes both receptive and expressive abilities that work closely together” (Piker & Rex, 2008, p. 191). Social interaction is especially important for developing language because it allows the child to use language to explain something and express feelings, while also requiring them to interpret and respond to questions and comments from other individuals (Speaker et al.). A study that used storytelling as the main form of teaching looked at whether this method would help positively influence language development and verbal expression in preschool age children (Speaker et al.). After the four-week storytelling program, all of the participants showed improvement in their language development, but the rates of improvement varied (Speaker et al.). Improvement in language development included use of more complex sentences and words, along with higher abilities in elaboration. Studies on language and social interaction have shown that more exposure to positive social interactions helps children perfect language overtime (Piker & Rex; Van Kleeck & Schuele, 2010).
Current research continues to look for answers to aid in the understanding of just how influential social interaction is on a child’s development of language. Recent research has also looked at providing information as to whether social interaction improves language because of the increased motivation or the supplemental information attained from social settings (Kuhl, 2007). A study on deaf and hard of hearing individuals examined the impact of a type of hearing device that allows an individual to hear sound known as a cochlear implant (Gale, 2011). One of the benefits of having this electronic device implanted is that it helps foster more positive and improved social interactions with other hearing individuals, which can in turn produce better overall quality of life and improvements in areas including academics and self-esteem (Gale). Examining the differences in linguistic abilities of deaf or hard of hearing individuals has been shown to vary on a case-by-case basis as some individuals with cochlear implants use spoken language and sign language, while other individuals may use both of these on an as needed basis, and even some only use spoken language or sign language. This topic remains controversial as researchers try to look at the impact of cochlear implants in combination with the different types of language, either spoken or sign language (Gale). More research is needed in this area, as their appears to be an innate understanding of language that allows deaf or hard of hearing individuals to produce and understand language without having heard it, while also taking into account the learning that must take place in the form of sign language or speech therapy to allow the individual to establish full lines of communication with hearing individuals (Gale).
Imitation. Humans are unique in that they use imitative learning rather than emulative learning that is used in most other animals (Behrens, 2009). Around twelve months of age children begin to imitate other people and their actions without realizing the impact that imitation has on their learning abilities (Behrens). “Infants learn to produce sounds by imitating those produced by another and imitation depends upon the ability to equate the sounds produced by others with ones infants themselves produce” (Howard & Messum, 2011, p. 87). Also, children often imitate their parents, caretakers, or older siblings by pulling out a single word or phrase from a spoken sentence and repeating it (Gill, Mehta, Fredenburg, & Bartlett, 2011). In combination with social interaction, imitation can also greatly impact a child’s ability to learn language depending on the type of imitation and the received response. For instance, if imitation leads to a positive response, then the child is more likely to repeat that action. Through repetition, the child will have a higher chance of retaining the imitated action, and will be more likely to reproduce it in similar situations (Gill et al.). Additionally, imitation can also work by having the parents or caretakers directly mimic or reformulate the child’s spoken language (Howard & Messum). This method works by granting confirmation to the child that he or she is doing well. On the other hand, this method can also be done as a way for parents to show their children what they were doing in hopes that the children will be able to find their own errors and correct them (Howard & Messum). One study found that children who did not begin imitating around one year of age, were more prone to language disorders and were more likely to experience delayed acquisition of language skills (Gill et al.). Researchers believe that these negative impacts are due to the lack of repetition of words that these children failed to encounter along with missed feedback from the parents or caretakers related to the children’s progression of language (Gill et al.). Reinforcement. The power of reinforcement is one critical area of language acquisition that remains controversial as behaviorists argue whether children can acquire language through observation alone or if children need reinforcement (Whitehurst & Valdez-Menchaca, 1988). One study found that exposure to language and positive reinforcement led to more motivated and talkative children (Whitehurst & Valdez-Menchaca). This study also found that children who were exposed to language without reinforcement did not retain the information, while those participants who received reinforcement for only a short period of time also gradually stopped utilizing the words that were presented after the reinforcement discontinued. Language acquisition is a long process of learning for children, so the general consensus is that reinforcement for purposes of acquiring language is beneficial for most children (Whitehurst & Valdez-Menchaca). Also, while reinforcement can help with keeping children motivated to learn and helping to ensure children retain information, it is important to note that not all types of reinforcement will work for all types of children (Whitehurst & Valdez-Menchaca). The type of reinforcement should be tailored to the child’s interests so that it continues to keep the child motivated and striving to improve. For instance, positive reinforcement can be verbal praise, an extra cookie, a sticker, or an extra five minutes of playtime. Also, some researchers suggest modifying the amount of reinforcement depending on the complexity of the task; harder tasks produce larger rewards, less complex tasks produce smaller rewards (Whitehurst & Valdez-Menchaca).
Those arguing that reinforcement is not needed for children to learn language believe that children can learn on their own without the need for bonuses or extra motivation (Ramscar & Yarlett, 2007). One study indicated that some researchers believe that reinforcement is not necessary for children to learn language because the process of learning language is natural and would be expected from all children regardless of whether they received any positive feedback or motivation to continue learning and perfecting language (Ramscar & Yarlett). Also, if it is believed that some fundamental linguistic skills needed for language are innate and others are learned, then how would one determine which pieces of the language acquisition process deserve praise and which ones do not? On the other hand, some researchers have also pointed out that although parts of language acquisition are said to be innate, a large part of the process is dependent upon the child learning language through their own exploration, experiences, and social interactions (Ramscar & Yarlett). For this reason, children need corrective feedback in order to perfect language and continue expanding their vocabulary and sentence structure effectively (Ramscar & Yarlett). Researchers viewing positive reinforcement as necessary for language acquisition also point out that if children are left to their own judgment and knowledge of the world to learn language, then the expectations for adult language would need to be decreased to a more suitable level to make up for the lack of corrective feedback being given to children (Ramscar & Yarlett).
Operant conditioning. Skinner and his followers argue for language acquisition as a learned process, claiming that children learn language through reinforcement and operant conditioning (Whitehurst & Valdez-Menchaca, 1988). One study focused on using operant conditioning to teach speech to a four-year-old autistic child (Hewett, 1965). The first five years of a child’s life are said to be the most crucial for developing language, and some even say that children who do not develop language within the first five years of life will never be able to attain full language development (Bardin, 2012). Researchers refer to this as a critical period of learning, whereby rapid brain development and frequent social and environmental interactions foster learning that must be attained during this period of growth (Bardin). In the case of the autistic child, operant conditioning was utilized in stages that progressed toward him learning to produce language (Hewett). The phases included establishing eye contact, imitation and social interaction, speech training, and finally transfer. Through positive reinforcement of candy and interactions, and negative reinforcement of isolation, the autistic child was able to attain a small vocabulary of words that could be utilized to express basic needs and feelings. Although the child was able to learn language, the rate of learning was significantly slower than the typical child and researchers are not sure if he will ever be able to expand his speech and vocabulary to a level of typical functioning at any given age (Hewett).
The study of the autistic boy shows that the environment plays a role in language learning abilities, but does not rule out the need for biological factors in language acquisition (Hewett, 1965). Although the autistic child did not speak more than a few words during his first years of life, this does not necessarily mean that he did not have the ability to produce language hardwired in his brain. Autistic children have difficulty with social interaction and communication, but there is no clear understanding that indicates whether the difficulty with communication is linked to the lowered social interaction, or whether these are two separate pieces of the disorder (Hewett). Through operant conditioning the child was able to gain some language, which points to language acquisition as an innate process that is continuously shaped and perfected through exposure to environmental stimuli. New research in the area of critical periods in relation to language development is currently underway as researchers work to find ways to reopen critical periods that have been missed due to a disorder or traumatic experience (Bardin, 2012).
Shaping linguistic abilities. “Parents are commonly acknowledged as children’s first language teachers; however their role in the development of language is multifaceted” (Roberts & Kaiser, 2011, p. 180). Parents are required to not only provide positive support as children progress from babbling to coherent sentences, but they are also responsible for ensuring children learn proper grammar and are exposed to the right kind of environment for learning, among many other responsibilities as a parent. Language acquisition should not only focus on quantity, but also on quality as the child builds his or her vocabulary overtime, while also working to perfect grammar and language (Roberts & Kaiser). One study claims that parents need to learn proper language intervention techniques in order to help improve language-learning abilities in their children (Roberts & Kaiser). This study looked at language intervention techniques used by parents on children with speech and language disabilities. Language intervention techniques included teaching parents proper responses to utilize, providing tools and resources for how to provide positive and more engaging parent-child interactions, and teaching parents effective support strategies (Roberts & Kaiser). Results of the study indicate that children’s language skills increase when parents utilize language intervention strategies. Also, those parents who utilized two or more of the language intervention techniques saw more improvement in the language skills of the children, than did those who only utilized one of the techniques (Roberts & Kaiser).
Discussion, Conclusions, and Recommendations
Several theories exist that attempt to explain language acquisition as either a product of nature or nurture. In reviewing language acquisition from both a biological and a behavioral standpoint, the literature strongly argues for language acquisition as an innate process, while acknowledging that there are behavioral factors that enhance language overtime. Differences in linguistic abilities, techniques and rates of acquisition have indicated that while the initial process of acquiring language may be innate, there is a learning aspect to language development that accounts for how language is further perfected and shaped overtime.
Language acquisition continues to be a controversial topic as new enhancements in technology create new ways of studying the brain and bring to light new ways of examining the impacts that both nature and nurture have on the process of acquiring language. Current research continues to expand our knowledge of language acquisition as the focus shifts from the early ideas of Chomsky and Skinner to the hands-on approaches seen by physicians, psychologists, and classroom teachers today. These approaches allow for new research to uncover more details about the use of specific brain structures in language development, and give way to new information in the area of developmental and language disorders. While it is evident that language acquisition is a complex process that all typically developing children experience, the details regarding how children are able to comprehend something as complex as language at such a young age remains inconclusive.
Further research detailing how structures of the brain are involved in the language acquisition process is needed. Future studies should continue to concentrate on understanding language acquisition from a biological standpoint, while focusing on how specific structures of the brain and mental processes contribute to the process of language learning. By continuing to study the brain with new advanced imaging techniques and more in depth knowledge of brain structures and functions, future scientists should look into the reason for the lag between understanding language and producing language. Also, future research should aim to identify the different stages of language acquisition as resulting more from biological or environmental factors. For instance, since language acquisition is thought to be an innate process that is perfected overtime through environmental factors, then future studies should work to identify which pieces of the language acquisition process result from biological factors and which result from environmental factors. In doing so, future researchers will be able to better understand language acquisition as a product of both nature and nurture.
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